Book review: 五輪書, “The Book of Five Rings”, Miyamoto Musashi

Cover to The Book of Five Rings

Miyamoto Musashi, or Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin was a famous swordsman in Japan in the 1600s, the Edo or Tokugawa era. He was born in 1584 when the samurai were the elite of society. At age 13 he killed his first man, the renowned samurai Arima Kihei, a practioner of Shinto Ryu.

Detail from illustration in The Book of Five Rings

There are many stories of Musashi’s victories. In 1612, he killed Saski Kojiro, a master of the two-handed sword, while armed only with a wooden sword he had just carved from a boat oar. After that fight, he never again used a real sword in battle, and fought only fully armed opponents with nothing more than a wooden sword. He was unbeatable, and he established a fencing school. In 1643, Musashi retired and went into seclusion in a cave. He composed The Book of Five Rings and died in 1645, a few days after completing it.

“When we look at the world, we see the commercializtion of arts. People use objects in order to sell their talents. As with the nut and the flower, the nut has become less important than the flower. In this manner, the Way of Strategy, both among teachers and among students, has become a show of technique, out of their desire to rush the blooming of the flower.”

The Book of Five Rings was written not only as a description of proper technique in hand to hand combat, but also as a guide to correct use of armies. Despite its being written at a time when edged weapons were becoming obsolete, the book’s reputation in military circles has grown over the years and even now is quoted in US military papers. It is also used in business classes.

The text is short, to the (sword) point, and is available on the web, in Japanese and in English translation.

In light of the importance of this book to military thinking, it is surprising that I had never bought a copy until now. Some years ago, when Barnes and Noble began their program of selling discount cards, I swore I would buy books from them no longer. But at $10, this 200 page book tempted me too much. Each page is illustrated in an equally lavish fashion. My washed out photos do not do this book justice.

Typical page in The Book of Five Rings

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One response to “Book review: 五輪書, “The Book of Five Rings”, Miyamoto Musashi

  1. Pingback: Tameshigiri (試し斬り), the Art of Cutting « Mass

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