Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, February 07, 2022

A Matter of Distance

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Ichijoji regarding the famous duel fought between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro. The full post may be read here.

An understanding of distance is a fundamental part of bujutsu, but it is perhaps one of the most difficult to understand. Although it involves physical distance, it includes (at the very least) consideration of subtle angles and adjustments based on timing and an appreciation of the range of the weapons used by both combatants.


The paired kata of Japanese bugei include aspects of this, but some of the finer points may not be grasped by even quite advanced practitioners. They were designed to be absorbed rather than to be explained, and it may be that specific explanations are a recent addition to teaching – few modern practitioners have the luxury to immerse themselves so deeply that these relationships are fully revealed. Nor is there the same sense of necessity. Even though many of these kata were developed and passed on in times of relative peace, training was more severe than it is today.


This control of distance was an aspect of his art for which Miyamoto Musashi was particularly well known, and an understanding of which was key to his famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro. Even if no-one can really be sure what happened, a careful analysis of what we do know provides interesting insights into some of the possibilities.

Although Musashi did not write of his fights, his writing contains references that may have a basis in specific experiences, as well as explaining broader principles. In The 35 Articles of Strategy, he wrote:


There are a number of different ways of covering distance according to established theories of heiho. Here I am speaking of something different. Whichever way it may be, it is something you will learn by much repetition. Speaking generally, you should be aware that when you can strike someone with your sword, you may be struck by their sword. When you wish to strike someone, you must forget about yourself. You should investigate this thoroughly.

(Author’s translation)


Kojiro was skilled with a particularly long sword, a skill he had developed, it is said, through acting as chief training partner to his master, Toda Seigen. As Seigen’s specialty was the short sword, it might seem strange that Kojiro used a sword that was longer than the norm. The reason, it is said, is that in refining his skill, Seigen had Kojiro use an increasingly long blade. Thus Kojiro’s skill with a long sword developed as his master’s technique grew ever better. 

art of the skill he developed was the ability to keep another swordsman at bay with the length of his sword. Length itself is no guarantee of victory, but Kojiro had also developed an extreme sensitivity and ability to rapidly change the direction of his sword stroke, unusual in a weapon so long, all of which made him an extremely difficult adversary. 


Musashi would have been aware of Kojiro’s famous ‘returning swallow’ technique (tsubamekaeshi), and he staked the results of their encounter on his ability to overcome this technique. Whatever the precise nature of the technique (and there is some argument about it, although the most likely seems to be a feint and attack or combination attack) it was clear that it made use of the length of the blade and that Kojiro was also used to dealing with attempts to move inside.


Instead, Musashi chose to remain at the very edge of Kojiro’s range and defeat him with a weapon that was just a fraction longer than Kojiro’s sword. The popular story is that he carved a wooden sword from a boat’s oar as he was being rowed to the site of the duel, but it is far more likely that he had already decided on and made the weapon he was going to fight with well before the duel. After all, if his strategy depended on a slight length advantage, he would want to make sure he had got it right.


Musashi had faced long weapons before – according to the Kokura monument (erected by Musashi’s adopted son in 1654, less than 10 years after Musashi’s death, and generally considered reliable) Yoshioka Denshichiro used a wooden sword five feet in length against him – and even if the story of his duel at the Hozoin Temple is discounted for lack of evidence, a well-verified account of a later, friendly, duel with the spear expert, Takada Matabei, shows Musashi was skilled at getting inside the perimeter of a longer weapon. That he chose a different strategy attests to Kojiro’s skill.


According to the Kokura Monument, Kojiro’s sword (named Drying Pole/Laundry Pole – Monohoshizao) was 3 shaku (about 90cm, plus the hilt, to give a total of something like 114 cm in length). Although the wooden sword Musashi used no longer survives, there are (at least) two surviving wooden swords he was said to have carved at a later date in response to enquiries about the duel. One of these is in the Matsui Collection, and was given by Musashi to Matsui Yoriyuki (the adopted son and heir of the Hosokawa vassal who acted as host to Musashi during the period of his duel with Kojiro). Given the relationship he had with the family, (and the fact that the Matsui Collection includes a number of other items made by Musashi) it is likely that this is genuine. It looks similar to a regular bokken in shape, but is rather larger – 127cm (4 shaku 2 sun), which would make it a little longer than Kojiro’s sword.


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