As celebration for 2k Fou’ing my Munenori this post is written to introduce more people to the historical Yagyu Munenori and to discuss his implementation within FGO. If you prefer imgur formatting, which has more images, go here.
“Since you are a master in the martial arts without equal past or present, you are most resplendent in rank, stipend and reputation. Waking or sleeping, you should not forget this great boon and in order to return this favour by day and by night, you should only think of fulfilling your loyalty.”
-Takuan Soho, The Unfettered Mind
In the summer of 1615, during the Siege of Osaka, a desperate enemy force launched a surprise attack and broke into shogun Tokugawa Hidetada’s camp. The shogun’s men were thrown into disarray as the assailants rapidly advanced their way to close proximity with the shogun himself.
There they confronted a middle-aged samurai, who stood calmly in front of the shogun’s horse. The man stepped forward, and with incredible swiftness, dexterity, and fluidity, killed seven of the opposing warriors in an instant.
The middle-aged samurai was Yagyu Tajima no Kami Munenori, sword instructor to the shogun and the man most trusted to be by the shogun’s side.
A Sword Instructor’s Rise to Ascendancy
Yagyu Munenori was born in 1571, in the midst of Japan’s turbulent Sengoku (warring states) era, as the youngest son among five brothers. His eldest brother was crippled by a bullet in war in the very year Munenori was born, his second and third eldest became monks, while the fourth left the family village to serve another bigger clan. It was clear early on, even to child Munenori, the future of the family would become his responsibility.
As a child, he would have witnessed his father Sekishusai’s careful manoeuvring among more powerful clans for survival as he studied the sword under his father at the same time.
For a brief period, his father worked for warlord Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga was eventually betrayed and power fell to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Chacha’s husband), who seized most of the Yagyu manor on trumped-up charges, likely for political reasons. The seizure forced the Yagyu clan to disperse for a number of years, and brought hardship and poverty to the family.
Such childhood experience imparted a thoughtful character and perspicacious awareness of politics to Munenori, which would shape his life and his way of the sword.
Pictured: Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hidetada and Iemitsu, the first three shoguns of the Tokugawa era.
The critical turning point of Munenori’s life occurred when a certain Tokugawa Ieyasu, a cautious man vying to become Japan’s uncontested ruler, invited Sekishusai to visit his villa. Ieyasu was an enthusiastic student of the sword, no doubt he heard of Sekishusai’s reputation and was eager to learn his techniques. Although Ieyasu likely also valued Sekishusai’s regional connection which would be helpful in the eventual power struggle.
Sekishusai brought his twenty-two years old son Munenori along to assist in the demonstration, which included a live spar where an unarmed Sekishusai defeated an armed Ieyasu. Ieyasu was profoundly impressed by both father and son, and asked Sekishusai to serve as his sword instructor. Sekishusai, who was sixty-six, declined on the basis of his old age, and instead recommended his son Munenori.
At that point, Yagyu Munenori was young and unproven, but Ieyasu agreed to the arrangement without a second thought. Tokugawa Ieyasu must have sensed some intrinsic value in Munenori’s character, beyond mere swordsmanship, which would be valuable to him and his successors.
Teaching Ieyasu Yagyu Shinkageryu, Munenori quickly acquired a reputation in the Tokugawa inner circle as a ‘living master of the sword’. Being able to observe Ieyasu up close, combined with the wisdom and insight he gained from watching his own father, turned Munenori into someone whose advice were worthy of a ruler’s ears.
The Toyotomi were crushed once and for all during the aforementioned Siege of Osaka, where Chacha and her son Hideyori committed seppuku in the midst of the flaming and besieged castle, bringing an end to the Sengoku era. Tokugawa shogunate would then reign supreme for two centuries in an era of relative peace, and Yagyu Munenori was the right-hand man of the first three shoguns in the Tokugawa government’s formative period.
Going into FGO for a moment, it is incredibly intriguing to see all three of Munenori’s skills as a servant and his Noble Phantasm seems to be able to be further elaborated on by the actual writings of the historical figure himself. All quotes are from Heiho Kadensho (A Hereditary Book on the Art of War).
“The martial arts have many points in common with Zen. These include in particular an aversion to being detained by things. No matter what secret tradition you receive, no matter what technique you use, if your mind is detained by that technique, you will suffer defeat. Your mind should not be detained—whether by the actions of your opponent, by your own actions, or by cutting and thrusting. This is essential.”
“The phrase ‘moon on water’ (‘suigetsu’) refers to the fact that if there is a certain distance between you and your opponent, his sword will be unable to strike you. In keeping this distance, we use the martial arts. Stepping inside this distance and stealing close to your opponent without his noticing is like piercing the reflection of the moon on water.”
“What is called No-Sword is the not the art of taking a man’s sword; it is being able to use all implements freely. When you have no sword and wish to take your opponent’s to use as your own, anything that comes into your hands should be of use. Even if you only have a fan, you should be able to defeat your opponent’s sword. No-Sword is just this attitude.”
To further explain the concept introduced by the third skill, it should not be understood as a literal bare-handed blade block as permeated by popular culture. According to descriptions of Sekishusai’s spar with Ieyasu, the actual act of capturing the opponent’s sword is more akin to a well-timed grappling move. Capturing the opponent’s sword should also not be viewed as an end in and of itself, instead it is just a means to an end.
“If your opponent does not want his sword taken, you should not insist on trying to take it. No-Sword is also in not taking the sword when your opponent has this attitude. A man who is consumed by the thought of not having his sword taken is going to forget the aim of cutting his opponent.”
As Munenori wrote above, the true philosophy behind ‘No-Sword’ is the ability to effectively harness all implements available at your disposal such that your readiness to fight (literally or figuratively) is not influenced by whether you have a sword (or any weapon of your choice) by your side.
Noble Phantasm: Kenjutsu Musuo, Kenzen Ichinyo
Servant Munenori’s Noble Phantasm ‘Kenjutsu Musuo, Kenzen Ichinyo’ is named after two key phrases which belies the essence of the historical Munenori’s swordsmanship. ‘Kenjutsu Musuo’ means ‘Peerless in Swordsmanship’, a praise delivered by shogun Iemitsu when mourning Munenori’s passing. ‘Kenzen Ichinyo’ means ‘Sameness of Sword and Zen’, a concept central to Munenori’s teaching.
The first variation of his Noble Phantasm line goes:
“…Mine heart is immovable, and yet it must be free. Thusly, it has entered the realm of no desires and no thoughts…”
While from Satsuninto of Heiho Kadensho:
“When you have continuously made great efforts and have accumulated discipline without really noticing, you will have left aside the thought of doing things well, and will have attained the realm of No-Mind/No-Thought…your body, hands and feet will make no mistakes. But if your mind slips in even slightly, you will miss your aim.”
“The man who has been able to pacify his mind once and for all from beginning to end…can mingle with the dust of the world and remain unstained. Though he moves through the world all day long, he himself is unmovable. This is like the moon that seems to follow the innumerable waves, yet truly moves not at all. This is the sphere of one who has reached the ultimate of the Buddhist Law.”
Munenori was explaining the mental state one should reach to attain true mastery, true mastery of not just the sword but of all things in life. Then the first Noble Phantasm line may to be referencing this mental state of mastery.
The second variation of Noble Phantasm line:
“…A sword shows its true worth on the boundary of life and death…Which side will you see upon confronting my sword?..”
In Yagyu Shinkageryu, the sword has two sides. As written by Munenori’s father Sekishusai in Motsujimi Shudan Kudensho (没滋味手段口伝書):
“…every time the sword is in stance, it is called the Death-Dealing Sword (satsuninto). When it is not in stance, it is called the Life-Giving Sword (katsujinken). Moreover, the sword in stance always cuts down the opposition and removes it; when it is not in stance, it gives life to the opposition and thus is called the Life-Giving Sword.”
In the closing words of Heiho Kadensho, Munenori wrote:
“At the heart of this work is the idea that the sword that kills people can, on the contrary, becomes a sword that gives them life. In a chaotic society, many people are killed for no reason. The Death-Dealing Sword is used to bring a chaotic society under control; but once this has been done, cannot that same sword become a Life-Giving Sword?”
Yagyu Munenori’s life was a profound demonstration of the Life-Giving Sword, but when the Noble Phantasm line is uttered as a servant it would be a foregone conclusion the enemy would only see his Death-Dealing Sword.
Translation credit of first Noble Phantasm line. Second Noble Phantasm line uses official translation.
Battle animation of servant Munenori is said to be based on actual move sets of Yagyu Shinkageryu. As documented in Shinkageryu Heiho Tachi Den (新陰流兵法太刀伝):
These are some of the oldest moves in Shinkageryu predating Munenori, while the quick-draw attacks were said to be Munenori’s personal addition to Yagyu Shinkageryu.
(Please note I do not have direct access to Shinkageryu Heiho Tachi Den, this is my educated guesswork based on secondary sources I am able to find regarding the book for the names of the actual techniques these animations are based on.)
His moves appear almost simple. It is a no frills no nonsense approach to cutting down the opponent, and not dissimilar to moves one can observe in a modern-day kendo expert. The transition from attack to attack might seem almost abrupt, but it should be taken as an indication of his incredible speed (A++ Agility). Within every attack, each strike flowed like water.
“Although there are a hundred kinds of stances, they all exist for the same purpose: to defeat the opponent.”
Munenori believed there was more to learning the sword than just cutting a man down. He recognised the universality of the underlying principles of the martial arts. Sword fighting is a martial art, but so are governing the country, practising calligraphy, horse riding et cetera: all activities can be approached as a martial art. Despite the widely varying natures of all these arts, underlying principles in approaching them are transferrable. Learning Munenori’s way of the sword was not to learn how to kill an opponent, but instead it was a vehicle for personal development.
Ieyasu and Iemitsu were avid students of the sword, while Hidetada was largely indifferent to the sword. Nonetheless, all three generations of Tokugawa shoguns found great value in Munenori’s sword lessons such that Munenori would serve by their side for the rest of his life. To the shoguns Munenori’s lessons must have been more profound than just learning how to swing a sword.
Indeed, although Munenori’s hallmark work Heiho Kadensho is a book principally about swordsmanship, he repeatedly emphasised the ideas conveyed in his work transcends the sword:
“While you are governing a country, it is yet again a martial art to keep your mind clearly on the farthest corners of the farthest province and to appoint various officials to keep guard over them…it is essential that you observe the inner workings of the country and prevent its ruin at the hands of the officials with various personal agendas. This is like the martial art of seeing into the intentions of your opponent in a sword match by observing his movements…Truly, the arena may change, but the principle is the same, and thus you could apply this to national affairs and make no mistakes.”
“Because our clan is involved in the martial arts, I have spoken of this in conjunction with them; but it should not be restricted to the martial arts alone.”
His authority steadily increased over the years of service, to an extraordinary extent unimaginable for a mere sword instructor:
In 1629, he took the title of Tajima no Kami, or ‘Guardian of Tajima’. With mineable silver and bronze, the Tajima province was an area of great strategic importance to the resource-constrained Japan, only someone absolutely trustworthy should be assigned to the responsibility of that province.
In 1632, he became Sometsuke, responsible for keeping an eye on the activities of other daimyos (feudal rulers who were the shogun’s vassals). Sometsuke was a position that did not exist before Munenori, it was a title created for the man. Munenori spread the Yagyu clan spread all over Japan and his students taught other daimyos as sword instructors, with this Munenori developed an extensive personal intelligence and influence network around Japan. Coupled with his own shrewdness and loyalty, this made him the perfect candidate to act as the shogun’s head of intelligence to root out corruption and conspiracy.
With the promotions, his stipend increased as well, and in 1633 he finally became a daimyo himself. Possessing fief of 10,000 Koku was the qualification to be a daimyo; in all likelihood Munenori’s sway on the shogun had exceeded the average daimyo long before that, it just took a while for his pay to match his influence.
(1 Koku is roughly equal to 180 litres, 1 Koku of rice is enough to feed a man for a year; Japanese wealth was measured in terms of rice production)
Becoming daimyo would not be the end of Munenori’s ascendancy, his stipend would eventually reach a staggering 12,500 Koku.
Yagyu Munenori was a rare man whose political power and influence, together with his martial art, reached the lofty apex. Perhaps one can even say politics and swordsmanship were inseparable elements of his martial art, and therefore the mastery of one meant the mastery of other.
In FGO, Munenori ditching the kataginu (brown vest-like part of his attire) from first to second ascension may be a reference to his political ascension to becoming daimyo himself, because in the Japanese theatres kataginu seems to represent a samurai serving a daimyo. A theatre metaphor would be fitting too, given Munenori was a huge fan of Noh theatre performances.
