Question from a reader -
I'm reading The Book of Five Rings, and I have a question.
There's a lot of good stuff about acting decisively and immediately so that you can win while your opponent is hesitating, but I don't get why he emphasizes swords so much in particular.
Masters of the long sword are traditionally known as heihosha [strategists]. As for the other military arts, those who master the bow are called archers, those who master the spear are called spearmen, those who master the gun are called marksmen, and those who master the halberd are called halberdiers. But we do not call masters of the long sword "long swordsmen", nor do we speak of "short swordsmen". Bows, guns, spears and halberds are all tools of the warriors and each should be a way to master strategy.
Nevertheless, the sword alone is associated with mastery of strategy. There is a reason for this. To master the virtue of the long sword is to govern the world and oneself, thus the long sword is the basis of strategy [this observation is based on ancient Japanese sword worship].
Is the association of swords with strategy a cultural quirk that just got so ingrained that Musashi thought this? Like, the association between swords and law?
Or is it something like sword training being particularly conducive to facing death, and acting immediately to win?
I could also just be missing something entirely, I don't really know how to parse that sentence.
Good question. Musashi was probably born in 1584, which would have made him 16 years old at the Battle of Sekigahara that brought the Sengoku Era mostly to a close. (Some people have speculated that he might have participated on the losing side actually - that's the opening of Eiji Yoshikawa's historical fiction)
That means, for almost all of Musashi's adult life, he experienced weaponry through dueling, not through the battlefield.
Outside of the battlefield, swords ruled supreme in the 1600's. Firearms were inaccurate in the day, so they were weapons to be used en masse - you'd need a whole regiment of gunners who all fired in the same direction to do significant damage, and you'd need them to be backed up by some sort of cavalry or heavy infantry or fortifications so they wouldn't get annihilated if heavy arms came upon them.
Likewise, halberds and spears were specialized weapons, primarily for fighting in formation and especially for dismounting and anti-cavalry actions.
Then the bow was obviously a very effective weapon for the samurai, but not suitable for melee combat.
Thus, the sword. It was the most versatile weapons of the day, since you could use it on horseback, in large scale combat, or in duels. It would give you a fighting chance versus pretty much any of the other weapon of the day.
And beyond that, the Japanese had developed a variety of different swordsmanship, much moreso than other weapon. Even for someone who was primarily a gunner or halberdier or archer on the battlefield, they'd usually at least keep a short sword as a fallback weapon. Thus, it was the most well-developed in terms of advanced tactics, thinking, stances, tradition, martial arts, and so on.
Musashi lived in the golden age of Japanese swordsmanship in the early days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Most large scale combat had ended, so carrying around heavy weaponry was impractical. Then, yes, there probably are some status and religious elements involved, but I think it's mostly due to Musashi's practicality that he favored the sword - it was by far the most versatile weapon of his day, and the most useful for the variety of situations he found himself in.