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The Five Wheeler Treaty [1]

History & strategy
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What's this all about? The Treatise of the Five Wheels is a work of strategy and tactics written at the end of his life by Miyamoto Musashi (1645). It is the result of an introspection of his past and experience. The treatise brings together principles that the famous samurai applied to the practice of the martial art in which he excelled (ken-jutsu), explaining that what is written in his manual applies to one man as well as to a thousand fighters.

The interest of the subject lies in the knowledge of the other. Cartesian thinking focuses on the goal to be achieved. "I want to get there, which way should I go"? This is followed by an analysis of all the possibilities for achieving the goal. Reasoning takes precedence. Asian thinking is more pragmatic. It is based on the use of possibilities. "Where do I know how to go, where does it lead me? As the Asians say, in every truth there is an element of error "that will take over later", so there is no absolute truth.

Thus, Asian strategists insist on the idea that victory is the goal of war, while Western strategists insist on using these means to achieve the goal. In reality, these two ways of thinking complement each other and converge towards comparable principles.

When the Western military man, in search of knowledge about the art of war, tries to "decentralize his thinking" and looks to the East, he is faced with two options: one Chinese, the other Japanese. For China, Sun Tzu (544-496 B.C.) appears to be self-evident, while for Japan it is Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) and his "Treatise on the Five Wheels" (Gorin no sho)which he thinks of.

Miyamoto MusashiHis real name Takezö Shinmen 2] was born in 1584 in Japan. At that time, the internal wars that ravaged the archipelago were coming to an end. His birth coincided with a period of upheaval and profound changes. Indeed, until then and for centuries, Japan has been plagued by internal struggles that have pitted the local lords against each other, undermining the emperor's authority. In reality, the country was divided, civil war was incessant, and the samurai were constantly rising up against their lords in order to overthrow the hierarchical order. In 1573, a new shogun, Oda Nobunaga and begins a unification of the country that is being completed by his successor. Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1585, the latter was appointed Grand Chancellor of the Imperial Court and the following year, Minister of Supreme Affairs (dajodaîjin). The era that then began also marked the end of the social order. It is also a period of peace and stability that begins.

The young Musashi is a precocious and ambitious boy. He grows up dreaming of becoming a samurai and participating in battles that give him the opportunity to gain glory. His intention is to be hired as a samurai by a great lord. He is the son of a fine swordsman named Mu-nisai...then rönin, i.e. samurai without master. So our man grew up in the world of martial arts. But the relationship between the child and his father is strained. According to the testimonies of his disciples, the authors of his biography, the young rebel has the habit of mocking his father. One day, the latter no longer restrains himself, and throws a knife at him, which the child avoids with poise. The father's relationship is over and the young man, driven out of his village, finds refuge with a maternal uncle, a monk, who lives in a seclusion in a temple in a nearby village. When he is only thirteen years old, our young man challenges a samurai namedArima KiheiHe managed to knock him down and split his skull open with a log [3]. 3] At eighteen, he took part as a simple soldier in the battle of Sekigahara (20-21 October 1600). During this battle, he was one of the losers and was forced to flee to save his head. Eventually he found himself rönin, like his father, and his dream of becoming a samurai gradually fades away. He understands then that he was born too late.

In the period of peace that is beginning, it soon becomes clear to him that the only way to make a name for himself is to challenge renowned great masters to a duel. He therefore chose the individual path to showcase his technique. He then set out to travel the country, living like the itinerant samurai of his time, that is to say in a rustic way and without a fixed abode, in the mountains. He practiced knife throwing for hunting, washed himself in the tumultuous waters of the torrents... He began an austere life that hardened him. This ascetic life goes hand in hand with the practice of the sword, which supposes the spiritual strength linked to any search for perfection. His assiduous training includes a physical dimension, a spiritual dimension and a technical dimension. In addition, he exercises nervous resistance in order to endure the solitude imposed by his way of life. At the age of twenty-one, here he is, a strong lad. He has already travelled all over his country and has distinguished himself in several duels.

Undefeated until then, he feels ready to take a step that would allow him to acquire "fame". He went to Kyoto, the imperial capital, where he provoked a duel between the two men. Yoshioka Seijuro...leader of a clan of illustrious swordsmen and the best swordsman in the region. Musashi prepares his fight meticulously. He gathers all possible information about his opponent (technique, manias, character...). On the day of the duel, his opponent, surrounded by his disciples, is waiting. Musashi does not show up. His opponent becomes impatient and loses his nerves. When Musashi appears, the famous "scrapper", furious, is in such a state of annoyance that his technique does not allow him to win the fight and he is killed. A few days later, the younger brother of the deceased tries to avenge his elder brother.

