A samurai duel would be a spectacle if feudal Japanese legends are true. A fight between two talented adversaries with razor-sharp swords would be the ultimate testament to the katana’s deadliness. Whoever slashes quickest, employs the smoothest blow, and strikes the other with surgical precision wins.
Although most samurai legends come from battles between warring clans or revenge-motivated action (think 47 Ronin), one story passes from the early 17th century to the new millennia. The Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro samurai duel of 1612 has all the elements of a legendary clash.
With over 60 successful duels, Musashi is undoubtedly Japan’s greatest swordsman. Let’s read more about this legend.
Two samurai warriors dueling. Photo by Stable Diffusion on Prompt Hunt.
Miyamoto Musashi: Japan’s Finest Swordsman
Born Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin (also known as Shinmen Bennosuke or Niten Doraku) sometime in 1584, in Banshu, Harima Province, Miyamoto Musashi is one of Japan’s few sword-saints (Kensei).
The title alone is enough to scare opponents, although 61 brave samurai chose to stand up to the legend. Unfortunately, they were no match for Musashi’s double-bladed swordsmanship.
Musashi would have his first duel at age 13 and the second by age 16. He found himself on the losing side at the Battle of Sekigakarai. He became a masterless samurai (Ronin) as Ieyasu Tokugawa’s forces defeated and annihilated the Ashikaga Clan. He wandered throughout feudal Japan, strengthening his philosophy and honing his sword fighting skills.
Miyamoto Musashi: Japan’s greatest samurai swordsman. Photo on Britannica.
9 Musashi Principles to Successful Samurai Duels
Musashi’s samurai dueling principles are at the core of many modern sword fighting styles. The legendary slasher developed and adhered to nine techniques guaranteeing success in any duel.
Legends say Musashi could have dueled with hundreds of samurai in 17th-century Japan. However, his “invoke fear” principle is at the core of Musashi’s sword fighting style. This philosophy requires the samurai to look formidable by appearing “bigger.” Musashi also advocated for surprise attacks on fronts least expected (i.e., the side or flank).
Musashi’s secret to a successful samurai duel is a blitz-style attack. He said that samurai must heighten their situational awareness and use judgment to decide if conflict is unavoidable. Hence, attacking first increases one’s chances of emerging a victor in the duel rather than waiting for the opponent to strike.
Although a duel only involves a single opponent, some enemies might be sneaky and allow their colleagues to join the melee. In such instances, the samurai must strike the most formidable opponent first. Once down, the samurai must attack the second-strongest enemy.
At the core of this principle is flexibility and unpredictability. A legendary sword fighter must employ different techniques to keep the opponent guessing what strike comes next. As Musashi explains, “Be a mountain if the opponent expects the sea,” and vice versa.
A great samurai visualizes distant things as if they are facing him, allowing the swordsman to appreciate the enemy and help determine the best course of attack. Likewise, the samurai must also consider how an opponent views the circumstances within the samurai’s immediate surroundings.
Musashi never goes to a samurai duel on time. Legends say he is always late. He does this intentionally to demoralize the opponent, ensuring a more successful sword fight. Predicting an opposing samurai’s next moves is crucial to this philosophy.
Crush the enemy
Samurai never give up. They will fight to the last breath. Hence, a true sword-saint must defeat the opponent quickly and decisively, preventing him from recovering and mounting a counterattack. It’s a samurai dueling technique not for the soft-hearted.
Shouting during a samurai fight is common to prevent “friendly attacks” (similar to “friendly fire”). Most warriors also shout their name when killing a high-ranking enemy samurai, telling the comrades who delivered the coup de grace. Musashi’s principle requires a very loud shout before attacking, an “Ei” sound when attacking, and a low-pitched sound after defeating the enemy.
Pommel the head
Musashi’s swords are not only razor sharp. They also have pommels with extra-sharp edges to hit the backside of an opposing samurai’s head after slashing. Part of this principle is striking the enemy’s legs and hands with the katana-wielder’s head and arms should the latter miss the target.
Cut the enemy
A samurai duel is never complete without decapitating or cutting an opposing samurai’s head. For a saint-sword, cutting the enemy at the neck is the goal.
The Niten Ichi-Ryu Technique: Two Blades for Maximum Effect
Dueling against a formidable opponent is never a joke. Even with Musashi’s principles, the legendary swordsman could be on the losing end if the enemy is lucky. Hence, this sword-saint honed the two-bladed technique – the Niten Ichi-ryu.
It’s worth pointing out that Musashi didn’t develop the two-blade technique. He refined it. For example, some samurai warriors already used the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu in the mid-15th century and the Tatsumi Ryu in the early 16th-century.
