November 03, 2019


For centuries, the samurai warriors of Japan have been a source of fascination for both outsiders and the Japanese themselves, with many books and films being produced about their customs and martial prowess. But few samurai are as famous or as lionised as the “sword saint” Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), whose treatise on combat, The Book of Five Rings, has become a global selling phenomenon.

Unfortunately, Western publications of books on the martial arts are often marketed in a way that is contrary to their actual content, and Musashi’s work is representative of this.

The 1982 Bantam Books edition of Musashi’s great treatise is a prime example. Erroneously subtitled The Real Art of Japanese Management, the front cover depicts a suited businessman in a trench coat with umbrella and briefcase confronting a samurai warrior attired in traditional clothes and a sword. One wonders how the businessman would triumph in such an unlikely conflict. Perhaps he would defend himself against the sword with the newspaper he holds aloft. The covers are sprinkled with blurbs which promise success in the manner of a chiromantic conman. Reading the mini-biographies of the translators, one suspects that none of them have any martial arts experience. The rear of the book contains a few pages of advertisements for New Age, self-help and business books.

The pop repackaging of samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s texts takes them as far from the samurai ethic as it is possible to be

The introduction leaves much to be desired. One page suggests that the famous “swordsman” Takuan met and influenced Musashi. Except that Takuan was a priest, not a swordsman, and there is no reliable evidence that he either met or influenced Musashi. The introduction goes on to compare the effortless whipping up of dinner for 10 people to Zen Buddhism. This sort of diminution of a profound and ancient religious philosophy has become popular in recent decades, leading to a spate of books with ‘Zen’ in the title, from the pseudo-intellectual (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) to the patently ridiculous (Zen and the Art of Disc Golf).

The Thomas Cleary translation published by Shambhala in 2000 is similarly problematic. The front cover quotes the editor of a business magazine declaring that “Musashi’s teachings read like lessons from the latest business management gurus.” The back cover categorises the book as “Business/Martial Arts”, while Cleary’s introduction reassures readers who might feel out of their depth that the book was not written solely for men-at-arms. This is quite a false assertion. Musashi wrote the book for his closest samurai acquaintances, not for the general public. If there were any doubt of this, the numerous pages of text describing sword-fighting techniques should have been a hint.

Victor Harris’s translation as published by Overlook Press in 1982 also labels the book as “Business/Martial Arts”, and the cover is emblazoned with the improbable declaration: “Japan’s Answer to the Harvard MBA!” The Flamingo edition from 1984 removed most of the insightful illustrations and added a new blurb describing the book as a “guide to strategy — at home and at work.” Exactly which 17th century sword-fighting strategies are supposed to be used in the modern home is not explained; perhaps a reading of Musashi’s techniques will make one more adept at slicing vegetables. The introduction states that the book is used by many Japanese businessmen to aid them in planning military-like sales campaigns, but no facts are provided to support this contention. In fact, there is evidence that the opposite is true, as G. Cameron Hurst III points out in his informative article ‘Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success’.

The irony of all of this is that the samurai class of Japan traditionally had a contempt for monetary matters and the merchant class, indicating how far removed from the original context and philosophy the book has been lifted. Stephen F. Kaufman, a martial artist whose translation was published by Tuttle in 1994 as The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, had this to say in his introduction: “There is a significant difference between not getting a deal signed and having your head cut off. Business is mental. War is mental and physical. The true warrior has no difficulty understanding this difference regardless of all the hype suggesting that ‘business is war’. It absolutely is not. […] Taking a life is not the same as taking money.”

The back cover drives home the point by declaring that this edition is “undiluted by a businessman’s bias.” Ironically, the publishers have classified the book as “Martial Arts/Business” and Kaufman himself has written books with titles such as The Musician’s Book of Five Rings: Martial Arts to Musical Arts —Samurai Strategies of Miyamoto Musashi for Excellence and Ascension of Performance and The Sword in the Boardroom: Sun Tzu, Musashi and Kaufman on Winning for the Benefit of All Concerned.

