Around the middle of the 17th Century, renowned Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, wrote a manuscript that outlined the importance in having a ‘roadmap for success’ in ones profession and in life. He wrote this manuscript in the context of his own career as a swordsman, a samurai as well as his life in a turbulent, feudal Japan. He summarized all of this experience, philosophy and specifics into one word…Strategy.
His book entitled, Gorin No Sho or A Book of Five Rings was the culmination of Musashi’s life work and experiences as a leader in many areas including but not restricted to swordsmanship and combat. It’s also one of the few existing historical Japanese documents on martial arts of its kind. Many people in feudal Japan, including many samurai, could not read or write but there were other factors making such documents rare.
Traditionally, skills like swordsmanship and martial arts were considered ‘trade secrets’ to the practitioners much like the formula for Coca Cola or Google’s Algorithm is today. Additionally, it is often difficult to articulate the nuances of physical skill and movement in written word. Much like it is one thing to read about the mechanics of swinging a baseball bat to hit a fastball, yet it’s quite another to stand in the batter’s box and actually hit the ball. As a result, much of these traditions were transmitted orally and makes Musashi’s writings somewhat of a historical treasure to many in Japan and the martial arts community.
Today, Miyamoto Musashi remains a folk hero in Japan and required reading for Japanese businessmen although popularity of the Book of Five Rings seems to have waned since the 1990’s with the advent of continued economic crisis in Japan. Very few in the West, however, outside of those in the martial arts community have even heard of Miyamoto Musashi let alone embraced his writings.
Language is the first barrier at which many Westerners give up on Eastern text. Meaning in Eastern language, both written and spoken, can often have many layers dependent upon context. Japanese for example has characters that can have literally dozens of meanings in English, depending on the context used. Without the original author being present, the translator is often left to decide on literal meaning vs. implied meaning. This gives rise to phrases like, ‘lost in translation’ and ‘reading between the lines’ and can frustrate Western readers who are accustomed to the more literal Latin based languages.
Further, the Book of Five Rings was written by a Samurai using swordsmanship as a metaphor for a larger concept and in the context of violent, war stricken times of feudal Japan. As a result, the book often gets glossed over as some esoteric manual on sword fighting skill, a reputation only perpetuated by the modern myths and fictionalization of Musashi himself.
Lastly, most in the West simply don’t attribute the same historical significance to Musashi as they do to people like Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo Da Vinci. He’s just another sword fighter, who happened to write a book and whose life was a quaint anecdote to the adventures of the samurai and the height of feudal Japan.
Over the next few months most of the posts will be devoted to Bringing Musashi Back and adapting the ideas of “strategy” found in the Book of Five Rings to a 21st Century world. Hopefully it will reignite interest from people in both the East and the West in the writings of Miyamoto Musashi.