Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1935, Eiji Yoshikawa was a middle-aged journeyman writer who was still searching for his true voice as an artist. Born Hidetsugu Yoshikawa in 1892 in Kanagawa Prefecture, he left school at the age of 11 to help support his family after his samurai father’s attempt at business fell to pieces. After working on the docks of Yokohama, Yoshikawa escaped to Tökyö at age 18 where he lived a mundane existence during the day but dabbled in the city’s literary underworld at night. Lonely and homesick, Yoshikawa wandered into an informal poetry circle and began conjuring comic haiku under the pen name Kijiro as he struggled to survive in his new home.
In 1914, on a whim, Yoshikawa wrote his first novel, “The Tale of Enoshima,” a lyrical retelling of a local legend filled with goddesses, five-headed dragons and dark magic. Based on the promise of his inaugural book, the Japanese publishing powerhouse Kodansha hired Yoshikawa to write profitable serializations such as “Life of Shinran,” the story of the Buddhist monk who pursued knowledge of the afterlife following the early death of his parents. Armed with a steady income and a new wife, Yoshikawa settled down to a comfortable but predictable life in Tökyö while he continued to yearn for his true direction.
By the 1930s, as the Great Depression fully descended on Japan and the rise of ultranationalism sank its teeth into the people, the 43-year-old author escaped further into the past to find his bearings. In 1935, Yoshikawa began a serialization of the life of Miyamoto Musashi, the ascetic 17th century warrior philosopher who embodied the bushidö spirit of preindustrial Japan. Appearing in over a thousand daily episodes over a span of four years, Yoshikawa’s rousing epic captivated the Japanese public from the very start.
In Yoshikawa’s imagining, Musashi was a lone wolf, rejecting all attachment to any patron, romantic love or formal schooling. Often homeless and impoverished, Musashi was unfettered to any philosophy, fashion or faith and indiscriminate of any particular strategy or weapon on the battlefield.
Born in Harima Province in today’s Hyögö Prefecture in 1584, the real-life Miyamoto Musashi was an unrepentant loner who was often brutal and unforgiving in battle. At the age of 13, Musashi killed an unknown traveling swordsman who had challenged the teenager to a duel. Abandoning all ties to the material world, Musashi wandered across Japan using his unique two-sword technique and a promiscuous selection of feudal weapons to fight more than sixty duels without a defeat.
During Musashi’s lifetime, Japan was enjoying a rare outbreak of peace after enduring an eternity of bloody conflict. In grim succession, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu forged a modern nation out of a collection of warring states. The newfound calm allowed the broken shards of several defeated armies to regain their strength and roam the countryside at will. It was in this crack in history that the Musashi legend grew. However, 17th-century Japan was already changing. With peace, the ability to buy and sell became more prized and merchants soon superseded the samurai in social status. As the very ground below them began to change, the samurai were slow to adapt. In a world without war, the samurai clung devotedly to the sword even though the Portuguese had already introduced the much deadlier matchlock musket. As they continued to celebrate the past, the familiar world that the samurai had dominated for centuries was already slipping away.
Yoshikawa’s historical fiction captures all of these cultural temblors, but, ultimately, is rooted in the rising tension of Musashi’s attempt to balance spiritual enlightenment with the Way of the Sword. Beginning with the wayward rönin awakening on the ruined battlefield of Sekigahara, surrounded by enemy patrols, muted corpses and human scavengers, Yoshikawa follows the curve of the legendary swordsman’s youth as it arcs its way to the final conclusive battle on windswept Ganryu Island. What makes Yoshikawa’s saga so beguiling is the unbridled serendipity that Yoshikawa injects into his tale by introducing a constellation of quirky characters that spontaneously meet, separate, than rediscover each other as they connect the dots of Musashi’s peripatetic life. Yoshikawa leaned on historical happenings and people to undergird his story but introduced new characters and novel events to enliven the spine of his narrative.
Much as the American West at the end of the 19th century dominates American mythology, the Japan of the early 17th century has never faded from Japanese memory. Yoshikawa’s paean to a bygone era would help seed samurai values into the soil of contemporary Japan and inspire more than fourteen other books, seven films, multiple theatrical productions and even a television mini series based on Musashi’s nomadic life.
“Contrary to the picture of the modern Japanese as merely group-oriented ‘economic animals,’ the Japanese prefer to see themselves as fiercely individualistic, high-principled, self-disciplined and aesthetically sensitive modern-day Musashis,” concluded the distinguished Harvard educator, historian and former American ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer. “Both pictures have some validity, illustrating the complexity of the Japanese soul behind the seemingly bland and uniform exterior.”
In the end, just as Americans may see themselves as the rugged, solitary cowboy on the untamed frontier, Yoshikawa’s “Musashi” is a glimpse into Japan’s mythological past and perhaps a prescient insight into its present and future.
Eiji Yoshikawa went on to pen several other historical epics such as “The Tale of the Heike” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” but he would never again enjoy the popular success that he achieved with “Musashi.” Yoshikawa died of cancer in 1962 after having been presented the Cultural Order of Merit, the highest literary award in Japan, in 1960.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai’i Herald staff writer.