Musashi Ngram : 1886 and all that

The last couple days, I’ve been exploring what Google Books’ Ngram analysis can tell us about the history of Miyamoto Musashi’s fame in the English-speaking world.

First, we examined the latter half of the 20th century, 1950-2000, and discovered that Musashi was introduced to modern American audiences through the films called Samurai I, II, & III, which star Toshiro Mifune as Musashi and won an award at the 1955 Acadamy Awards.  After the 50s, Musashi’s popularity in print sources seems to have paralleled Americans’ perceptions of the Japanese economy until 1991, when it collapsed.

Next, we examined the period from the Japanese economic collapse to the present time and discovered that Musashi’s mention in print sources today is closely tied to the many, many translations of The Book of Five Rings that have been released recently.  Comparing appearances in fiction with non-fiction, we can say that fiction predominated in the 1980s, when the Charles Terry translation of the novel Musashi was released, but that it has given to way to a large increase in the number of appearances in non-fiction works.

Today, I would like to examine the period before 1950.  Did Miyamoto Musashi appear in English-language publications before WWII?  And if so, how can we find out what those sources might be?

1852perryGoogle Ngram includes printed sources going back to 1800, which means Ngram analysis can actually predate the Meiji Restoration and  Commodore Perry’s 1852 Expedition!  Before Perry, there were some other westerners in Japan, but no English-speakers.  So Ngram should include all the available English sources on Japan, including the first references to Miyamoto Musashi.

The Perry Expedition was recorded by contemporary artists on both sides…

US soldiers visit samurai, 1852, by an American artist

US soldiers visit samurai, 1852, by an American artist

US soldiers visit samurai, 1852, by Japanese artist

US soldiers visit samurai, 1852, by Japanese artist

By the 1860 diplomatic visit, Japan and the US had had relations for 8 years.  What had people learned about Japanese history?  What plays had they seen or legends had they heard?

Japanese embassy to US, 1860

Japanese embassy to US, 1860

To give you an idea of the question we’re asking today, we want to interrogate Ngram to find out what the people in these photos may have known about Musashi.  They didn’t have the Samurai film trilogy or the Vagabond comic books, and the Eiji Yoshikawa novel hadn’t even been written yet, let alone translated into English.  Had they heard of the show-down with the Yoshioka clan or the duel on Ganryu Island?

I did an Ngram search, broken down into British and American English, on “Miyamoto Musashi” for the century 1850-1950.  It might have returned nothing, but instead it returned this:


Prior to the late-19th century, the line was completely flat, representing a total absence of Ngram records for Musashi, which is what we would expect.  However, starting around 1886, there are a series of times Musashi’s name was recorded going all the way up to the eve of WWII and then, it appears, after as well.  Prior to that first Ngram record, most westerners in Japan lived in the port city of Yokohama.  There was little in the way of publications or communication relative to today’s society, so it should come as no surprise if the Ngram records are incidents of isolated works rather than representing trends, and this is exactly what it looks like from the shape of the graph.

So, what are the big spikes on the graph?  That is a good question.  My understanding of Ngram is that it tracks total number of references to a given search term, not total number of individual works that reference something.  So if an entire book about a single subject is published in a given year, this will create a bigger spike than if two books on other topics mention that subject in passing.  It’s also important to remember that Ngram doesn’t seem to distinguish between different editions of the same work.  As well, it doesn’t distinguish between a book with a collection of review articles that reference the book and a book plus a collection of random articles that reference the same search terms.  So, the Ngram chart represents total publishing activity for a given date but not necessary the total number of independent publications referencing the same topic.

But, reservations about Ngram aside, there were some reports of Musashi by and to westerners in the pre-WWII era, even as early 1886.  But what were they?  Did these come from collections of published correspondence?  from early English-language treatises on kenjutusu or other bujutsu? from magazine articles? newspapers?  history books?  How can we find out?

I reasoned that if the Google Books’ Ngram search works on collections of literature that Google has scanned with OCR equipment, most of these sources must be available through GoogleBooks.  So, very simply, I performed an Advanced Google Books search for “Miyamoto Musashi,” restricting the search parameters to English-only and January 1880 through December 1950.  Then I also searched just for “Miyamoto”.

My search returned about 60 books, not all of which should have been included* and not all of which can be read in Google Books.  Some were not in English, and some appeared to be misdated (see The Book of Tea below).  These mistakes in the Google Books search are important because they likely represent mistakes in the Ngram search as well.  So, I would venture to guess that the Ngram chart above overestimates or inaccurately over-represents the number of references to Miyamoto Musashi occurring in early English-language publications.  Keeping that in mind, I will rearrange here in chronological order the books I think were true hits on the desired search terms.

The earliest Ngram hit appears to be a paper read to the Asiatic Society of Japan and then entered in their records to be published in their Transactions in 1885.  The Asiatic Society of Japan was founded in Yokohama in 1872 by businessmen, teachers, missionaries, and anyone living in Japan who dabbled in amateur scholarship.  Its purpose was to provide a forum where amateur scholars could share and publish papers they had written on anything they observed while living in Japan.  Since members of the Society travelled around Japan and had contact with a wide range of people, it seems likely that the Society’s meetings would be one of the first places that Musashi’s existence was made known to English-speaking foreigners.

I’ll address the Transaction again in the next post, but let me just remark here how the emphasis in the story of Musashi changes from pre-WWII to post-WWII, from focus on revenge to one of spiritual renewal.

Musashi first appears in English in the 1885 article about vendettas, and the 1888 book is also presented as a story of revenge.  In the advertisement in The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it says, “The Life of Miyamoto Musashi, in addition to being a history of fencing, is one of the most remarkable vendetta stories that have been handed down to us.  The life records how, after over twenty years search, during which, time after time, the hero of the tale was within an inch of losing his life, the slayer of his father was discovered, and how, after a desperate fight, he killed his foe, comforted the spirit of his deceased parent, and vindicated the honour of his clan.”


The Athenæum presents it this way: “This Ganryu was an even more truculent fellow than Musashi.  He was worsted on an occasion he had himself sought by Musashi’s father, Munisai, and in revenge lay in wait for the victor and shot him dead.  The kataki-uchi, or vendetta, that ensued forms the subject of the rest of the tale, and is related with considerable spirit; still there is a wearisome amount of fighting, ambushing, and killing.  After perusing it one is fairly surprised at the Momtusho [sic] view of Musashi’s history as displaying ‘so many of the nobler aspects of human nature,” and as ‘calculated to inspire confidence in humanity.'”


Interestingly, Inazo Nitobe also seems to know Musashi’s tale as one of revenge.  In Bushido, he writes, “No more can we witness tragedies of family vendetta enacted.  The knight errantry of Miyamoto Musashi is now a tale of the past.

However, by 1948, Theatre Arts was writing “Two and a half years after the Occupation, in February 1948, the New Country Troupe, in an effort to recuperate from a series of disastrous financial loses, pulled out of its repertoire a play called Miyamoto Musashi.  Miyamoto Musashi was a hero of the Meiji Era who, after certain religious instruction, became a masterful sword fighter.  After innumerable victories he reverted to religion, abandoned the sword, and became…”



* Some of the results were not pertinent to my search but were nonetheless interesting.  For example: