December 2020 Book Survey: Miyamoto Musashi



Daruma (Bodhidharma) Meditating, Eisei Bunko Museum/Foundation

Are you a fan of Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵, 1582- 13 June 1645)? I wanted to know as much as historically possible about this famous samurai, which led me to reading and studying the books profiled in this post. 

At Martial History Team we promote martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research. This meant that fictional works like Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (English edition, 1981) were out of scope for this review. 

I focused on three sorts of books:

1. Translations of Musashi's best known book, the The Book of Five Rings (五輪の書, Go Rin No Sho)

2. Biographies

3. Supporting works

Some of the books I read fit into more than one category, and will be noted below.

As I am neither fluent in Japanese nor in the possession of the Japanese source material for this book, I cannot comment on the translation -- except when it is clear that the author is not actually translating anything. (I will have more to say on that shortly.)

Note that I've also written a few other posts on Musashi, available via his blog tag.

Throughout, I try to use the date first published, as opposed to the last date the publisher re-issued the book.

Finally, I have confirmed that Musashi was the creator of all of the art in this post. He did not create any self-portraits, despite what you might read elsewhere on the Web.

Translations of The Book of Five Rings

Screen of Waterfowl, left side, Eisei Bunko Museum/Foundation

For this study, I read the following seven books which contained translations (or claimed to contain translations) of The Book of Five Rings. For each I will provide some commentary and a rating. All of them are appropriate for reading, so I have listed them in order of publication date.

A Book of Five Rings, translated by Victor Harris, Overlook Press, 1974: 4 stars. 

This book appears to be the first English translation of Go Rin No Sho. There is a chance that if you buy a Kindle edition that costs less than $5, or if you find a rendition somewhere on the Web, that it is the Harris edition. This is a straight-forward translation by an author well-versed in Japanese tradition. According to this 2014 article published about a Christie's auction of samurai material, Mr. Harris is former Keeper of the Department of Japanese Antiquities at the British Museum in London. I rated it 4 out of 5 stars for two reasons. First, the edition I read had no footnotes or endnotes, meaning there was nothing beyond a straight translation. I also have a preference for translators with martial arts experience.

The Book of Five Rings: A Classic Text on the Japanese Way of the Sword, translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala, 1993; 4 stars. 

This would be a fairly a short book, except that it also includes Cleary's translation of the Heihō Kadensho (兵法家伝書 A Hereditary Book on the Art of War) by Yagyū Munenori (柳生 宗矩, 1571 – May 11, 1646). I own many of Dr. Cleary's translations, and as usual his work seems reliable. However, this book only features 7 short endnotes for the entire text. It also lacks the interpretation I would prefer from someone with martial arts experience, as the Go Rin No Sho is a book about combat -- despite whatever business applications appear to be derived.

The Book of Five Rings, translated by William Scott Wilson, Shambhala, 2002; 4.5 stars. 

This edition of the Go Rin No Sho is the first to feature extensive endnotes and explanations for the translation. Mr. Wilson also includes a biography of Musashi prior to the translation. He wrote a book-length biography as well, that will appear in the next part of this post. While Mr. Wilson is not a martial artist, he has extensive experience with Japanese culture and translation. I personally liked his rendition of the following from the end of the Book of Water, which I used as an epigraph for my last book:

"Understanding that this is the duty of a warrior, put these practices into action, surpass today what you were yesterday, go beyond those of poor skill tomorrow, and exceed those who are skillful later."

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings, translated by Kenji Tokitsu into French, and translated from French to English by Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Weatherhill, 2004; 5 stars.

This is the heavy-duty version of not only Go Rin No Sho, but other works by Musashi. The author is a martial artist, albeit one with more karate knowledge. This book stands out because the attention paid to the translation is amazing. There are many notes and insights concerning why the author translated as he did. For example, in Musashi's Dokkado, or 21 precepts, Mr. Tokitsu not only translates the text, but he provides a word-for-word (or symbol-for-symbol) translation, explaining why he acted as he did. I will have more to say about this book in the next section, as it is also a Musashi biography.

The Five Rings: Miyamoto Musashi's Art of Strategy, translated by David K. Groff, Chartwell Books, 2016; 4 stars. 

