Musashi lived at Himeji Castle Musashi lived at Himeji Castle
Classic Japanese Tea Room Classic Japanese Tea Room

Historical Context of the
Book of Five Rings

Musashi was born in the final stage of 400 years of civil war.  After the 12th century weakening of the Emperor's power, the provincial lords (daimyo) struggled to maintain and increase their power and rule the nation as Shogun (military dictator).  As always, the wars divided and impoverished the country.  Finally, in 1573, Oda Nobunaga, gained the upper hand thorough a more practical application of the rifle as a weapon.  Nine years later, after his assassination a commoner, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, took over.  Hideyoshi was tough as nails, possibly due to experiences rising through the ranks of the nobility.  He ruthlessly enforced a regulation that prevented non-samurai from wearing a long sword.  His heartless efficiency helped subdue the rebellious masses but civil strife was not completely extinguished.  Things came to a head in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu, a former ally of both Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, defeated Hideyoshi's son, Hideyori at the battle of Sekigahara.  Tokugawa's rules were many and detailed, practical but heartless, strict but effective. 

Musashi's own cruel behaviour has to be seen in comparison to the rulers of his time who set the standards. If you study Japanese history at the time you will understand, perhaps, why Mushashi ruled as he did.

Tokugawa moved the capital to Tokyo, turning it from a forgettable village into a major city.  The roads were designed to be hard to navigate, to thwart invades.  The castle was strong and the rules kept Tokugawa's family in power for nearly 300 years.  There were now four classes of people.  From highest to lowest they were:

  samurai
  farmers
  artisans
  merchants

The system had contradictions. The Samurai were the highest class, but in peacetime many of them were unemployed and broke, but armed.  The farmers were second, but poor and forbidden to travel.  The merchants were wealthy but the lowest class.

It is rarely spoken of, but there was a fifth class, the burakujin (); people considered literally too unclean to count.  These stateless people were undocumented and therefore open to abuse.  You sometimes see them in samurai films living on the outskirts of town with their own impenetrable social structure.

 

Musashi souvenir items Musashi souvenir items
Musashi Museum Musashi Museum

Recently in Japan there has been a Musashi revival due to a TV series based on the Yoshikawa novel which is based on his life. Although the novel doesn't contradict the known facts of his life it add an interesting love triangle for the women viewers.