An Epic Samurai Duel Frozen In Stone
On the southern tip of Japan's main island, Honshu, lies the small city of Shimonoseki. It's a small place physically but historically it has seen some big historical events. During Golden Week (May 3-5) a pair of festivals are held to honor two of those events. One festival is a larger spectacle which celebrates a great battle that was fought there over 800 years ago between two rival samurai clans. The other festival is much smaller but in fame, it is almost equal.
The smaller festival is held to honor a famous duel fought between two legendary swordsmen the likes of which will probably never be seen again. One of the duelists was Miyamoto Musashi one of the most famous swordsmen who ever lived. His opponent was Sasaki Kojiro known as "The Demon of the West" for his feared prowess with a blade. Nearly everyone in Japan knows of this duel as well as many outside of Japan who practice martial arts and study Japanese history. It's literally the stuff of legends.
The duel took place in 1612 on a small island in the straits of Shimonoseki. The island would later be called Ganryujima and it's by this name that the duel is remembered. Countless depictions have been made of this fight in print and in cinema and TV. Of all the duels of the samurai, the Ganryujima one is probably the most famous. Some years ago a cold medicine company used the iconic image of the two swordsmen in the surf and sunset facing off against each other to promote their product. Kojiro, apparently not having used the product which Musashi has, is undone by a sneeze and the commercial ends with Musashi's sword swinging down on the hapless Kojiro.
Depictions of the famous duel in stone and print
What exactly happened on Ganryujima is subject to not a little debate. Myth has intertwined with truth so much that is difficult to separate the two. The most popular version is that Musashi purposely arrived late for the duel. Supposedly he did so in order to unnerve Kojiro and to take advantage of the setting sun which would be behind him.
He was unwashed and his unkempt hair was wrapped by a towel. To add insult to injury, Musashi did not have a sword with him but a crudely carved wooden one which he had made out of an oar on his way over to the island.
Musashi came to the duel looking unkempt
Kojiro is said to have thrown his scabbard away perhaps in anger. Musashi taunted him saying he lost as a warrior would never do such a thing. Kojiro said after killing Musashi he would never use his sword again. He also mocked Musashi's shabby sword.
Musashi with his infamous oar sword
Kojiro perhaps relied too much on his sword prowess which was unique for the times. He did not use a katana as most samurai did. He excelled in the use of a nodachi an especially long sword that was 150cm/5ft long. A katana was generally 70cm/2ft3in long and despite the nodachi's cumbersome weight and length, Kojiro handled it with ease.
Sasaki Kojiro - Master of the long sword style of fighting: Ganryu
Kojiro had perfected a cutting style that he called "Tsubame Gaeshi" or "Turning Swallow Cut" which was like a swallow's tail in flight. It was a quick cut downward followed by slash upward. The length of the blade and the skill in which he used it gave Kojiro the advantage over his opponents.
Few could wield such a long heavy sword as easily as Kojiro
Musashi's most famous style is the Niten Ichi-Ryu, the use of two swords in combat. However, for his duel with Kojiro he used only one sword, the one that he carved himself with his short sword on the boat ride over according to some accounts. The oar sword was longer than a katana and so not a length Kojiro would be accustomed to.
Niten Ichi-Ryu (Two Sword Technique) Musashi's famed style
A replica of the type of boat Musashi would have used to arrive at the duel
Apparently despite his disheveled appearance and his seemingly indifferent attitude to the duel, Musashi had studied his man and used his weaknesses against him. "Confuse the enemy by attacking with varied techniques" is one Musashi's maxims from "The Book of Five Rings" and he did so at Ganryujima. Kojiro was expecting a normal duel with conventional weapons a situation which he had always excelled at but Musashi was playing for keeps.
Kojiro attacked first either by design or goaded into doing so in anger at Musashi's overall appearance and demeanor.
"When the enemy attacks, remain undisturbed but feign weakness. As the enemy reaches you, suddenly move away indicating that you intend to jump aside, then dash in attacking strongly."
- The Book of Fire
Perhaps this is what Musashi did, dodging Kojiro's blow which only cut the headband from his hair before leaping up and striking Kojiro's head with his wooden sword.
In films and TV, this is the iconic moment of the duel. Both men have made their strikes and now stand looking defiantly at each other. Usually Musashi's headband falls off first and Kojiro smiles thinking he got the best of Musashi in that exchange then suddenly! a trickle of blood seeps down from his forehead and a surprised Kojiro slumps down dead onto the sandy beach with a shattered skull.
Other versions of the duel say Kojiro rose and tried to cut Musashi with an upward slash which only cut his kimono then Musashi finished him off with a blow to the ribs.
Some detractors claim Musashi fought unfairly and one scholar Harada Mukashi goes so far as to suggest Musashi and his students assassinated Kojiro. Supporters however claim the duel was in keeping with the precepts of Musashi's fighting philosophy.
It could be seen that Kojiro himself wasn't exactly on the up and up either in the fairness department. His usual opponents would not be accustomed to the length of his long sword and would probably miscalculate the speed and dexterity they thought Kojiro could wield such a heavy weapon. Such mental miscalculations could cost them the duel and their lives. Musashi turned that situation around by presenting a weapon Kojiro would be completely unfamiliar with.
Regardless of the exact details or the fairness of the fight, Sasaki Kojiro was dead at duel's end. Musashi fearing reprisal from Kojiro's students leapt back on the boat and headed away. The famous duel ended as the sun sank into the west.
This would be Musashi's last true duel and of them, his greatest challenge. Musashi would go on to live to his early 60s. In his later years, he wrote down his philosophy in his seminal work "The Book of Five Rings." This book and the legends of his duels would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest swordsmen who ever lived.
Young Miyamoto Musashi wanna-be's practicing Kendo during Ganryujima Matsuri
Arrr!!! The boat to Ganryujima sports a Jolly Roger (pirate flag for ye landlubbers)
A feisty Banana participating in a tug-of-war event during the festival
Although Kojiro died, the island was named after his fighting style