Origins of A Legend: In Search of Musashi

In the history of martial arts, few names stand as tall as Miyamoto Musashi. This unconquered, self taught swordsman has inspired so many different kinds of people its hard to fully measure his impact. MMA fighters,  BJJ practitioners and business men across the globe read his classic Book of Five Rings as a source of motivation. When watching movies like Twilight Samurai, Shogun Assassin, Twilight Samurai or cartoons and comics like Usagi Yojimbo and Samurai Jack- they all contain elements of Musashi’s philosophical DNA. But beyond the Book of Five Rings and the Japanese fiction epic Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa very little is known about him.

Luck for us, William de Lange has written a book appropriately entitled The Real Musashi: Origins of a Legend. After studying Japanese culture and swordsmanship Mr. de Lange chose to put together a book on Musashi’s real life to demystify one of the worlds greatest strategists. William de Lange created a  powerful piece of work on Miyamoto Musashi that is as well researched as it is well written. He takes the context of all of Musashi’s travels very seriously. I believe some people may not be as interested in certain maps or details of certain family members etc. I personally found this to be amazing. For instance, I never knew Musashi had a daughter. I was shocked to learn that he killed his first opponent at the age of 13.  I also learned how close Musashi came do dying when he fought Sasaki Kojiro. There is so much in the book. I do not want to ruin for you. So rather than continue, I’ll let Mr. de Lange tell you about his findings and his methods while in search of the the real Musashi. 

Adisa Banjoko: When did you first learn about Musashi and at what compelled you to write this book?

William de Lange: Oh, that’s hard to say. Actually, the first memory I have of my budding interest in Japan’s feudal era was watching Shogun when I was in my early teens. Oddly enough, I don’t have any clear recollection of first reading about Musashi. Being a practitioner of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu my interest was automatically first drawn the the proponents of that school of the legendary swordsmanship, Kami Izumi Ise no Kami, and of course, Yagyu Muneyoshi and Yagyu Munenori.

It was only when I set out to write my trilogy on Famous Japanese Swordsmen that I seriously immersed myself in the life and times of Miyamoto Musashi. In that series I trace the origin and development of the various Japanese schools of swordsmanship by describing the lives of their practitioners against the greater historical backdrop of incessant civil war. That study soon led me to the realization that this towering figure on Japan’s martial landscape really deserved his own book. Not only because in comparison to the other swordsmen there is such a wealth of material, but also because he does not really fit into the format of my swordsmen series.

The reason for this was that most of the swordsmen of Musashi’s time represented just one link in a long line of swordsmen, each of whom made small changes and improvements in the particular school in which they were raised and trained. Musashi, by contrast, developed his Niten Ichi-ryû—with its distinctive use of two swords—virtually out of nothing. In that sense he is a unique character in he pantheon of Japanese swordsmen.

He also is unique in having developed his own philosophy of heiho (the art of warfare). In that sense only Yagyû Munenori comes close with his Heiho kadensho, although that work was very much influenced by the writings of his close friend Takuan Soho. Similarly, Musashi stands out by his great talent in the field of calligraphy and painting, reason enough, therefore, to dedicate at least one book to the life and times of Miyamoto Musashi.

AB: How did you begin the process of telling his story?

WDL: Naturally, the first thing I did when I began my research was to look what original sources there were on Musashi. Of course there is the Book of Five Rings, but sadly, Musashi only spends only half a page in describing the event of his life. I therefore had to look elsewhere, to accounts of Musashi written by his contemporaries or their close descendants, who wrote down what was passed down to them by men who had known Musashi alive. It was then that I realized that there actually is a great wealth of different sources, some more, some less reliable. I found that two of the most reliable sources are the Bushu denraiki and the Bukoden, both of which were written around the middle of the eighteenth century.

I also found that though various authors who had delved into Musashi’s life had come across these text and and quoted from them, but no western author had as yet taken the trouble to translate and use these texts in full. It was then that I decided to carefully translate both text before I set out to write the actual biography of Musashi’s life.

AB: What about Musashi intrigued you the most during your research?