There is also a bird motif going on in FGO Munenori’s ascension art from second to third ascension. The peacock in the background of his third ascension art is often regarded as an incarnation of the ancient mythical Chinese bird called Fenghuang, otherwise called Houou in Japanese.
Honchou Bugei Shouden (本朝武芸小伝) was published in 1716, seventy years after Munenori’s death, by a master of a different martial arts school called Tendoryu. In the book the writer discussed various famous martial art schools and their practitioners. The writer wrote Yagyu Munenori was ‘Ken Jutsusha no Otori (刀術者之鳳)’, translated literally it meant Munenori was the ‘big bird among swordsmen’. However, the kanji 鳳 used for ‘big bird (Otori)’ has a distinct meaning referring to Fenghuang (鳳凰-same characters in both Chinese and Japanese):
Fenghuang is the bird above all other birds, and its status is equal to the dragon. It is a symbol often associated with royalty, and carries the connotation of harmony under the rule of an emperor. Chinese in origin, this mythical creature and its significance spread to Japan.
So if swordsmen were to be compared as birds, then Yagyu Munenori was the Fenghuang.
It is certainly an apt metaphor, given he was the swordsman who rose to ascendancy from the ashes of war and his sword style ruled Japan in peacetime as the designated sword style to learn for the elite samurais of Tokugawa’s Japan.
FGO Munenori’s final ascension art forms an interesting contrast with his real-life statue, although I am not certain if this is intentional of his illustrator Furumi Showichi. Both depicts him in a seated position, but for the statue Munenori’s sword is tucked away at his side barely visible while in his final ascension art he appears to be cleaning his blade allowing it to be displayed prominently. In history, most of Yagyu Munenori’s glories were not directly connected to sword fighting, but as a servant his blade is taking on a much more prominent role.
Servants are summoned in their prime forms, and Munenori’s prime would be as an old man: an old man who have reached the height of his political powers, have dedicated his entire life to honing his blade, spreading his martial art and have written influential treatises on kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) such as Heiho Kadensho.
(I am really, really impressed with the work Furumi has done for Munenori, if only this can reach her somehow. The crew at Delightworks who animated the man, too, deserves the highest praise.)
Character of the Sword Instructor
Various accounts of Munenori can further our understanding of the figure as a person.
I. Future Prediction
An incredibly discerning man, he predicted the outbreak of the Shimabara rebellion (lead by a certain teenager called Amakusa Shirou) and that Itakura Shigemasa, who was sent by shogun Iemitsu on a punitive expedition, would die in the expedition.
What was most revealing of Munenori’s character was his response to his own prediction. Learning of Shigemasa’s deployment, Munenori desperately tried to stop it. He went as far as riding on horseback late into the night to pursue Shigemasa, and upon realizing he was too late to catch up he immediately returned to directly appeal to Iemitsu to rescind the order.
Not one to have his orders questioned, Iemitsu stalked out of the room. Munenori, ever the patient teacher, waited alone unmoving through the night seated right where Iemitsu left him. The following day Iemitsu finally asked for Munenori to explain his stubborn behaviour:
Although Shigemasa was loyal and capable, the local daimyo would disregard his authority due to his relatively lower status, and this would ultimately result in Shigemasa’s death.
Iemitsu listened patiently but still refused to rescind.
The situation progressed just as Munenori explained: Shigemasa with his authority undermined was ordered to be replaced by Matsudaira Nobutsuna. On 1 January 1638, Shigemasa led a desperate charge on the rebel’s castle and was killed by an arrow.
Iemitsu would rely on Munenori’s advice even more heavily ever since.
II. Staring EX
Once Munenori watched a Noh performance by the side of shogun Iemitsu, and before the performance began, Iemitsu ordered Munenori to observe performer Kanze Sakon’s actions carefully for any point during the acting when Kanze’s attention was distracted enough that Munenori might be able to attack him. Kanze seemed thoroughly attentive in performance such that the shogun believed that even the master swordsman could find no opening.
Kanze was dripping with sweat when he finished and retired to the dressing room. He told his attendant Munenori’s eyes were “following me all along, so I continued to dance, hardly daring to breathe. But when I finally passed the stage right pillar, I stopped for a breath and he gave me a little smile. Really, I was mentally exhausted!”
