One of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history, Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin, was born in the village of Miyamoto in 1584. A descendant of the Fujiwara clan who were pre-eminent in the Heian period, Musashi had a complex relationship with his emotionally, and literally, distant father, before being orphaned at the age of seven and left in the care of his uncle, a priest. His father, Munisai Hirato, had been a warrior, and Musashi inherited an aggressive temperament, and studied kenjutsu from an early age.
When he was 13, Musashi participated in his first single combat, challenging the swordsman Arima Kigei, who had invited challenges as a means of proving the superiority of his school, Shinto-Ryu. Although Musashi was very young, Kigei accepted his challenge. Musashi defeated the samurai, striking him repeatedly with a stick, so violently that he died. As well as his skill, this duel displayed the savagery which marked Musashi as a young man.
In his early life, Musashi learned to wield a katana in one hand, instead of the usual two-handed grip, and began the development of a style of fighting using two swords. However, he did not utilise either technique in his formal duelling for many years. At 16, deciding that his true desire was to seek enlightenment in the way of the sword, Musashi left his home to begin his Musha-Shugyo. Usually translated 'warrior pilgrimage', the Musha-Shugyo was a samurai tradition, in which a warrior would become ronin and travel the land, fighting in duels to establish and perfect his own skill, and to promote the strength and value of his school.
The Musha-Shugyo was a period of total commitment for Musashi. He denied himself luxuries, never cut his hair, never married and never even bathed. It was said by some that his refusal to shave his head was due to eczema scars caused by congenital syphilis, while his total rejection of personal hygiene is seen either as a deliberate attempt to confuse opponents, or as a result of his refusal to undress and lay down his swords, as he would have to do in order to wash. Whatever his reasons, Miyamoto Musashi became the archetypal unkempt, invincible ronin, as he passed through duels and wars undefeated.
Early in his pilgrimage, Musashi fought in the battle at Sekigahara, where Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the followers of his rival, Hideyori. Despite joining the army of Hideyori, Musashi survived both the bloody, three-day battle, and the brutal hunting and slaughtering of the losing army which followed it. Aside from this, he remained largely untested until his arrival in Kyoto at the age of 21, and his clash with the Yoshioka family. The Yoshiokas had been the fencing masters of the Ashikaga house for generations, and even after the demise of the Ashikaga Shogunate they remained prominent in the affairs of Kyoto. They could therefore have ignored this itinerant, unknown country swordsman without loss of face, but they did not. Years before, Musashi's father had fought duels with three members of the Yoshioka family, defeating two of them, and the family might have been looking for revenge against the son of Munisai.
Whatever the reasoning, Musashi first fought Yoshioka Seijiro, head of the family, almost as soon as he arrived in Kyoto. Although at the end of a journey, and armed only with a bokken (a heavy wooden practice sword), Musashi defeated Seihiro, leaving him gravely wounded. Once recovered, Seijiro hung up his swords and cut off his samurai topknot in shame. Seeking to avenge his family's shame, Seijiro's brother, Denshichiro, challenged Musashi. Already showing a flair for strategy, Musashi deliberately goaded his opponent by turning up late, and the enraged and distracted Denshichiro was killed in the duel. Finally, a challenge was issued from Seijiro's pre-teen son, Hanshichiro. An ambush was planned for Musashi, with several dozen warriors arriving to lay in wait for him. However, on this occasion Musashi had arrived early and hidden himself. Attacking from concealment, he killed Hanshichiro, fought his way free of the mob and left Kyoto.
After this dramatic and brutal beginning, Musashi's Musha-Shugyo made him a legend in his own lifetime. He defeated swordsman after swordsman, and many warriors armed with other weapons. He defeated a spearman of the renowned Hozoin temple, and studied with the monks there for a time around 1605. At about the same time, he fought and killed Shishido Baikin, a noted master of the kusari-gama (a sickle and chain weapon), by distracting him with a thrown dagger. As shown by this incident, Musashi was a shrewd and ruthless combatant, and had little attachment to the idea of a fair fight, but this is not to say that he could not win a straight match. He often fought swordsmen armed only with a bokken, and defeated the master swordsman Muso Gonosuke with a slender wooden wand intended for use as a bow shaft. After this match, Gonosuke is said to have been inspired to create the art of jo-jutsu.
