The Book Of Five Rings was written by the samurai sword master Miyamoto Musashi while living in a mountain cave shortly before his death in 1645. The book book is essentially a guide for those who want to learn how to use a sword, but it can also be used, in Musashi's words, as "a guide for men who want to learn strategy". Musashi's Book Of Five Rings quickly became one of the most important books for students of kendo (the way of the sword), but because of its double-edged quality, it has also found its way onto the bookshelves of leading Japanese businessmen who applied its teachings to business strategy.
So, who was Miyamoto Musashi, and what is the unique appeal of his book? Musashi was born in 1584, towards the end of the Warring States period. The Tokugawa Shogunate was established by Tokugawa Hideyoshi in 1603 when Musashi was just nine years old. The Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in a new period of stability in Japan and the disbanding of provincial armies. A lot of samurai, including the young Musashi, found themselves out of work and those who lacked land holdings wandered Japan as "ronin" or "masterless samurai".
Many of these redundant samurai gave up the sword and became artisans, but Musashi and others devoted themselves to the study of kendo and set up fencing schools, often sponsored by local lords as places where their sons and retainers could train. Musashi, however, chose to wander Japan devoting himself to the perfection of his sword technique. Perfection of technique was his sole obsession; he did not marry, did not take any care over his appearance, seldom took a bath so as to avoid being surprised without his sword.
Musashi fought on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara against the Tokugawa Shogunate and evaded the victors who hunted down and killed any survivors they could find. He then went on to win more than sixty duels and became a legend in his own time before he had reached the age of thirty.
Musashi was renowned for his "two sword" technique in which he trained himself to fight with a common short sword in one hand and a samurai long sword in the other. So powerful was his technique that in his prime he fought his duels with a wooden sword and still came out victorious.
Musashi's prowess was not limited to sword-fighting, however. He also applied his technique to painting in accordance with his teaching, "Study the Way of all professions" and achieved some striking results that survive to this day.
In The Book Of Five Rings, Musashi divides his teaching into five "books" (actually, they are more like short chapters), which reflect the "Five Great Things" of Buddhism: earth, water, fire, wind, void. The teachings are written in a direct style, which can be understood on several different levels and therefore appeal to all ranks of kendo students.
Also, Musashi explains that his teaching can be applied to individual cases and also to grand strategy because "The strategies makes small things into big things, like building a great Buddha from a small model".
In The Wind Book Musashi criticizes those kendo schools that fix upon one aspect of sword-fighting, such as using a long sword. It is not that he is against long-swords, but he is against the rigidity of basing your whole strategy around the length of a sword, for example, because each case requires its own particular solution or response. It is this flexible quality of the book along with its direct style that has made it so uniquely appealing to modern Japanese businessmen and to anybody else seeking to master all aspects of their profession.
Musashi's The Book Of Five Rings is therefore a classic book of kendo sword-fighting, of grand-strategy, and also an excellent manual for success in the cut-throat world of modern business.