When asked by Iemitsu if he saw an opening, Munenori replied “Kanze left no opening during the entire dance, but just as he passed the pillar he let out a gasp. There I could have cut him down with no difficulty.”
Late in Munenori’s life, there was an episode where while he sat on his veranda engrossed in the full bloom of the cherry blossoms, he suddenly intuited danger and swung around to check. Yet only his faithful page was behind him. Munenori was upset at his perceived dulling of sense which he spent his life sharpening.
Noticing his master’s souring mood, the page inquired for the cause. At Munenori’s explanation, the page apologised and confessed that at watching his master’s abstraction in the spring scene, he very briefly wondered if even a swordsman as accomplished as Yagyu Munenori might be attacked and killed in this state of vulnerability. Munenori seemed to be satisfied with this revelation, and never mentioned the matter again.
IV. Lifelong Learning
Munenori was a well-read and eloquent man, this is evident with his ability to seamlessly quote and reference a wide range of Buddhist and Chinese literature in Heiho Kadensho to explain the philosophical foundation of his arguments, or even just to title the sections of his work.
Heiho Kadensho was meant to be read and understood by students of Yagyu Shinkageryu (including the shogun), then Munenori’s lexicon would indicate a high level of education among his students. This is expected given Munenori made Yagyu Shinkageryu into the designated sword style to learn for the elites of Tokugawa’s Japan, however Munenori himself came from a much humbler background and he likely received no formal education at all beyond his father’s sword education.
Then where did Munenori learn such lexicon? Apart from his political and family responsibilities, he must have rigorously engaged in intellectual pursuits in his adult life alongside his pursuit of swordsmanship.
V. Final Request
In his final days, with his health declining, Munenori had a final meeting with the shogun Iemitsu. The shogun inquired if he had any last requests. Munenori commended his sons to the shogun’s patronage, and requested a monument be built to his father Sekishusai at the Yagyu manor.
Iemitsu agreed immediately, and six days later Munenori passed away peacefully in his sleep on 26 March 1646. He was seventy-six, it was a long life for his era. After his death, sometimes Iemitsu could be heard wondering “If only Munenori were here, I could ask him about this.”
What would the historical Munenori think of the Munenori in Shimousa? (Spoiler Section)
Given Shimousa’s plot was a wholesale reference to Makai Tensho, it was inevitable Yagyu Munenori would play the antagonist in Shimousa.
In Shimousa, Munenori experienced the thrill of dueling when female Musashi somehow tempted him into a fight back in Musashi’s trial quest. Shimousa Munenori became so desperate to get another taste of battling Musashi such that he turned against everything he stood for in life, cooperated with the villains and let the world turn to hell. He became a demon of the sword; even if he was not explicitly mind-controlled like the rest of the Heroic Spirit Swordsmasters, Shimousa Munenori had clearly lost his marbles with his female Musashi obsession.
I suspect this character motivation has left many non-Japanese players scratching their heads since they are missing the historical context of how Yagyu Munenori was better remembered by the general public as a politician than as a swordsman.
Yet, the historical Munenori would never become Shimousa Munenori even if he was in Shimousa Munenori’s shoes.The historical Munenori would probably mock at the absurdity and childishness of Shimousa Munenori.
"To think only of winning is sickness. To think only of using the martial arts is sickness. To think only of demonstrating the result of one’s training is sickness, as is thinking only making an attack or waiting for one. To think in a fixated way of expelling such sickness is also sickness. Whatever remains absolutely in the mind should be considered sickness.”
Yagyu Munenori wrote thusly in Heiho Kadensho, this ‘sickness’ he wrote of would perfectly describe Shimousa Munenori. Yagyu Munenori from history was not a man interested in drawing his blade to fight just for the sake of it, nor was his martial art for something as superficial as showing his superiority over another martial artist. The historical Yagyu Munenori’s sword moved with a righteous purpose:
“There are times when ten thousand people suffer because of the evil of one man. Therefore, in killing one man’s evil you give ten thousand people life. In such ways, truly, the sword that kills one man will be the blade that gives others life.”
“It is missing the point to think that the martial art is solely in cutting a man down. It is not in cutting people down; it is in killing evil. It is the stratagem of killing the evil of one man and giving life to ten thousand.”