In 1612, Musashi defeated the noted master swordsman Sasaki Kojiro in one of his most famous duels. It is said that he once again arrived late, and that he fought armed with a bokken he had carved from an oar on his way to the duel, while Kojiro used a real sword. He mocked Kojiro when the older man threw away his scabbard, remarking that he would not need it again. According to accounts of the fight, the two men struck hard at each other's heads, and while Kojiro's blade cut through Musashi's headband, Musashi struck faster, and the impromptu bokken split Kojiro's skull before he could complete his blow. After this duel, Musashi rarely fought anyone using a real sword. One account has him defeating a swordsman simply by guarding himself with a tessen (an iron defensive fan) until his opponent became tired and submitted.
One exception to this rule was a fight in Enmyo, against Miyake Gunbei, in which Musashi first used his two-sword style in a duel. He killed Gunbei, and named the style Enmyo-Ryu, after the duel (Ryu means school, or style). Later he changed the name to Nito Ichi-Ryu (Two Swords integrated as One School), and then again to Niten Ichi-Ryu. Niten means 'two heavens', and is thought to refer to Musashi's most famous combat stance, with two daito raised above his head. It is said that on his death, not one of Musashi's students could master Niten Ichi-Ryu, and the style died with its creator.
In his later life, Mushashi was a more measured, patient and humble man than in his youth. As well as Niten Ichi-Ryu kenjutsu, he devoted himself to the perfection of the other arts practised by the samurai. He claims to have gained a full understanding of strategy by 1634, and he wrote numerous works on the subject, and also on the art and way of the sword, including his two great treatises: Heiho Sanjugokajo ('The 35 Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship'), expounding the basic principles of Niten Ich-Ryu and the philosophy and combat strategies behind it; and Go Rin No Sho, 'The Book of Five Rings'. Go Rin No Sho - for which the 35 articles is considered a prototype - is probably the most famous of all Japanese works on the martial arts, and is a basic part of any kendo bibliography.
Go Rin No Sho is divided into five sections - the rings - each named after one of the traditional Japanese elements. The Book of Earth sets out the basics of strategy and of living. Musashi identifies four ways of life - farmer, merchant, noble warrior and craftsman - and expounds on the way of the warrior, and the mindset and philosophies required of a true samurai. 'The Book of Water' is a guide to learning combat, and sets out descriptions of various daito moves. 'The Book of Fire' deals with battle strategy and tactics. It emphasises aggression, and the importance of drawing out your enemy's weaknesses and exploiting them. 'The Book of Wind' deals with traditions, and with the intellectual part of strategy; knowing your opponent, and the strengths and weaknesses of his strategy. The last book, 'The Book of Emptiness', deals with the mysticism and philosophy of the warrior. The book is intended as a guide, rather than a how-to manual, and is structured to force the reader to improve himself.
In his later years, Musashi also mastered ink painting, calligraphy, wood sculpture and metalworking. He used the nom de plume Niten, and founded a school of tsuba - 'sword guard' - art which bore the same name. Several examples of his work survive. He is also known as Kensei, sword-saint, and is truly one of the most famous of all samurai. To this day his legend survives, as the undoubted model for Toshiro Mifune's signature role, and for the comic book character Miyamoto Usagi.
Tomoe Gozen is one of the few examples of a female samurai warrior in Japanese history. More than simply a defender of the homestead in time of necessity, she is described as a warrior of peerless skill, going into battle like a man. She was either the wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka, or by some sources a female attendant, but in either case is described as one of Yoshinaka's senior captains. Yoshinaka was one of the Minamoto lords who fought against the Taira in the Gempei War, and after the Minomoto victory at Kurikawa in 1084 placed Kyoto in Minamoto hands, Yoshinaka felt that he should become the overall leader of the clan.
Yoshinaka's feeling was contested by Minamoto Yoritomo. Yorimoto's forces attacked Yoshinkaka and Gozen at Awazu, and despite putting up a tremendous fight, their forces were overwhelmed. With only a handful of warriors standing, Yoshinaka ordered his wife to flee the field rather than face capture and death. Accounts vary of what followed. Some say that Gozen stayed and died with her husband, while others state that she fled the battlefield. In the latter instance, there is further uncertainty. Most accounts state that she fled with a severed head, but again sources vary between claiming that she took the head of an enemy soldier named Onda no Hachiro Moroshige, or that of her husband taken to keep him from capture. A final debate surrounds the fate of Gozen after her escape, as some state that she cast herself into the sea with her husband's head, while others assert that she became a nun.