Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Sekigahara - the question of Musashi's role in the decisive battle

Musashi and Matahachi stagger off the field of Sekigahara
– as the movies saw it.

October 21st 1600 saw one of the most decisive battles of Japan's history – Sekigahara.

This was where Tokugawa Ieyasu and his combined forces faced the so-called Western Alliance under Ishida Mitsunari. It was touch and go at first, but some well-timed treachery on th epart of one of Mitsunari's allies handed Ieyasu the victory, allowinghim to consolidate and extend his control across the whole country and ushering in the Tokugawa era, which was to last for more than 260 years.

This battle forms an important part of the story of Miyamoto Musashi as told in numerous novels, films, TV series and serious accounts of his life, telling how, as a young man, he fought at Sekigahara, survived the hunting down of the defeated forces (it is always assumed he was fighting on the side of Ishida Mitsunari) and went on to fame and fortune.

However, there is some doubt as to how accurate this version of events might be. As more of the sources for the story of Musashi become available in English (and the story is researched more thoroughly in Japanese), there is serious cause for questioning the veracity of this story. Although Musashi did, indeed, fight during the time of the Sekigahara campaign, it seems most likely that it was in the fighting that occurred in Kyushu at the same time.

The Kokura Hibun
The evidence is, at the very least, contradictory. Although the story is so familiar, it is hard to know where it comes from. The Kokura Hibun (1654), the monument raised by Musashi's adopted son, Iori, does not specifically mention either location, merely stating that that 'During the plot of Toyotomi's treacherous vassal, Ishida Jibu-no-sho..... (Musashi) was renowned for his valour and skill with the sword.' – in fact, the lack of specificity in this instance has caused assumption that he fought on the side of the rebels, though there is no evidence to support this supposition.

The Honcho Bugei Shoden (1716) does mention he fought at Sekigahara, but there is no mention of the source for this information. (Hinatsu Shigetaka, who compiled this fascinating collection of tales of bugeisha, seemed to have collected and collated everything he could find about his subjects, but where this information comes from is unclear. He quotes the Kokura Hibun, and it is possible that he made the assumption that Musashi fought at Sekigahara based on this. It seems likely that the Sekigahara Campaign, being much more important than the one in Kyushu, was the first one that anyone would think of in this regard; it may also be that the Kokura Hibun purposely allows the reader to think of Sekigahara, as that would confer greater esteem on Musashi (as if he needed it).  Of the other main sources, the Bukoden (1755) and the Bushu Denraiki (1727), the Bukoden mentions the battle, but does not specifically place Musashi at the battle, whereas the Bushu Denraiki gives specific details of the Musashi's involvement, but places him firmly in the Kyushu campaign. The Nitenki, which was written a few years after the Bukoden (1776 in fact) and largely based on it, does place him at Sekigahara, but once again, there seems to have been no hard evidence for this. It was the version in the Nitenki that Yoshikawa Eiji relied on in writing his epic work, and the majority of subsequent versions follow him to a lesser or greater degree.
Map showing Kyushu c.1600

It also includes a couple of small vignettes about his actions during the battle, both of which paint a picture of a boastful, daring youth convinced of his own indestructability. Given he was only 16 at the time, but had already proven himself in duels with adults, this is not too surprising. In one of these stories he jumps off a small cliff into a clump of bamboo stakes but emerges unscathed; while in the other, he is injured in the thigh as he storms a wall, but calmly waits till the offending spear is poked through the arrow slit, grabs it behind the head, and putting his leg to it, breaks it in two.

So, who to believe? Interestingly, the Kyushu story was drawn from Kuroda Clan documents, and William de Lange mentions the discovery of recent documents which corroborate it. As is well known, Musashi's own writings make little specific mention of any of his battles, but it seems far more likely that the experience of a short but successful campaign like that in Kyushu, especially under the comand of the noted strategist Kuroda Josui, would have influenced him in the direction he was to take - of seeing the fundamental similarities in large and small scale combat - than the slaughter at Sekigahara would have done.
Kuroda Josui (from a portrait in the Fukuoka City

It is interesting to note that Josui gathered together a somewhat irregular force, consisting of any volunteers he could get his hands on - the main body of Kuroda troops having been already despatched to fight on Tokugawa's side - (his son would be praised by Tokugawa Ieyasu for his role at Sekigahara - Josui's reaction was characteristic, - I mentioned it here) - and thus the 16 year old Musashi would have been warmly welcomed into such a force.

Josui took a series of castles in Buzen, moving up to Chikuzen Province, where he joined forces with Kato Kiyomasa to lay siege to Yanagawa in Chikugo. Ieyasu rightly suspected signs of ambition in this, and respecting Josui's abilities, sought to deter any further action. Josui, realising the cards were stacked against him, declined the offers of position offered by Ieyasu, and retired, leaving his newly promoted son as head of the clan.

 In the Hyôdôkyô, written five years later, when he was still only 21, Musashi writes of how to storm a gate and take prisoners. While it doesn't preclude this reference being to the Sekigahara campaign (during which Musashi is claimed to have participated in two sieges - attacking and defending Fushimi and Gifu castles respectively, although once again, the evidence for him taking part in these sieges is slim) - he would certainly have been able to garner more experience in Josui's army, particularly due to its small size and irregular composition.

I think the Kyushu campaign sounds more likely, but the weight of tradition leans heavily the other way – perhaps new evidence will come to light. Certainly, Josui will be in the limelight over the next year or so – the 2014 NHK year-long Taiga drama is based around his life. It might give extra impetus for proving the Musashi connection.


  1. Thanks for sharing this information about Musashi's whereabouts in 1600. You had me rushing back to an old blog post I had written about him to make sure that I hadn't definitively placed him at Sekigahara. Fortunately, I had not. The Kyushu theory sounds interesting, but one wonders if we'll ever be able to separate the facts from the legend that took on a life of its own in the 1700s.

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