Child of Vengeance

Bob’s Pick: Child of Vengeance by David Kirk

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Japan had a feudal society. The society was organized around competing vassal states. Each state was ruled by a daimyo or “lord” who in turn served allegiance to a shogun or “military overlord”. They all in turn owed obeisance to the “emperor”, who had the status of a deity and was considered by all the spiritual embodiment of Japan. That being said, political and military power in Japan, ironically, did not reside with the emperor but still remained in the hands of the shogun, daimyos and all their noble vassals known collectively as “samurai”.

I initially read this book hoping to gain some insight into the early life of Japan’s greatest samurai, Musashi Miyamoto. What I actually came away with is some elucidation on the workings of Japanese feudal society.

In this fictionalized account, the author would have the reader believe that Musashi was indeed a “child of vengeance.” In the story, the main driving force in Musashi’s life was to avenge the death of his father, Munisai, who died at the hands of a jealous and vengeful daimyo. If that was not enough, at the same time, Musashi also supposedly hated Munisai, his father, because during his childhood, he had allegedly killed his mother, Yoshiko.

What a witches brew to make anyone vengeful! I totally bought into this account until I did some digging and fact checking on my own. The truth is that not much is really known or verifiable about the early history of Musashi. Some accounts have his father living longer than Musashi’s adolescent years and his mom not slain but peacefully retired to a village. Yet, I had to remind myself that this book was not meant to be a biography but a work of fiction.

The takeaway I got from this version of events was that vengeance was indeed a powerful motivator in Japanese feudal society. Samurai greatly believed in personal honor or “face” and would not abide any insult or stain on their reputation. Someone killing one’s daimyo was just as bad if not worse than that person killing one’s family. There is a story from around this same time period of a samurai and 46 of his brethren taking vengeance for the wrongful death of his master and daimyo even after several years had already elapsed. Once a damiyo was killed and his lineage exterminated, samurai and all members of his clan or household lost everything and either killed themselves or became masterless bandits, otherwise known as “ronin”.

To continue with the story in the book, Musashi is raised mostly by his uncles. One uncle, Dorinbo, a Buddhist monk, was a huge influence on Musashi, instilling in him a Zen philosophy on life which profoundly affected his attitude and approach to martial arts and fighting an opponent. As related in Musashi’s later book and instruction manual, “The Book of Five Rings”, Musashi embroidered the philosophical and psychological aspects of combat into his exposition on fighting skills, believing that it was just as important for a samurai to know oneself as well as to know one’s opponent.

Musashi’s technical skills derived from the training he received from his uncle, Tasumi, and his father, Munisai.  Munisai was a renowned swordsman and martial artist in his own right. To be a warrior in feudal Japan, it is unlikely that Musashi could have hoped for a much better teacher. His reputation grew. Much like the gunfighters in the “Old West”. samurai would often challenge each other to duels to prove who was the best. With his training,  Musashi was challenged and able to kill his first opponent at the age of 13 and went on to kill in his lifetime more than 60 opponents.

One could question what is to be admired about this cold blooded killer, this Musashi. Certainly not the fact that he had the blood of over 60 people on his hands. Yet, he was the product of his times and could be considered today an extreme example of social Darwinism (1). He had to use his skill and his wits to survive challengers to his life; he did survive and by process of elimination, ultimately became the best.

When he was employed by others he was also a fine soldier and served his benefactors well. Not to be admired so much for his proficiency at killing his enemies but by virtue of the fact that he was able to use his will to survive, his mind, his belief system, his adaptability, his perseverance, his ingenuity, and his self determination to overcome and rise above the adversities that life brought him are Musashi’s special qualities that in themselves are to be marveled at and admired. He was above all else the quintessential embodiment of a true “samurai”.

 “Child of Vengeance” is volume 1 of 2 of a fictionalized account on the life of Musashi. Volume 1 recounts the early years in the life of Musashi. Volume 2, “Sword of Honor”, encompasses his later years.

(1)“Social Darwinism” was a popular theory of the late 19th and early 20th centuries based upon the ideas of “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection” as postulated in the works of Charles Darwin. George Bernard Shaw is said to have been a writer who was influenced by this theory