Weird Wednesdays: The Zorro of Japan

Michonne, a character from the Walking Dead, fascinates fans by how well she uses her katana to survive. (Photo courtesy of The Huffington Post)

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

For all of the guns, tanks, atomic bombs, planes, trains and automobiles dedicated and available to modern civilization for the fine art of warfare, there’s still a lingering fascination with the most elegant, yet seemingly primitive weapon-- swords.

Why else would Jedi, in a world of blasters and impact grenades, stick with lightsabers? Why do we find Michonne offing zombies with a katana so fascinating? And, of course, there’s always the dashing masked man, be it Zorro or the Dread Pirate Roberts, ready to save the girl with a witty comment and flick of a blade.

The reason is simple: Swords are frickin’ awesome. They require skill, precision and a lifetime of training to handle. A duel has an air of honor-- instead of bombing a faceless enemy, it’s a faceoff between equals.

Some of these notions are romanticization. But to be frank? Blade wielders are pretty badass-- and there’s no better proof than the Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.

Not only was he a master with a katana, but, unlike most samurai, he would charge into battle wielding two blades--the classic samurai longsword, and a short sword called a wakizashi. This style was known as Niten Ichi (‘Two heavens at once’)

Musashi found his humble beginnings in the province of Harima, Japan, in approximately the year 1584. His child name was Shinmen Bennosuke, though he later took on the name Musashi to reflect the province he became the nominal governor of through his family. (For the record, his full name and title was ‘Shinmen Musashi-no-Kami Fujiwara no Harunobu’, which is a bit of a mouthful.)

Musashi’s father Shinmen Munisai was a noted swordsman and samurai under the local nobility. At a young age Miyamoto was taken in by his uncle and trained in the arts of reading, writing, Buddhism and of stabbing people in the face. As well, supposedly he developed eczema on his face at infancy, giving him a gnarly and carved appearance for the rest of his life.  

According to his autobiography, Musashi got into his first duel at the age of thirteen, after a wandering swordsman named Arima Kihei posted a public challenge to anyone willing to fight him. Miyamoto signed up, and despite protestations from his family, faced off Kihei with nothing but a wooden pole. Though Kihei has a wakizashi, Musashi reportedly threw him down and proceeded to whack him to death, like an angry, Japanese samurai version of Ness.

Musashi didn’t stop there, of course. At the age of 15 he left his village and wandered the country, engaging in duels and getting into all sorts of wacky, anime-worthy adventures, including (presumably) fighting the dark lord Aku, attempting to find the Philosopher's Stone and killing gigantic monsters with only a single punch.

In 1600, at the age of 17 or so Musashi took part in several battles against the Tokugawa clan as part of the Toyotomi clan, since his family was allied with them. However, when the Toyotomi lost, Miyamoto absconded, hiding out on Mount Hiko and honing his skills further.

At the age of 20 he reappeared from the mists in Kyoto, and proceeded to kick the collective rear ends of the martial arts academy Yoshioka School-- the only man, according to records, ever able to do so.

This really ticked off the clan who owned the school, and they promptly challenged Musashi to one final battle-- against several archers, swordsmen, musketeers and (probably) ninja warriors all eager to clean the floor with him. In true Musashi style, Miyamoto arrived to the temple several hours early, lying in wait before jumping out, two swords in hand, killing the school’s headmaster and fighting his way out of the throng of martial artists, forever ending that particular branch of the Yoshioka school.

He then spent the next few years chilling with some warrior monks and fighting in several other duels, often forgoing his blades for a bokken (a wooden sword) to defeat his opponents, or simply lobbing his wakizashi at enemies for a long-range kill.

By far Musashi’s most famous duel was against Sasaki Kojirō, who was called ‘The Demon of the Western Provinces’ (which should generally be a name you should run away from really, really quickly).

The two agreed to duel on a tiny island just off the coast of the mainland. In true cool-dude fashion, Musashi arrived late-- which not only infuriated and unnerved his opponent, but also put the sun in just the right position to blind Kojirō. To add insult, Miyamoto didn’t even bring a sword-- he brought a makeshift weapon that he had carved from a wooden oar from the boat he used to get to the island.

The battle, reportedly, was swift and certain. In one move Musashi, deftly dodging the swings Sasaki made at him with his giant sword, ran up to the warrior crushed Kojiro’s skull. The moment after Kojio died his supporters all swarmed Musashi, eager for revenge-- but the swordsman was quickly able to flee the island with the rising tide (which was another reason for his lateness/impeccable timing).

After that fateful duel Musashi decided to settle down, opening a school of fencing and writing several books on swordfighting (The most famous of which is ‘The Book of Five Rings,’ which is still printed today.) Towards the end of his life he lived in a cave, like some sort of awesome and violent Yoda, before dying peacefully at the ripe old age of 61, most likely due to thoracic cancer.

By the time he died Miyamoto Musashi reportedly won over 60 duels, not counting miscellaneous scuffles, bar fights and kills in battle. At the same time he was an accomplished artist, historian, author, architect and calligrapher, true to the well-rounded samurai mantara.

To this day, his teachings are still used by martial artists, kendo practitioners and ruthless office managers a like. It’s enough to out any hackneyed anime protagonist to shame.       


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.