Swordsmanship and Personality - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Swordsmanship and Personality

Armstrong State University

Katsu Kokichi’s autobiography is not the sort of story one would expect from a samurai, particularly the author’s ethically questionable conduct throughout the book. Samurai are generally regarded as a superior class of honorable warriors who live and die by the sword. Musui’s Story, however, is not a tale of epic battles and greatness in combat; it is a story about a samurai who uses his wits more than his blade throughout a life of financial ups and downs, social relationships, and valuable life lessons. Although Katsu stresses the importance of swordsmanship throughout his story, he demonstrates that a samurai can live a fulfilling life by not only knowing how to fight, but by knowing how to influence people without drawing his sword, as well.

Portrait of a Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, ca. 1800
Portrait of a Japanese swordsman,
Miyamoto Musashi, ca. 1800

Katsu, like other samurai, values the knowledge of swordsmanship and mentions it often throughout his story. In his adolescent and young adult years, he put forth great effort in developing his skill as a swordsman, and he even declares that “I had resolved that if need be I would die by the sword” (65). He spends much of his time studying fencing under a variety of masters, and often challenges rivals to matches in order to test his skill and increase his renown. After he gains notoriety he “[sticks] a two foot eight inch sword at [his] side and swagger[s] about as though [he] were a regular swordmaster” (51), and he seems to find himself in many confrontations as a young man. He also learns about the quality of swords and practices decapitation techniques on executed criminals. One can tell that he places great value on the way of the sword. Katsu also believes that “[a] sword is a samurai’s most prized possession and should be chosen with great care” (48). He does not, however, put great emphasis on actual combat. Most of his stories involving actual sword fighting do not include commentary on technique or honorable actions. Many times when he confronts an opponent, the man he challenges runs away without drawing his sword. He does not discuss death in battle. Although he acts bravely during the fight with multiple pike men in Banba-ch?, he admits that “I was never so scared in my life” (48). Katsu’s skill with the sword allows him to avoid many fights and, as he matures, he seems to draw his sword less and less as a way to solve his problems.

Although Katsu does not participate in, or at least does not mention, an excessive number of battles as an adult, he applies the philosophy of swordsmanship to other aspects of his life in order to become victorious in social situations. During one of the many instances in which he tries to help someone out of debt. He uses his skill in manipulation rather than his sword. His observation that “I thought then how important it was in life to strike at the right moment” (142) shows that he is able to think of social situations in much the same way he views combat. However, he does not necessarily use force in his dealings with people to get what he wants. Oftentimes, he circumvents the potential for confrontation by forming close relationships with would-be rivals. For example, when he hears of Shimada Toranosuke, an “accomplished swordsman [who is] feared as much for his quick temper as for his skills” (111), he prevents a possible altercation by inviting the man to dine with him and join him in various adventures in town. Toranosuke becomes impressed with Katsu and tells everyone that “the retired Katsu will come to no harm in the Yoshiwara” (118). Katsu is a samurai who is confident in his own skill with the sword, but he is also very skilled in the art of human relationships.

Even though Katsu disagrees that he is a hero, and despite his questionable morals in certain situations, Musui’s Story reads much like the adventures of a heroic samurai during the Tokugawa period. Katsu lies, cheats, and steals throughout the book, which precludes him from being a typical hero of medieval literature. However, his successes and failures in life have a romantic quality that make him a likeable person. Much of his charisma comes from his understanding of human nature rather than his swordsmanship. When he says “if samurai insist on walking around with their noses stuck up in the air, they’ll never learn what’s what in this world” (151), he demonstrates a level of wisdom that far surpasses the value of knowing how to wield a sword.

About the author

A senior of English major and history minor, Lisa Bringhurst will receive her BA degree with honor in May 2011.

Recommended citation

Lisa Bringhurst, “Swordsmanship and Personality,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).


Katsu K?kichi. Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Translated by Teruko Craig. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

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