Friday, August 22, 2008


Japanese Can't Get Enough of Miyamoto Musashi (April 24, 2003)

a statue of Musashi
Young actors pose in front of a statue of Musashi (Industrial Promotion Division of Ohara, Okayama Prefecture)
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is one of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history, and he is known to many people outside Japan as well. Though he lived long ago, there is a Musashi revival underway at present in Japan. Many people view the legendary warrior as an ideal hero for the modern age.

Living by His Own Abilities
Musashi was born just after the chaotic Sengoku (Warring States) period, which was soon followed by the arrival of the Edo period (1603-1868), the longest period of stability in Japan's history. During the Sengoku period, all of Japan was gripped by fighting among local warlords, and power was everything. Musashi sought to make his way in this world with his sword.

So why is a swordsman who, after all, did not play much of a prominent role in history so popular now? One of the reasons is that NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) began airing an epic drama serial about his life titled Musashi at the beginning of January 2003. The program, which is shown on Sunday nights in primetime, has pulled in consistently high ratings. The drama is based on a novel, Miyamoto Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962), that was serialized in a newspaper from 1935 to 1939. This novel was an immediate hit with Japanese at the time, and it has since been translated into 14 different languages; the German version has sold 500,000 copies and the English version 400,000.

Interest in the novel has also recently been boosted by a faithful manga (comic) adaptation called Bagabondo (Vagabond). This manga has caught the imagination of many young people, and it is estimated that an astonishing 28 million copies have been sold over the past few years, making it a bestseller. The comic's success is the second factor behind the current Musashi boom. The image that young manga artist Takehiko Inoue paints of Musashi is very much that of a vagabond.

The third reason for the renewed interest in Musashi lies in the uncertainty people feel about the present. The chief producer of NHK's TV drama, Hisashi Ichii, explains the idea behind the program: "When individuals are forsaken by their organization or company, they wonder what kind of power they need to get by. This is where Musashi comes in. Musashi had nothing to do with any organization and lived bravely through turbulent times armed only with his swordsmanship. That is the image I hoped to portray of him."

Musashi Interested in Arts
From the time when he defeated his first opponent at the age of 13, Musashi, who developed a two-sworded fighting style, faced more than 60 opponents and never lost. The crowning achievement of his career was when he defeated Sasaki Kojiro, considered to be a master swordsman, on the island of Ganryujima (presently part of Shimonoseki City, Yamaguchi Prefecture). That event has been recreated on stage and screen countless times, so it is an episode that strikes a chord with most Japanese people.

When he was 57, Musashi finally found a permanent place to live. He settled in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu in 1640 and worked as an instructor in swordsmanship for the Hosokawa daimyo family. Although he is best remembered as a pioneer who developed a two-sword fighting style that is relatively rare in Japan, Musashi was also involved in art, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and poetry. He lived out his later years peacefully and died of illness at the age of 62. Musashi wrote a book on swordsmanship titled Gorin no sho (The Book of Five Rings) and painted numerous pictures of great artistic merit, achievements that serve as proof of his multiple talents.

Musashi Boosts Tourism
Areas connected with Musashi, such as the locations where he is believed to have been born and died, are stressing their links with the great swordsman in order to attract visitors. Three places lay claim to the title of Musashi's birthplace (one in Okayama Prefecture and two in Hyogo Prefecture), and each emphasizes the truth of its claim and promotes itself as the genuine article. The fact that there are three competing claims only seems to have aroused more interest in Musashi, and tourists are flocking to all three places in increasing numbers.

The city of Kumamoto, where Musashi spent his latter years, enjoys booming sales of liquor and manju (steamed buns with a bean-jam filling) bearing his name. Public museums operated by the prefecture and the city are planning exhibitions relating to Musashi. And the island of Ganryujima in Shimonoseki City, where Musashi fought Sasaki Kojiro, has received investment from the city worth ¥2 billion ($16.7 million at ¥120 to the dollar) for beautification aimed at making the island more attractive for tourists. These developments are proof that a swordsman who lived more than 350 years ago still holds sway over Japanese hearts.

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