This is the only book in the translation section that did not feature an electronic edition. I understand why, as this book is visually stunning. It features beautiful full color imagery throughout. This is the sort of book that you would probably want to give as a present to a martial artist. The author is the only person in this study who is actually a student of Musashi's sword style, i.e., Ni Ten Ichi Ryu. This makes him uniquely positioned to comment on the text. However, I subtracted a star for two reasons, relating to the text and its organization. First, the text is extremely small. With so much white space on the page, it would have been possibly to make the text bigger and reduce the burden on my eyes. Second, the extensive notes all appear at the end of the book. I suspect this was done for aesthetic purposes, along with the small fonts. (Worse, the notes are in an even smaller font than the text.) If the publisher commissioned a second edition, I would increase the font size and add the notes to the bottom of each page -- especially for the vivid imagery. I'm sure the graphic designer who laid out this book is screaming at me, but addressing these concerns would produce a 5 star book.

The Complete Musashi: The Book of Five Rings and Other Works: The Definitive Translations of the Complete Writings of Miyamoto Musashi - Japan's Greatest Samurai, translated by Alexander Bennett, Tuttle Press, 2018; 5 stars. 

If I had to pick a single translation to read, it would probably be this edition by Dr. Alex Bennett. I've reviewed his works elsewhere, and I'm a fan of his ability to combine deep knowledge of Japanese culture with his expertise in kendo and related martial arts. Dr. Bennett's work is the most "conservative" in the sense that he is very skeptical of a wide variety of sources that other authors tend to accept as being representative of the Musashi story. While I do not include this book in the biography section below, I will say that this title includes the best no-nonsense, historically accurate-as-possible outline of Musashi's life. It includes a sound justification for why Musashi was born in 1582, and not 1584 as mentioned frequently elsewhere. Dr. Bennett integrates the latest scholarship to substantiate his claims, and they are persuasive.

Finally, it is imperative to avoid Musashi's Book of Five Rings by Steven Kaufman, first published in 1994. If you encounter a fake quote on the Web attributed to Musashi, this book is likely the source. For reasons why, see these two posts.


Screen of Waterfowl, left side, Eisei Bunko Museum/Foundation 

For book-length biographies, we only have three titles from which to choose. This arises from the fact that, if one accepts Dr. Bennett's thesis, we don't have a lot of reliable material from which we can understand Musashi's life. The degree to which authors choose to integrate other sources tends to determine the length of the resulting biography.

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi, by William Scott Wilson, Shambhala, 2004; 4.5 stars.

Mr. Wilson is a great writer, and his biography reflects plenty of research and insight. However, he tends to present one side of the story, and is likely to repeat material that may not hold up to stricter historical scrutiny. This book probably provides the best description of Musashi the multi-faceted man. For example, I very much enjoyed Mr. Wilson's description of Musashi's painting and other non-martial practices, and the inclusion of some art in the text itself. I subtracted a half star from the rating because Mr. Wilson presents the history with not as much consideration of reliability as I might like. For the opposite approach, please see the next book.

Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings, translated by Kenji Tokitsu into French, and translated from French to English by Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Weatherhill, 2004; 5 stars.

I featured this title in the translation section, but the translation is only part of a much larger book. If you want to know the most you possibly could about Musashi, Mr. Tokitsu's book is probably the one to acquire. I liked how this author many times presented multiple versions of Musashi's encounters, then synthesized them to present what he thought happened. For example, the author cited three different versions of Musashi's combat with the Yoshioka family, rather than just giving one as is usually the case in other books. In some scenarios he only said what was known or suspected. Chapter 2 was excellent in its coverage of duels on a case-by-case basis. 

As a martial artist, with access to experts in kendo as well, Mr. Tokitsu integrates material to explain the combat aspects of Musashi's life, and doesn't just judge him using contemporary standards. With his native Japanese background, Mr. Tokitsu helps non-Japanese readers with phrases like "body of a rock," or what it means to leave a space before a name; it shows respect to the named party. I also liked this author's translations of the Scroll of Heaven/Void/Emptiness, and his commentary on Musashi's art.

Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms, by William de Lange, Floating World Editions, 2014; 4.5 stars.