However, one cannot deny that Musashi’s swordsmanship correlates to his mastery of the two-sword technique.
So, what is a two-blade technique?
As the name implies, a two-blade sword fighting style requires the warrior to use two weapons simultaneously. Most samurai in feudal Japan used only a single sword when fighting (i.e., katana or other Japanese swords).
The Niten Inchi-ryu requires the samurai to wield a katana on one hand and a wakizashi on the other. The following are possible combinations.
- Two katanas
- Wakizashi and tanto
- Katana and tanto
- Katana and saya
The philosophy behind this two-sword technique is simultaneous defense and offense. One sword blocks an opponent’s strike while the other counterattacks.
And if you look at many Hollywood films, you’ll see most samurai use the two-blade technique. It doesn’t matter if it’s a samurai duel or an all-out melee. The principle is sound, and the results are unquestionable.
Musashi’s First Samurai Duel
Musashi’s first-ever samurai duel occurred in 1596 against the arrogant yet terribly-talented swordsman Arima Kihei. He was only 13 responding to Kihei’s public challenge.
The young Musashi never used a katana in the duel, preferring a six-foot quarterstaff to throw Kihei to the ground and strike him between the eyes. Kihei never had a chance to counterattack because Musashi beat the former relentlessly to death.
A samurai duel on the Ghost of Tsushima. Photo on Samurai-Gamers.com.
Musashi vs. The Yoshioka Clan
In 1604, Musashi traveled to Kyoto and faced the Yoshioka Clan’s formidable swordsmen. Of the many Yoshioka masters who tested Musashi’s samurai dueling techniques, thinking they could defeat the up-and-rising sword-saint, three stood out.
This samurai duel was a classic contest using wooden training swords or Bokken. Whoever delivers a single blow to an opponent wins. Musashi was lightning-quick in his strike, breaking Seijuro’s arm and forcing the latter to retire as Yoshioka Ryu head.
Seijuro’s defeat at the hands of Musashi didn’t go well with the former’s brother, Denshichiro. He challenged Musashi to regain the Yoshioka clan’s honor. Musashi accepted and, employing his “manipulate timing” philosophy, intentionally angered Denshichiro by arriving at the dueling venue late. Although the antagonists used Bokken, Musashi was so devastating in his blows that a single strike on Denshichiro’s head was enough to put the Yoshioka name in tatters.
Unable to accept Seijuro and Denshichiro’s defeat, 12-year-old Matashichiro challenged Musashi to regain the family honor. However, Musashi sensed a trap. So, he arrived at the venue early and hid.
Matashichiro arrived with a band of men carrying bows, swords, and rifles. He commanded his men to hide for an ambush. Musashi sprang from his hiding place, charged Matashichiro, and cut his head clean. Seeing this, Youshioka men surrounded Musashi. It was here that the now-legendary swordsman drew a second sword.
Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro: Cementing a Legend
The one-on-one combat between Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro is undeniably the most popular samurai duel in Japan’s history.
You have two great warriors with diametrically opposite philosophies. Kojiro was the epitome of a mainstream samurai, serving as the Shogun’s martial arts teacher. He is a respected and feared samurai, embodying the tenets of the Bushido code.
Meanwhile, Musashi doesn’t care about how others perceive him. His single-minded focus was on defeating the enemy.
In 1612, the two protagonists agreed to a samurai duel on an island. Unsurprisingly, Kojiro was on time, well-dressed, and wielded a purposely-forged, slightly-longer-than-usual Japanese sword.
Unfortunately for Kojiro, Musashi knew these tactics. So, he created a longer Bokken from a boat’s oar to negate Kojiro’s sword-reach advantage. Musashi also arrived late and in dirty, ragged clothes. He wants to anger Kojiro and influence the latter’s focus and concentration.
Both warriors attacked simultaneously. Although Kojiro nicked Musashi’s clothes, the latter delivered a devastating blow to Kojiro’s head. In the second attack, Musashi executed a perfectly-timed slash across Kojiro’s throat, crushing him and ending the duel with Kojiro’s death.
The Musashi-Kojiro duel exemplifies many of Musashi’s sword fighting principles. Unsurprisingly, many schools adopted these philosophies into their training, paving the way for future samurai duelists.
The Musashi-Kojiro samurai duel monument in Ganryu Island, Shimonoseki. Photo on Muza-Chan’s Gate to Japan.
Historians say a samurai duel is rare, even in feudal Japan. However, we cannot ignore the fact that a one-on-one combat between two formidable warriors is worth beholding. Musashi’s sword fighting skills and cunning make him Japan’s true sword-saint. His principles remain crucial in many Iaido schools. You might want to learn these philosophies if you need to win your first samurai duel.