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.
Speaking of sengoku-jidai, the word Jedi comes from jidai-geki, the Japanese term for period drama — or samurai movie.
What is the modern equivalent of the samurai sword and the art of swordsmanship? That's a difficult question to answer, because there are so many facets.
In Musashi's Japan, just after its warring-states period (sengoku-jidai), the martial arts were still closely tethered to the reality of bloody combat, but of all the warrior arts, only swordsmanship found itself still tested on a regular basis, in the one-on-one duels that replaced large-scale battles, for a time.
So, although riding, shooting a bow, and wielding a spear were still important warrior arts, only sword-fighting called into play the warrior's spirit, in something more than a technical display of skill.
Sword-fighting played a similar role in the West, of course, long after swords played a major role on the battlefield, as a way for young officers (and gentlemen) to display their courage, in addition to their fitness and skill. Pistol duels placed even more emphasis on courage and calm in the face of mortal danger, while removing the need for fitness and (arguably) reducing the importance of skill.
But the real place where modern men demonstrate their fitness, fortitude, coolness under pressure, and tactical thinking is on the athletic field. "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton." Modern American men haven't learned the principles of strategy through fencing, but through football.
Something you hint at that I would emphasize is that a sword is like a pistol; it's a sidearm. That is, it's not the best weapon in your arsenal; it's the best weapon you have with you at all times — assuming you live in a time and place where men go about armed, but not at war.
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.
What weapon or element of strategy holds that place in modern global culture?
In Samurai culture, the sword is a focal point for set of disciplines as mental as they are physical. It is certainly possible to possess and practice many of these physical and mental disciplines without the use of weapons, but do we lose something by lacking the focus provided by training with a concrete weapon?
Happy new year!
I am hoping you would share your resources for your reading on Japanese history. Book titles and/or urls would be very helpful.
I got that a week ago, and I kind of sat there staring at the email. Japanese history is some of the most confusing to start to learn, because different elements of Japanese history and culture all play on and influence each other. I could run you through the military history of Japan from The Battle of Okehazama to Sekigahara to the Boshin War, from there into Dai Nippon Tekoku Era, from there into defeat and the Occupation under McArthur, and then we could do a little post-war history.
It's been a long time since I've shared book recommendations, but I've been reading a lot and have stumbled upon some great books recently. I normally read non-fiction, but I've been integrating some fiction as well. I used to think of it as a less worthy use of time, but I've since read that reading fiction increases empathy (something I'm bad at), and I think/hope that it will improve my own writing. These are all books that I rated five stars.
After reading a few short fun books in a row, I thought that I'd switch to something more difficult and less enjoyable. Sebastian had recommended Musashi to me, and given the book's 900 page length, I figured it would be a tough one to get through. I was wrong-- Musashi was actually one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. Meal times are the only times during which I'm allowed to visit sites like Reddit, but Musashi was so good that I read it during every solo meal time until I finished it.
Musashi is a historical fiction based around the life of Miyamoto Musashi. Many details, like the names of his opponents and his tactics during duels are historically accurate. Others are period accurate, but didn't necessarily happen. The result is that you get a really fascinating story, learn quite a bit about Japan in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and you also learn a lot about Musashi's philosophy.