Our man uses the same technique and makes his opponent wait for long hours... The same causes produce the same effects. Then the whole clan Yoshioka who demands vengeance! We're talking about nearly eighty people, armed with swords, bows and even guns. The location of the confrontation is set. But on the day of the meeting, Musashi arrives at dawn at the scene of the confrontation, examines its terrain, hides and waits for the arrival of the "small army" which, accustomed to its whimsical opponent, goes to the scene as a dilettante. Musashi Jumps from his hiding place, rushes at the clan chief (a 15-year-old child), chops off his head and flees in a parade that he has spotted in advance. We follow him, but in the course of his wandering, our man has developed his own technique: he is armed with a large sword (katana),which he wields with his left hand, and a small sword (wakisaki). It is then revolutionary. He wields them at the same time and independently. According to his biographers, his technique enables him to resist the cloud of opponents that assails him. He comes out unscathed from the confrontation... He is credited with a total of sixty duels, all victorious, which he carries out before the age of thirty.

Musashi is not just an outstanding swordsman. Between two fights, his thirst for knowledge led him to devote himself to Noh theatre, dance, singing, painting, urban planning... He discovers in the arts the same principles he observed in the art of the sword, notably "the existence of rhythm and its effects". The thirty-year-old, measuring the limits of his physical condition, then directs his reflection towards the awakening of his inner life.

At the end of his life, he takes refuge in the home of a great lord of the province of Kumamato in Kyûshû, a certain Hosokawa ardent defender of his theses. He then wrote: "At the age of fifty, I had the Revelation on the art of the sword. From then on, I no longer needed to search for the way". He therefore gave himself over to calligraphy. But his lord died prematurely. Our man then left the house where he had taken refuge and chose a cave on the hillside as his home, where he began to write his treaty, a sort of will.

His works are written on five separate scrolls of parchment, which refer to the five elements of the Japanese tradition and which are as many elementary building blocks of the universe. Everything that exists is governed by the balance of these five elements [4]: earth, water, fire, wind, and emptiness:

  • theearth, where he makes a comparison between the military leader and the master carpenter. He defines the skills that must be acquired; the choice of the woods used (types of troops), the tools (armament), his collaborators (management, allied troops), which must allow him to carry out his work. Like the person in charge of operations, the master carpenter must choose the woods according to their quality and their use in a house. His tools must be sharpened and maintained and he must know the defects and qualities of his subordinates in order to assign them a task to suit them;

  • water, where techniques and methods for forging himself physically or intellectually are exposed. He explains how to keep the vigilance of the spirit, how to keep one's gaze, how to hold a sword and use it, the positions of the warrior, etc. According to him, the spirit must be like water, which adapts itself to all vessels. In this paragraph, he evokes the attitude to be observed in front of an adversary that one seeks to hit, to make him lose his footing, to annoy... He concludes this part by saying : "a thousand days of training to forge, ten thousand days of training to polish", which gives the drill its full value;

  • fire,where the tactics to adopt are evoked. Fire is the matter of the battle which, like the latter, can be big or small and can also deploy immense energy. Musashi therefore defines the different phases of the battle from preparation to exploitation. He also discusses the problems of moving and crossing;

  • the wind[5], where the criticisms of martial schools and currents other than his own are listed;

  • emptiness( Buddhistemptiness ), that is to say "the path" (Do or Michi) which must guide thewarrior , it being understood that among Buddhists, everything depends on others to exist.

Contrary to what one can imagine, the treaty is not a philosophical or religious work. Musashi exposes there his art of the sword which has for objective to teach " the art of winning the fight with the sword ». He sets down on paper the quintessence of all the techniques and strategies that he himself experienced during his fights and that he learned at the school of real combat, tirelessly putting his life on the line. As you read on, you will discover an uncommon perspicacity. From his own experience, a true world view emerges. As fluid as water, as powerful as fire, his sword art achieves, beyond all moral and physical constraints, the ingenuity of "absolute emptiness". An unattached samurai, he has never been in the service of a lord; he is a free man in his thoughts and actions.

The exclusive objective of Musashi's strategy is: " to win the fight by all means ». The assertion is reminiscent of Nicolas Machiavelli (1469-1527). But the Florentine's work was set against a backdrop of political fragmentation in his country and, as a patriot above all else, he feared that Italy would be dismembered by the rival powers around him. This "end" which would justify the "means" is therefore at the service of a noble cause. Musashi did not pursue any such objective: for him, the art of the sword was an end in itself. The expression sotô-goshu (head of mouse and head of bull) perfectly expresses its dualistic nature.

The principles on which its strategy is based combine a meticulous concern for the smallest technical details with the simultaneous search for a broad overall vision [6]. 6] This dual requirement is present throughout his strategy. In him, two apparently contradictory aims are always skillfully blended together. In addition to the meticulousness and the overall view, there is boldness and finesse, firmness and flexibility. When he evokes the "ardour" necessary for combat, it is to temper it with "composure". Thus, according to Musashi, there are two ways of looking: looking and observing. To look is to see with the eye, i.e., to see from the outside (the opponent and his environment). To observe is to see with the heart, i.e. to measure "the opponent's interior".

