Profile--Eiji Yoshikawa

by Joel Van Valin

If we can attain a spirit of the caliber of Musashi's, we won't have any trouble getting over the defeat.
- Fan letter to Eiji Yoshikawa, 1949

In 1936, just before the outbreak of war with China, Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper began serializing a novel about the folk hero Musashi. The author was Eiji Yoshikawa, a bestselling writer who had already won a large audience with his adventurous Secret Record of Naruto. Musashi was soon released in book form and was very popular among soldiers on the front. From this one might expect the book to be soaked in blood and nationalism, but in fact it is a highly individualistic, even romantic tale, and its hero spends more pages questing for spiritual enlightenment than fighting with sword. The young Japanese men, many of them conscripts with little love for their militaristic government, found in Musashi a hero they identified with. Like them Musashi sought to maintain discipline and forbearance in a calamitous time. Also like them, Musashi had to stare death in the eye, knowing each moment might be his last. By the time he arrived at his famous showndown with Sasaki Kojiro, he had learned, by following "they way of the sword", to part with life without regret:

To Musashi's eyes, life and death seemed like so much froth. He felt goose pimples on his skin, not from the cold water but because his body felt a premonition. Though his mind had risen above life and death, body and mind were not in accord. When every pore of his body, as well as his mind, forgot, there would remain nothing inside his being but the water and the clouds.

Yoshikawa himself must have had such thoughts. He had been in a near-fatal accident working on the Yokohama docks when he was eighteen, had lived through the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, and served in China as a correspondent for Asahi Shimbun during the war. Born Hidetsugo Yoshikawa in 1892, he had to leave school at age eleven due to his father's failed business. In addition to dock work he was an apprentice in a gold lacquer shop, but it was a love of comical haiku that first drew him towards the literary world. In 1914 his "Tale of Enoshima" won first prize in a literary competition sponsored by the publisher Kodansha, and he soon became one of their top writers. After using a dozen or more pen names he finally settled on Yoshikawa Eiji for his first novel, Sword Trouble, Woman Trouble (1923). There is no English translation for this work but one can easily imagine its swashbuckling contents. In the 1930s he became more introspective and gravitated towards historical fiction, including the novels Shinran and Musashi.

The latter is based on a real 17th century samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, best known for his two sword fighting technique and authoring a treatise of combat called Gorin no sho (The Book of Five Rings), whose tactics of delay and confusion are now applied by Japanese executives in the business arena. Little else of his life is known for certain, but there are many legends. For example he is said to have used a wooden sword after accidentally killing a boy who had challenged him to a duel, and to have eschewed bathing after an incident where he was almost ambushed naked in a bathhouse. His feud with the samurai of the Yoshioko school is well known, as is his clash with the warrior monks of Hozoin in Nara and the fight with Kojiro.

Yoshikawa includes all of these anecdotes in his novel, and brings other real life personages into the story--the monk Takuan, for example, who takes the loutish youth Takezo, a fugitive from the battle of Sekigahara, and imprisons him for three years in Himeji castle with Sun-tzu's Art of War and other books of learning. When Takezo reemerges into the light he has been transformed into the honorable Musashi, and much of the rest of the book is taken up with his ronin wanderings in the following years. He practices swordsmanship, visits temples, fights outlaws, takes on apprentices and even tries his hand at farming, all the while gaining a reputation as a formidable warrior. On his travels he is pursued by Otsu, his childhood sweetheart, who becomes more in love even as he grows more elusive, and the mother of his friend Matahachi, who is bent on revenge for talking her son into the losing side of a war. A cross between Robin Hood and Don Quixote, the book is noble and sardonic by turns, richly peopling Japan of the 1600s with dozens of characters, including monks, courtesans, craftsmen and peasants. The most memorable is Musashi's rival Kojiro, a winning, careless young man with a pony tail and a pet monkey, who is likable in spite of his vanity. In all ways he is the opposite of Musashi, who is led by spiritual introspection to humility and stoicism:

Kojiro had put his confidence in the sword of strength and skill. Musashi trusted in the sword of the spirit. That was the only difference between them.

Musashi resembles the novels of Dickens in that it was initially serialized, and also in the many coincidental character meetings and winding, thousand page narrative. It's a glorious, sprawling pageant of a book, and an important one too. Although younger writers like Mishima and Murakami are more stylistically "literary", their creations do not live in the hearts of the people like Yoshikawa's Musashi. Particularly the hearts of the generation that fought World War II. "In the experience of those of us who matured during wartime--for whom life ended at twenty--Miyamoto Musashi was the most accessible book that showed us what to do to live as best we could," explains literary critic Ozaki Hotsuki. "For we young people of the time, living essentially meant imminent death, and Musashi gave us a compass upon which to fix our life's course." Edwin O. Reischauer adds, "Musashi might well be called the Gone with the Wind of Japan."

Yoshikawa followed up the successful novel with Taiko (1937), which takes place in the 16th century and concerns Toyotomi Hideyoshi, known as "the Taiko", a farmer's son who became general to Oda Nobunaga and after his death attempted to follow through with his master's vision of a united Japan. Hideyoshi in turn was succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who formed the Tokugawa shogunate after he won the battle of Sekigahara. Musashi is said to have fought on the wrong side of Sekigahara, and the battle provides the opening scene to the novel. The Tokugawa family ruled for two hundred and fifty years, until the Emperor was returned to power with the Meiji government (1868). Thus Yoshikawa, himself from an old samurai family, grew up under the shadow of a regime that had begun in Musashi's day. It was a languorous, twilight era, memorably depicted in Mishima's Spring Snow, with the feudal order of the samurai dying out and Western civilization infringing from all directions. Taiko and Musashi, then, should not be thought of as a wartime call to arms but rather a yearning to return to an earlier, perhaps simpler order of things, an individualistic world where a single man could hold land independently and defend it with a handful of retainers.

During the 1950s and '60s, interest in samurai culture waned. The unifying leaders of the past--Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Sakamoto Ryoma (who contributed to the Meiji Restoration)--were seen as heroes of management, as Japan built itself out of the rubble into an economic dynamo. But the economic downturn of the 1990s left many disillusioned and longing for the spiritual, rather than material, Japan. At present Musashi has never been more popular; he is the subject of numerous films, mini-series, and comic books. Yoshikawa himself, however, remains obscure, a writer whose characters, like those of Arthur Conan Doyle and A.A. Milne, are destined to outshine him. Twice married, he died of cancer in 1962, not long after receiving the Cultural Merit Award. It is Japan's foremost award for artistic achievement, and Eiji Yoshikawa was the first popular author to receive it.

Author's note: All quotes from Musashi are from the Charles S. Terry English translation. The Reischauer quote is from his forward to the same translation. The Ozaki Hotsuki quote and the line from the fan letter are from a very informative Yoshikawa article by Nawata Kazuo in Japanese Book News. Three Yoshikawa novels are available in English at the present time: Musashi, Taiko, and The Heiké Story.

2005 by Joel Van Valin.
Joel Van Valin is the publisher of Whistling Shade and the author of the fantasy novel The Flower of Clear Burning. Every spring he goes on pilgrimage.