Mr. de Lange has written and translated many works associated with Musashi, but I did not have the resources to access all of them. Therefore, I focused on his biography, which is the most recent book-length treatment available. (It seems Mr. de Lange has plans for another book titled Musashi: Fact & Fiction, but he did not respond to queries about this work.) This book fills in some of the context for Musashi's combat, but sometimes at the expense of being less historically reliable. For example, he tells only the popular version of Musashi's combat with the Yushioka clan, whereas Mr. Tokitsu shares three competing versions.

Mr de Lange makes interesting statements I had not read elsewhere, such as Musashi's proper name:

This part of Musashi’s given name is perhaps least understood, as it is often misread as Genshin. Cause for this confusion is the fact that Musashi’s posthumous name (okurina) is written with the same characters as Harunobu, but pronounced according to the on-yomi, or the Chinese-style reading of a character. In Japanese tradition, however, given names (imina) were pronounced according to their kun-yomi, or the Japanese way of reading Chinese characters, i.e., Harunobu. In other words, when Musashi received his adult name from his father, it would have been pronounced as Harunobu; however, from the moment he took it on his dharma name (which was the same as his okurina), it should be read as Genshin. Interestingly, Musashi’s given name was the same as that of Takeda Shingen, though the first character of the latter’s given name was written with a different Chinese character. Musashi's dharma name, by contrast, was written with the same characters as the great warlord’s dharma name, though this time in reverse order. (emphasis added)

I am not qualified to comment on that issue, but I thought it was interesting. Overall, the book is well-written and easy to follow, although I am suspicious of his bibliography. For example, he includes Mr. Kaufman's "Five Rings," which is a bad idea.

Supporting Works

The following highlights two other books which I acquired because they appeared to fill in some gaps concerning Musashi research. Both are print only, and somewhat rare.

Samurai Painters by Stephen Addiss and G. Cameron Hurst III, Kodansha International, 1983; 5 stars.

This is a large, short, but fascinating book. It features two experts in their field, although previously I was only aware of the late Dr Hurst. Besides featuring art by Miyamoto Musashi, with attribution and sources, the book includes art by other samurai. It also weaves a wonderfully concise history of the samurai class throughout the book, with art punctuating the story. I was not sure if I should buy this book, but I wanted something authoritative on Musashi's art. For example, the image on the cover is a portrait of Musashi, but not a self portrait. The artist is unknown, so we are not sure if the artist even knew what Musashi looked like. 

Sword Techniques of Musashi and the Other Samurai Masters by Fumon Tanaka, Kodansha International, 2013; 4 stars. 

I bought this book to try to better understand Musashi's combat style. I don't feel like I really got that. However, this book turned out to be a survey of many koryu, or old Japanese martial arts. These are arts that the author, a respected and well-versed martial artist, considers bushido, as opposed to modern styles like judo, aikido, or karate (which isn't even "Japanese," as it originates in Okinawa). This is not exactly a history book, as the author makes claims about the "12,000-8,000 years of Japanese history," and says that "martial arts originated from prayers to gods in ancient Shinto religion" (p 14). His history of Musashi is shaky, saying on page 37 that he died in 1644 (incorrect) and on page 42 that he died in 1645 (correct). He also talks on page 111 about deflecting bullets or arrows with his sword or a cloth! I found a video of his daughter Midori Ukyo Tanaka shooting arrows at him, and he appears to deflect one. 

I also downgraded the book slightly because the photographs, while often numerous, were usually too small. Some were taken in cluttered surroundings, making it even tougher to see what was happening. Some better photos showed only the two participants themselves, so even when small, they were still legible. Nevertheless, this book would be a great starting point for deeper research into many old Japanese martial arts. While the other doesn't have many nice things to say about modern styles, he is a big fan of "authentic succesors of the true Bushido."


If I were to recommend one comprehensive volume to interested readers, I would recommend choosing either Dr. Bennett's book or Mr. Tokitsu's book. If you are more of a minimalist, "just the facts" sort of person, Dr. Bennett's title is the one. If you want to spend much more time delving into the Musashi story, then Mr. Tokitsu's title will please you. 

Note: the image at the top is titled "Shrike," by Musashi, and appears courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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  1. One of our readers asked for my thoughts on the 2010 Shambhala book The Complete Book of Five Rings. That book is an abridged edition of the 2000/2004 book by Mr Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings. That book is available for free viewing at the Internet Archive.

  2. Awesome post! It helped me to finalize my choice of whose work to go for!


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