‘Life is understood best by those who live it most intensely’
Samurai warriors are infamously known to be some of the fiercest fighters in history. Their almost 700-year-power over feudal Japan paved a way for their integrity and loyalty-bound philosophy and fighting style to become that of legends.
Through my research and my new found kendo martial arts practice, I’ve been able to spiritually move closer to the wisdom left behind from the Samurai and their famous code: Bushido. Being half-Japanese seems to help also. I even have a powerfully motivating artwork of a Samurai warrior hanging on my wall.
I’ve curated a short collection of wisdom left behind from the deadliest warriors who left their mark (and their enemies’ heads) in feudal Japan.
1. Tsukahara Bokuden
Bokuden famously fought in 19 duels and 37 battles and came out alive and complete undefeated, allowing only a natural death to take him down. He garnered a reputation as one of the most deadly samurai warriors during the Warring States Period. This was not the limit to his achievements however as he founded a new Kashima style of fencing, and served as an instructor of Shōgun Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Despite his incredible record, in his later life, Bokuden grew tired of proving his abilities through the act of fighting and dedicated his life to winning battles without having to draw his sword; a kind of thinking that was far beyond his time in the world of martial arts.
“My art is different from yours. It consists not so much in defeating others but in not being defeated.” — Tsukahara Bokuden, in Enter the Dragon (1973)
2. Tomoe Gozen
Powerful female figures have dominated throughout history, but none of them come as close to a pure state of intimidation as Tomoe Gozen does. From collecting the heads of seven mounted warriors in the battle of Yokotagawara in 1181, to being one of the five survivors of a 300 strong army that fought against an army of 6,000 troops in the Battle of Uchide no Hama in 1184; Gozen is possibly my favourite contender for deadliest Samurai warrior of all time.
“Of justice you will find none…. To judge is evil. To mete justice, more appalling still. Act from compassion and you will do better than to devise any code or facade of justice.” — Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Author of Tomoe Gozen series
3. Minamoto No Tametomo
Tametomo was famously born with a genetic deformity that gifted him with one arm six inches longer than the other. The reason I use the word ‘gifted’ is because this deformity came to great advantage and allowed him to pull off the most powerful archery shots recorded in battle. Tametomo used these fatal shots whilst riding horseback giving him an incredible edge in battle.
What may at first seem to be your disadvantage, when used correctly, could be your unique edge that propels you past your competition.
4. William Adams
Although not technically a samurai, Adam’s contribution to Japan’s war technology and work with the supreme military leader, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, gives him the relevance for us to lend our minds to his wisdom. Adams directed construction for the first Western-style ships in Japan despite when first entering the country, was imprisoned by Shogun Ieyasu.
Williams sets an example for how your experience may give you no success now but will find its use elsewhere and in another time. Never give up.
5. Saito Musashibo
Musashibo’s deadly story comes as close as one can to being unbelievable. After being thrown out of the Buddhist Monks of Japan for his unruly behaviour, Musashibo proceeded to stand alone at Gojo Bridge. Here, he killed every man who attempted to cross, resulting in almost 1,000 swords of past samurai residing at his feet. His deleterious reputation scared many soldiers who refused to go near the bridge, until one day a few soldiers noticed that his giant presence was one that would provide no real threat as they found Musashibo dead, despite managing to still be stood upright.
Musashibo’s morality may be questionable, but his dedication is one that can be learnt from. His fight was until the death and his consistency created a reputation. Borrow this principle and allow your consistency to speak for you.
6. The 47 Ronin
The famous 47, known for their act of storming the Kira castle and murdering the entire household and Kira Yoshinaka himself, were incredibly dishonourable in their pursuit of avenging their once master: Asano Naganori. His forced-suicide (seppuku) came as a result of Naganori drawing his sword inside of the Edo castle. In the eyes of his 47, the distinctly un-samurai-like behaviour was one of choosing. Their actions were of their choosing, the most righteous way to continue through life. To serve justice and avenge the one who first provided them with a path of fulfilment and potential mastery.
To further their side of the story, after the murder of Kira Yoshinaka and the storming of his home, the 47 ronin turned themselves in and proceeded to carry out the ordered sentence of seppuku.
“Remember, there’s sacrifice involved in any kind of life. Even the man who chooses the safe way has to give up the thrill of combat. The point is that once you know what you want, you must be prepared to sacrifice everything to get it.” — John Allyn, author of The 47 Ronin Story
7. Samurai Jack
Yes, I am featuring the deadly samurai ‘Jack’ who is sent into a dystopian future to take on the tyrannical shape-shifting demon Aku in the Emmy winning animated series ‘Samurai Jack’. Although it’s the main character’s father who carries the initial wisdom. In one scene, even after attacking rebels kill his guards, Jack’s father gives them a choice to leave or to continue their fight without simply following orders, only for them all to then be killed. Following this event, Jack’s father teaches his son a powerful life lesson:
“The decisions you make and the actions that follow are a reflection of who you are. You cannot hide from yourself.” — Samurai Jack’s father
8. Miyamoto Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi. Undoubtedly the greatest samurai to have ever lived. He is given this status, not just for his merits on the battlefield, but also for his philosophy beyond it. Travelling the country in pursuit of becoming a great swordsman and truly perfecting his technique of sword fighting, Musashi gained an unparalleled amount of fighting experience and wisdom.
By 1613, Musashi had become infamous for cutting through some of Japan’s most fearless duelists. Musashi uniquely adapted a two-sword fighting-style which enabled him to even single-handedly eliminate a famous clan of swordsmen, the Yoshioka family.
But it would be his final duel with his fearsome arch-rival that would prove to be Musashi’s most profound fighting experience. Sasaki Korjiro and Miyamoto Musashi duelled on Ganryu Island. The fight came to a swift end, where Musashi used a wooden bokken to strike Korijro, leaving him dead, with his head left to become one with the water that surrounded them both. The duel left Musashi upset, prompting him to swear off lethal duels for the rest of his life, wanting to never take another artist’s life and rob them from the world.
Musashi spent his last years writing two books: The Book of Five Rings (a masterful piece of art which has become a definitive text on classical Japanese swordplay) as well as Dokkodo (a meditation on self-reliance and the act of walking alone).
For those who want to delve deeper into the world of Musashi, as well as reading his work, I highly recommend watching this History Channel documentary about the warrior, presented and explored by Mark Dacascos.
Miyamoto Musashi provides an unparalleled amount of advice, adding to the legacy that gives samurai warriors the historical status it so deservingly earns.
“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world” — Miyamoto Musashi
“Do nothing that is of no use” — Miyamoto Musashi
“If you wish to control others you must first control yourself” — Miyamoto Musashi
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain” — Miyamoto Musashi
“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.” — Miyamoto Musashi
“Get beyond love and grief: exist for the good of humanity.” — Miyamoto Musashi