This is the wisdom of a man who lived through and witnessed the deaths and destruction of the Sengoku era, whose sword style would then rule Japan in the following era of relative peace.
In FGO Munenori’s interlude, he criticised his Shimousa self’s behaviour. Douman tried to control him and turn him back into a Heroic Spirit Swordsmaster but Munenori fought him off with ease. We learn the Yagyu Munenori in Chaldea is the one from normal history who ascended to the status of a ‘sword saint’; his mind is free of all worldly thoughts and desires making him even stronger than he was in Shimousa. Guda then recalls a previous meeting with Musashi, where she admitted she cannot defeat the version of Yagyu in Chaldea, although it is fine since she is evolving too.
Connection to other Shimousa Cast’s Historical Counterparts (No Spoilers):
I. Miyamoto Musashi
The closest Musashi got to Munenori was when he tried to become the Shogun’s sword instructor. Musashi was rejected, a result hardly surprising when Munenori already fulfilled that position splendidly in addition to being a political advisor and intelligence head.
Takuan Soho, Munenori’s dear friend and mentor on Zen philosophies, have no known contact with Musashi contrary to popular culture depiction.
Legend has it Musashi did have a chance meeting with Munenori’s nephew Hygonosuke, the two had a merry time together talking, playing Go, and working out sword techniques together. Munenori was the overall head of the Yagyu clan based in Edo, while Hygonosuke led a branch based in Owari serving a relative of the Tokugawa shogun, likely as Munenori planned.
Musashi was a very interesting foil to Munenori. Musashi adamantly defined himself as self-taught, to the point of founding his own style Niten Ichi-ryu. In contrast, Munenori’s way of the sword had a long heritage, and he just as adamantly defined himself by his predecessors to the point where his pivotal book Heiho Kadensho was first signed with the name of Kamiizumi Nobustuna, the master of his father, and then his father’s, and only after that his own.
Musashi made his fame by travelling around, duelling other swordsmen, and then bragging about his victories in his writings. Munenori had no need to trifle himself with personal duels, for Yagyu Shinkageryu and his own capability were declared legitimate by the shogun’s patronage; instead he quietly polished his skills and built his political power, and in the end became better known for his political accomplishments.
However, as the episode during the Siege of Osaka showed—a spontaneous occurrence on battlefield instead of a meticulously prepared duel, Munenori’s actual ability in combat should not be questioned.
This anecdote from FGO Munenori’s character profile is likely fictional. There is a good chance Musashi was at best a mild curiosity at the periphery of Munenori’s mind, after all the two men were operating in completely different social strata and Munenori would have little incentive to even mention Musashi in his writings or conversations.
Conversely however, it would not be surprising if Musashi did long for a match with Munenori given the prestige and status of the man, as impossible as such a match would be because of that very same prestige and status.
One cannot help but wonder what would happen if Musashi met Munenori instead of Hygonosuke.
II. Houzoin Inshun
Inshun’s master and predecessor Inei played a small, but vital role in the formation of Yagyu Shinkageryu.
In 1559, Inei arranged Kamiizumi Nobutsuna, founder of Shinkageryu, to have a match with Inei’s friend Yagyu Sekishusai. At that point, Sekishusai was a young man in his thirties well-versed in swinging a sword and had real battle experience.
Sekishusai was soundly defeated twice, not by Nobutsuna, but by a disciple of Nobutsuna’s who tagged alone for the match. Shockingly, the elderly Nobutsuna requested a match with Sekishusai after the young man’s humiliation at the hands of his disciple.
The two faced off, but nothing happened and Sekishusai soon dropped to his knees and admitted defeat. The young man recognised the old master left no opening for an attack, and the old master recognised the young man was perceptive enough to be worthy of his instructions.
Sekishusai would study Shinkageryu under Nobutsuna, he became Nobutsuna’s star pupil and inherited Shinkageryu. With Sekishusai’s further development and ownership of the style the Yagyu name was appended to Shinkageryu, resulting in the formation of the sword style his son Munenori would spend his life perfecting and disseminating.
(Nobutsuna’s Shinkageryu did not come out of nowhere, it too can be traced further back in history although that is out of the scope of this post, such is the way martial arts develop and grow.)
To be continued.