WDL:The question whether he actually took part in the Battle of Sekigahara. Having translated both the Bushû denraiki and the Bukoden,

as well as studying a number of other text and sourses I have come to the conclusion that, though his father Muni did, he himself did not,

but actually took part in the siege of Tomiku castle, situated on the southern island of Kyushu, where he had moved with his father.

AB: How long did it take you to find the scrolls and what was the translation process?

WDL: Oddly enough, both the Bushu denraiki and the Bukoden are quite well known in Japan. Both works have been republished during the previous century, along with a considerable amount of serious scholarship. This groundwork helped me as, inevitably, some passages in both text are quite obscure and hard to understand. I also found that, because of this existing body of work, certain aspects of Musashi’s life that are still shrouded in mystery in the West are already quite well known and undisputed in Japan. One example is Musashi’s role in the siege of Osaka castle, in which he almost certainly served under the Mizuno Katsunari. This, by the way, is not so much proven by one of the above texts, but by the Kiro zatsuroku, written by the Confucianist scholar-warrior Matusdaira Kunzan.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things to be gained from the Bushu denraiki is that, quite contrary to the generally accepted view in the West, Musashi did not take part in the Battle of Sekigahara, the great contest for supremacy between the eastern and western forces. Instead, he took part in the siege of Tomiku castle, on the southern island of Kyoshu, fighting for the western warlord Kuroda Yoshitaka.

AB: Why do you think so many people around the world have find such deep inspiration from Musashi’s legend and his real life?

WDL: I  think that most people, including myself, are struck by his fierce independence of mind. At no stage in his life did Musashi truly submit to any form of authority, choosing instead a solitary life and only serving various warlords in the capacity of adviser. I think it is that spirit of independence that shines through, not only in his unique style of fencing, but also in his writings, calligraphy, and paintings. He is a truly unique individual, with an absolute belief in his own abilities and approach to life and its inevitable difficulties.

AB: What if anything have you learned about Musashis relationship with Takuan

WDL: Actually, I’m not aware that Takuan and Musashi were befriended.Takuan wrote his work for his good friend Yagyû Munenori, who is said

to have encountered Musashi near Kyoto once, but so far I have not found any sources that refer to such a relationship.

AB: What did you learn about him the most that inspired or touched you in a deep way?

WDL Inevitably I was most inspired by the man’s independence of mind; his belief in his unique destiny from a very young age and the unwavering conviction with which he pursued it. Most touched I was by Musashi’s inconsolable grief over the death of his one child, a baby girl—another remarkable discovery that lies in store for those who read the Bushu denraiki.

AB: I was interested to find out he had so much money. How did he make it? Through teaching swordplay?

WDL: It seems that throughout his life Musashi was quite well paid by those who requested his services. During his last years in Kumamoto, for instance, he received a stipend of three hundred koku (bushels of rice), as well as a stipend sufficient to support seventeen servants. Compared to that, his old friend Shiota Hamanosuke only received twenty-five koku.

AB: You study swordsmanship in Japan. Has studying Musashi taught you anything philosophically or realistically as far as swordplay is


WDL: Yes, that the basic principles are always the same, regardless which school of though you adhere to. This applies to all aspects of

swordsmanship, as well as all the other forms of marital art: whether it concerns breathing techniques, one’s gravitational center, the importance of mushin, all Asian martial arts begin from the same basic principles. They only differ in their approach and the details of their execution.

AB:  What is your favorite part of the book?

WDLI particularly enjoyed translating the first part of the book. Not only because (for various reasons I explain in the introduction) the Bushu denraiki is more knowledgeable about Musashi’s early life (while the Bukoden is more about his later life), but because it was especially in his early youth that Musashi’s rebellious independence of mind shines through. Thus he leaves home at the age of nine, and thus he breaks away form the ranks—and almost gets killed—during the siege of Tomiku castle some seven years later.

AB: What’s next for you?

WDL:Having translated both the Bushu denraiki and the Bukoden, I have now set about to recount his life in full. In order to do so I have translated a large number of additional early text, including the above mentioned Kiro zatsuroku. Some of these texts have never been used before by Western authors, so I intend to quote from them at length in my forthcoming biography of Musashi.

Adisa Banjoko has been covering BJJ and MMA for more than ten years. He holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. For more info on him follow him on Twitter @hiphopchess


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Adisa Banjoko