Whatever the flaws in how these books are presented, however, they do not compare to the outright preposterousness of Samurai Selling: The Ancient Art of Service in Sales by Chuck Laughlin, Karen Sage and Marc Bockmon. Published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 1993, this book advocates that salespeople can actually become samurai, and proceeds to provide several instructional stories about samurai behaviour, several of them featuring Musashi. But it is no more possible to become a medieval samurai warrior by reading teaching tales than it is to become a Roman emperor by reading a biography of Marcus Aurelius.

Musashi himself killed his first opponent at the age of 13 and spent decades of his life in training, duels and contemplation until, by his own admission, he attained a real understanding of the ‘Way’ of combat strategy at the age of 50. Yet the authors of Samurai Selling would have us believe that urban go-getters can become wise paragons of virtue after reading their book. Considering that the authors believe that samurai philosophy can be summed up with “How can I best serve my client?” and state that Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s 18th century samurai treatise Hagakure was written in the 12th century, one cannot help but be sceptical.

This is not to say that only martial artists should read The Book of Five Rings, though it is reasonable to assume that practitioners of the sword will glean more insight than other readers. The book certainly does possess thought-provoking ideas that can theoretically be applied to different fields of endeavour — though this could be said about virtually any book — but it is important to remember the context in which the book was written, lest one come away with misapprehensions. As Musashi himself intimates, mastering the Way of combat allowed him to penetrate the mysteries of other professions. However, this was a lifelong effort, involving not only extensive martial training, but also a study of the classics, interchanges with scholars, much wandering and a pursuit of numerous other activities such as poetry, calligraphy, sculpture, painting and landscape design. One should also realise that not all samurai treatises are the same. The Hagakure, for example, has an air of disdain for culture which is in stark contrast to Musashi’s advocacy that one should follow the path of the arts as well as the path of the sword.

In fairness, even Japanese culture does not harbour an untainted image of Musashi. In Japan, the most widely known image of the legendary sword-master stems from Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi, which was initially serialised in the 1930s and sold millions of copies in collected form. Numerous films have used Yoshikawa as inspiration, as has the popular manga series Vagabond, but this material often lacks historicity. A notable example is Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956). While this epic series of films features great performances enacting a powerful tale of transformation and the quest for enlightenment, it is quite an inaccurate portrait of the real Musashi.

The American repackaging of Musashi is seemingly part of a trend to lend some justification or philosophical footing to professions that are, frankly, as far removed from the samurai ethic as is it is possible to be. In his revealing memoir Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage of Wall Street, Michael Lewis recounts the culture of Wall Street in the 1980s and mentions investment bankers reading copies of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s (1780-1831) On War for “techniques.” Lewis also provides innumerable examples of the crassness, ignorance and greed that pervaded the mindsets of people who were in denial about the stark truth of what they did for a living. A more recent example is former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who misinterpreted Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene to justify his ruthless business practices.

Those seriously interested in understanding Musashi would do better to read Alexander Bennett’s translation of the complete corpus of Musashi’s writings titled The Complete Musashi: The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle, 2018) along with Kenji Tokitsu’s biography Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings (Shambhala, 2004). Both of these scholarly works contain detailed notes, feature colour reproductions of Musashi’s artwork and are written by people with extensive martial arts experience.

One must first acquire a meaningful understanding of Musashi and his times before attempting to elicit meaning from his writings — words which, far from abetting capitalistic culture, are inimical to it. As William Scott Wilson wrote in the foreword to his translation of another noted samurai text, Budoshoshinshu by Daidoji Yuzan: “Are we really satisfied with life as ‘consumers’? Can we not do something better with ourselves than just make money? [The samurai] were men who knew something of values, and implicit in their values is the idea that life is worth more than just serving our own materialism and greed.”

The life and works of Miyamoto Musashi are a testament to those values.

The writer is an antiquarian

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 3rd, 2019