Musashi's Names

Names are one of the most inconstant factors in medieval Japanese texts. Birth, coming of age, succession, profession, high office, retirement, and death all had to find their expression in a person’s name, and there are few, if any, persons of any significance in medieval Japan who went through life under one single name. Musashi himself is a case in point. In all, there are some nine different names ascribed to Musashi, all associated with a different period in his life, different ways in which he was mentioned, and by individuals who occupied a different status in life that Musashi.

According to the Bushū denraiki Musashi’s infant name, or yōmyō (幼名), was Bennosuke (弁助). This would have been the name by which he was known and called until he reached the age of his so-called genpuku, the Shinto ceremony marking a boy’s entry into adult life, usually before the age of twenty. For this Bennosuke and his father would have visited the shrine of their family patron, where Muni would have presented Bennosuke with his adult attire, have his forehead shaven (see Musashi’s Appearance), and given him his adult name of Harunobu (玄信). This was probably sometime during the period he and his father had reconciled and both were living in the port of Nakatsu, on the northern shore of the island of Kyushu.

It is not certain where Muni derived the name of Harunobu (玄信), yet everything suggests that he was alluding to the great warlord Takeda Shingen, whose given name was also Harunobu, though spelled somewhat differently (晴信). This part of Musashi’s given name is perhaps least understood, as it is often read as Genshin. Cause for this confusion is the fact that, in old age, Muashi took on the dharma name of Genshin, which is written with the exact same characters as Harunobu, but pronounced according to the on-yomi, or the Chinese-style reading of the Chinese characters. According to Japanese tradition, however, a given name, or imina (), should be pronounced according to the kun-yomi, which is the Japanese reading of the Chinese character, hence Harunobu. During his lifetime, then, his given name would have been pronounced as Harunobu and not Genshin.

Dharma names were bestowed by priests when taking the tonsure and pronouced by their on-yomi. Generally referred to as dōgō (道号), Musashi had to address another important aspect of his life as a warrior: how to assess his life’s accomplishments and find peace with his own mortality. Both the Bushū denraiki and the Bukōden mention that, during Musashi's last years in Kumamoto, his monastic friend Akiyama Wanao (1618–73) gave him the spiritual name of Niten Dōraku (二天道楽), which may be crudely translated as the “Niten dilettante.” Niten, of course, was a reference to his renamed school of swordsmanship, the Niten Ichi-ryū.

The same is true for posthumous names, although these were referred to as okurina (諡). Thus the Tōsakushi claims Musashi’s posthumous name was Genshin Niten (玄信二天). Interestingly, Musashi’s dharma, as well as his posthumous name of Genshin, is spelled with the exact same characters as the dharma name of Takeda Shingen (信玄), although this time in reverse order—another strong indication that Muni was alluding to the great warlord when he named his son.

In medieval Japan, however, it was considered a grave insult to address someone by their given name, especially by someone lower in status. It was believed that to pronounce someone’s given name gave the speaker leverage over one’s spirit, reasons for which it would sometimes be invoked when putting a spell on someone. Real names, therefore, were only used by those who were senior in position to its wearer, such as one’s father or one’s lord. People of the same status were expected to address a person by his so-called kemyō (仮名) or tsūshō (通称). In Harunobu’s case this was Musashi (武蔵).

It is not certain from where Muni took the name of Musashi. Yet it is quite likely that Muni was inspired by the beautiful plains of Musashi, through which he would undoubtedly have travelled on his many visits to Edo. Situated west of Edo the plains stretched all the way from Yotsuya to the Pacific coast. Already in 1290 the court lady Gofukakusa Nijō (1258–1306) recorded in her diary how struck she was by the beauty of the plains, as she returned from a pilgrimage to the Zenkō temple in Nagano in the autumn. Its vast, undulating fields of pampas grasses, she recorded, “grow so tall that even a man on horseback disappears from view,” and after three days of traveling she had lost all sense of where she was.

For his many deshi, as well as his later followers, it would have been unthinkable to address the swordmaster either by the name Musashi or Harunobu. Instead they would use a so-called sobriquet to express their reverence for their master. Thus, Tanji Hōkin generally refers to him as Bushū (武州), the old way of referring to the province of Musashi and a way of expressing one’s respect. Hence the book’s title Bushū denraiki, or “An Introduction to Bushū.”  The same is true for the Bukōden, although its author instead uses the honorary title of Bukō (武公), or military leader.

