At the end of my last post on my Musashi Ngram analysis, I asked whether it was just a quirk that none of the westerners living in Japan in the 19th century wrote home about Miyamoto Musashi. This isn’t strictly true. As we have seen, a book called The Life of Miyamoto Musashi was published in the late 19th century. Let’s take a look at this neglected book, which can easily be read today for free thanks to Google Books.
It’s strange that a nicely-illustrated 2-volume biography of Musashi, who probably has more recognition today outside academia than Tokugawa Ieyasu or Emperor Meiji, is almost entirely unknown. When I use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, I find that Kenji Tokitsu makes no mention of it, and William de Lange only cites it in the bibliography of The Real Musashi: The Bushudenraiki but doesn’t mention it in the main body of his book. William Scott Wilson gives space to summarising it on pages 180-189 of The Lone Samurai. However, Wilson’s account hasn’t made enough impact to inspire Musashi aficionados: as of this writing, the Wikipedia page for Miyamoto Musashi makes no mention of The Life of Miyamoto Musashi, and neither, shockingly, does the Wikipedia page on Musashi in fiction, which makes it seem as though Musashi’s first appearance in print was in Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel. Even an image search for “Miyamoto Musashi” returns only a few famous images plus material from comic books, video games, etc, but not the prints that illustrate it.
I first became aware of Musashi back as far as the late 1980s and was fairly obsessed with him in the early 1990s. I was also pretty handy in the library and enjoyed getting lost in old books. But even I was unaware of this early book on Musashi until recently. How is it that this book practically disappeared from historical memory when, as the Ngram shows, interest in Musashi has been rising fairly steadily through the latter half of the 20th century?
As I mentioned before in this series on Musashi Ngrams, I think that, despite appearing in English literature as far back as 1885, Musashi, for all intents and purposes, burst into the western consciousness for the first time with the Samurai I, II & III movies in the 1950s. The reason is that when Musashi was re-introduced to the West, the West’s view of Japan’s place in the world had changed. People were receptive to learning about this foreign island in 1885 and again in the 50s, but not receptive in the same way.
After the initial romantic infatuation with Japan epitomised by Lafcadio Hearn and Japonisme, Japan had undergone identity make-overs in the West at least three times before the 1956 Academy Awards. It became accepted as a sort of honorary western nation of the East when it defeated the Russians and allied with America and Great Britain in WWI. Then, it became a caricatured enemy in WWII. After the US occupation, the image of Japan in the West was, again, of a strange foreign land to be helped into the modern age–and a great place to visit.
Sometime during these 60 years of image make-overs, interest in and recognition of Musashi in the West disappeared. Meanwhile, in Japan, Yoshikawa Eiji wrote his epic novel Miyamoto Musashi. The result was that when friendly relations between Japan and the West re-emerged after WWII everyone had forgotten about Musashi and Yoshikawa’s became not only the dominant version of his story but the new and paradigm-setting one. The first post-war reference I can find to Musashi is from 1948 and describes Musashi as someone who went through a religious conversion and abandoned sword-fighting. This is, no doubt, a description written by someone unfamiliar with the earliest story about Musashi to reach the West, The Life of Miyamoto Musashi.
Shioda Gozo relates in Aikido Jinsei that Yoshikawa Eiji was a strong supporter of the Yoshinkan Dojo. Although I’ve read Yoshikawa’s memoir and he didn’t strike me as politically-minded, associating with the Yoshinkan in its early days was essentially drawing a line in the sand of Japanese society: Yoshikawa was a rightist of some type. At the least, he must have been a supporter of seishin kyoiku 精神教育 , or “spirit training,” which was the educational backbone of militarism and which was (and is) integral to Yoshinkan Aikido.
Looking back on Musashi today and also on the effect it exerted on me as an impressionable boy in junior high school (turning my interest away from literature and girls toward martial arts and giving me a model of single-minded self-denial to follow), I have no doubt that the novel is either intentionally supportive of pre-war educational aims or reflects Yoshikawa’s own absorption of the pre-war Zeitgeist.
In the Yoshikawa novel, Musashi’s contact with the priest Takuan leads him on a quest for perfection, but I think it is easy for western audiences to misinterpret this as a quest to become a “good” human being, as that 1948 description implies. No doubt this is why the Samurai I film received recognition at the 1956 Academy Awards ceremony, just 10 years after the end of WWII: it was seen by Americans as a repudiation of Japan’s former life as a warmongering imperial power and a sign that the country was ready to head into the future as a “good” nation.
With the paradigm of “finding religion” introducing the story of Musashi to modern western audiences, there can have been little way for people to accept an alternative storyline about him — one in which vengeance and clan loyalty play a more prominent role than introspection and Buddhist philosophy. In 1885, Joseph Dautremer began his article on the vendetta in Japan by remarking how foreign it was to westerners to imagine socially-sanctioned personal revenge — that was the excitement of Japonisme speaking. But by 1955, westerners were not so ready to accept the foreignness of Japan; the image of a travel destination of gracious manners and pacifist Buddhism is a domesticated and familiar foreignness. The difference between 1885 and 1955 was for the West rather the like the difference between sea urchin sashimi and shrimp tempura.
As the 1950s turned into the 1970s, Yoshikawa’s story of the search to become the perfect fencer would have continued to have more resonance than a pre-modern revenge story. Japan began to receive recognition for its meteoric economic performance in the late 1960s, the first translation of GoRinNoSho followed in the early 1970s, and the 1980s saw The Book of Five Rings: The Real Art of Japanese Management. Businessmen want to hear success stories and strategy, not stories about devoting your life to getting even with your father’s murderer. The 60s, 70s, and 80s was also the honeymoon period of the West’s romance with Asian martial arts: Bruce Lee, ninjas, The Karate Kid… Martial artists want to hear that if they study, they can become an invincible fighter, a charade which is also more concordant with Yoshikawa’s story.
Today, The Life of Miyamoto Musashi continues to be at odds with our views of Japan and with our own identities. In an age of video games and worldly skepticism, people want to know about the kill count in the Ichijoji battle or just some cool facts packaged in sardonic humour or what exactly is the relevance of this old-timey stuff to cage matches and SWAT teams. It is also tempting to dismiss it as a quaint old-fashioned story not in line with modern knowledge about Musashi’s life.
The first English biography of Musashi was lost and remains lost to our historical memory because it doesn’t serve the purposes for which we seek out stories about Japanese sword fighting or, especially, about the best swordsman in history. It doesn’t reinforce our images of Japan, and in an atomised society a plot about a clan vendetta has little salience. However, we risk anachronism when we ignore what the 19th-century Japanese themselves saw as an important storyline. Musashi himself wrote in Dokkōdō that you should preserve your honour even if you give up your body: 身を捨ても名利はすてす . That is a sentiment congruent with a vendetta epic.
( Part 2 of this post was originally scheduled to be published 30 minutes after this one. However, as I was finished writing it today, Friday, March 7, I discovered that the 2nd edition of The Life of Miyamoto Musashi is also available online. So now I have to look at it and compare it to the first one. So it may be a day or two before Part 2 of this post is published. )