According to him, it is the inner gaze that manages to measure the exact state of mind of the opponent. Another aspect of Musashi's strategy concerns the psychological surprise effect. It is carried out in all its forms and is intended to disturb the opponent as much as possible. He explains: "it is necessary to put oneself in the opponent's place by thinking". He observes that there is sometimes a tendency to overestimate the opponent's strength and thus adopt a pusillanimous attitude. Frightening the opponent is a tactic to destabilize him. By giving voice, by barking, one can scare him. By attacking on an unexpected side, one can overcome it without resorting to great means. Thus, in all his fights, he resorts to all sorts of feints, tricks, pitfalls. In one of his confrontations against a formidable swordsman (Sasaki Kojiro), contrary to what his opponent imagines, Musashi does not present himself with two sabres, but with only one made of wood, carved into a 1.5 meter long oar... morally, the opponent is already reached. Even desertion doesn't scare him, if it helps him reach the final goal: winning. He also uses the communicative effectin order to produce a psychological impact. Our man says we need to take it easy. Besides, he himself, in a duel, has the habit of advancing in front of his enemy with his arms outstretched. The attitude being communicative, the enemy begins in turn to lower his guard ... "take advantage of this to strike him a brutal and powerful blow" recommends Musas-hi. The same goes for Musas-hi, the pace (i.e., pause, cadence) is of great importance in the sense of "moments to seize". It is even omnipresent. According to the Japanese author, the best tactic is worthless if it is not done in the right rhythm.

But the reader should not expect a list of lessons to be applied to the letter. It is an invitation to seek the way and each one, according to his or her level of "instruction", finds it of interest to him or her.


Nothing brings the famous theorist of the "Middle Kingdom" closer to his counterpart in the "Land of the Rising Sun". The latter, moreover, claims to have drawn no inspiration whatsoever from anyone in the construction of his treatise. Sun Tzu's objective of war is to force a collective enemy to give up the struggle, even without a fight, through cunning, espionage, great mobility and good use of various resources. It is thus a question of adapting to the strategy of the adversary to ensure victory at the lowest cost. For Myamoto Musashi, the goal is victory over the opponent in a duel and through it, self-control. But where warlord Sun Tzu tends to give a list of "recipes", Myamoto Musashi, an outstanding swordsman, gives us more than just a list of "recipes".a practical manual of sword use, for it deals, in reality, with a conception of life and strategy developed through the practice of the sword.

Thus, Musashi makes combat a philosophy that goes beyond techniques. To achieve this, dexterity is certainly useful, according to him, but understanding the opponent's forces, changing methods when the latter resists, adapting to the terrain and circumstances... are all parameters that must be taken into account and which make the warrior a de facto strategist. If this strategy applies to single combat, it is the same one that makes the samurai an officer capable of leading his troops and winning in a battle between armies.

As proof of Myamoto Musashi's influence, this warrior strategy is nowadays largely influencing large Japanese and American firms in the economic confrontations that the latter have to wage on a daily basis [7]. Indeed, what Myamoto Musas-hi wants to demonstrate, through his treatise, is that his strategy, which is meant to be victorious and which transcends violence, can become an art of living and acting. The spirit of the art of the sword can be applied to all the gestures of daily life[8].

8] Nowadays, his sword school, the hyoho nitenichi ryu, continues to transmit his thoughts, but only through gestures.

1] Also known as the book of the five rings.

2] Myamoto is the name of his birth village and Musashi is one of the interpretations of the ideograms of his family name. In his treatise he says his name is Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin.

3] Everything about Myamoto Musashi is full of legends. One need only consider that his biography (the ni ten ki) is written thanks to the testimonies of his students and followers, one hundred years after his death! For more information on the subject, consult Kenji Tokitsu's thesis, "Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese sword master of the 17th century, myth and reality, the work and its influence", defended on June 17, 1993 at the University of Paris VII.

4] In the West, the Greek philosopher Emedocles defined four of them (earth, water, fire and air), while Aristotle added a fifth element: the quintessence. For their part, the Chinese define metal, wood, water, fire and earth. These elements describe the natural cycles of the body and the world.

5] According to squadron leader Loïc Tarento (125th class of the Ecole de Guerre Terre), author of a fact sheet on the said treaty, dated 14 November 2011, Musashi would play with words: the Japanese term "wind", pronounced differently, can also mean "method, style or way (implied martial art)".

6] Jacques Pain and Richard Hellbrunn, in their book "Integrating Violence" (1986), develop the duel between Musashi and Kojiro. Our man studies not only the terrain, but also the orientation of the sun and the speed of the tides. Indeed, the confrontation takes place on an island and Musashi, after his victory and out of caution, quickly leaves the scene by his own means.

7] John Madden's film "Miss Sloane", released in 2017, features a brilliant woman of unscrupulous influence who does not hesitate to use every possible trick to achieve "victory".

8] For more information, see "Musashi Myamoto's Book of the Five Rings", translated by Marie Tadié, Belfond, 1982. For the period, refer to Eiji Yoshikawa's "Stone and Sword", translated by Léo Dilé, I read, 2000. Extensive excerpts from "Rereading the treatise on the five rings by Myamoto Musashi", Economica, Paris, 2003, by Keiko Yama-naka, mark out the present text.

Title : The Five Wheeler Treaty [1]
Author (s) : le major Xavier Bénagès du CDEC