As was quite common in Japan and elsewhere at the time, it was from his birthplace of Miyamoto (宮本), either in Harima of Mimasaka, that Musashi derived his name. Hence, by the time the swordsman has reached the age of twenty-one, and he fights his series of duels with the members of the Yoshioka clan, he is referred to by most of the records as Miyamoto Musashi. The Yoshioka-den, simply refers to Miyamoto Musashi, although it claims that Musashi hailed from the northern province of Echizen. The same is true for the Harima kagami, which clearly links the swordsman’s name to the eponymous village in Harima. The Tōsakushi also refers to him as Miyamoto Musashi, though it claims he was a native of Mimasaka (see Musashi’s Birthplace).

Many of the early records refer to the swordsman not by the name of Miyamoto, but by his father’s family name of Shinmen (新免). Thus, at the outset of his biography, Hōkin introduces his subject as Shipmen Musashi no Kami Genshin (新免武蔵守玄信), Kami being [expand], as in Dewa no Kami, or Izumi no Kami (see Musashi’s Benefactors). Similarly, the Bukōden introduces him as “master Shinmen Musashi Fujiwara Genshin. It seems that the early biographers simply followed the example of Musashi’s son, Iori, whose Monument to his father reads “Epitaph of Shinmen Musashi Genshin.”

The Honchō bugei shoden introduces another variant, namely Miyamoto Musashi Seimei (宮本武蔵政名). It is not clear where its author, Hinatsu Shigetaka, derived the name Seimei, though in all likelihood it had its origin in one of Musashi’s early schools of swordsmanship, which, according to the same record, was called Hinoshita Kaizan Shinmei Miyamoto Musashi Seimei-ryū (日下開山神明宮本武蔵政名流). The widely known name of Musashi’s initial name for his style of swordsmanship, however, was Enmei-ryū. The only other records to refer to Musashi by the name of Seimei are the Tōsakushi and the Mimasaka ryakushi, yet it is quite certain that both records simply followed Shigetaka’s example.

Yet another variety on the same name is presented by the Heidō kagami one of the first records attributed to Musashi. A short treatise of a several dozen articles on his art of swordsmanship. It is signed Miyamoto Musashi no Kami Fujiwara Yoshitsugu (宮本武蔵守藤原義輕). Today, several copies of the Heidō kagami exist, though their provenance is disputed by Japanese historians. It was very common in Musashi’s day to use pen names, but Yoshitsugu would not have been a logical choice. Niten, however, would have been, and Musashi did indeed use that name in some of his letters (even before he moved to Kumamoto).

The final word on Musashi’s real name should, of course, be given to the swordsman himself. In the Book of Five Rings Musashi introduces himself as Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara Harunobu (新免武蔵守藤原玄信). It is clear why Musashi did so. Shinmen, after all, was the clan into which his father had married. They were also an ancient breed of warriors who had been involved in Emperor Godaigo’s (1288–1339) failed attempt to restore powers to the throne. That involvement had led to exile, an exile from which they were eventually allowed to return and resume their role under the name of Shinmen, or “newly absolved.” Given than his father was a Shinmen, for Musashi, his family name, or kamei (家名) was also Shinmen.

Less easy to explain is Musashi’s claim to Fujiwara descent. The Fujiwara had ruled the realm by proxy throughout the Heian period (794–1185). As such they had successfully kept in check two great military clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, thereby maintaining the effeminate world of the court nobility. That world had been swept away by the ascent of the Taira (Heike), the great military clan from the province of Ise, who finally lost out to the Minamoto (Genji) in that epic struggle of the Genpei War (1180–85). From then onwards court rule had made place for a world of martial rule that would last for more than six centuries.

Musashi’s way of presenting his name (whether it is in the Heidō kagami, or his Book of Five Rings) is the traditional way of presenting all one’s various names—indeed, given all the ???, he was probably the only one with the freedom to do so. This required that one’s names should be presented in the order: kamei, kemyō, uji, and imina. Thus, his family name was Shinmen, his ??? name was Musashi no Kami, his ancestral name was Fujiwara, and his given name was Harunobu.

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