Musashi Versus Matabei

Miyamoto Musashi is a famous individual not only within the pages of Japanese history, but around the world through pop culture, books, and movies. Born around 1583-84, Musashi made his fame by forging himself into a skilled & fearless warrior, winning many duels, engaging in battles, and devising his own martial system called “Hyoho Niten Ichi ryu”. While one of the more prevailing images of him is claiming victory in mortal combat against other warriors like Sasaki Kojiro1 and Shishido Nanigashi2, it’s interesting to note that Musashi has won matches without spilling blood. One of those matches I will write about is against another famous individual by the name of Takada Matabei3.

A self portrait of Miyamoto Musashi by artist of the same name. Property of Shimada Museum, used from Wikipedia under their Terms of Use.

First, let’s start off with some background information. Miyamoto Musashi has been well documented for decades, so I will refrain from writing his details. Takada Matabei, on the other hand, deserves an introduction, for he is not well known as Musashi in English texts. Takada Matabei was born in 1590 in Shirakashi Mura, located in Iga Province, Japan. He trained in the martial system of Hozoin ryu, and was especially fond of yari (spear) techniques. After receiving inka4 in Hozoin ryu, Matabei would later train with other martial schools to gain further insight, and later created his own style called Hozoin ryu Takada Ha Sojutsu5 after mastering all that was taught about the yari. It is documented that Matabei didn’t care much for competition, but instead saw value in real conflict, which prompt him to take part in actual battle, such as Shimabara no Ran6. By engaging on the battlefield he became recognized for his skills as a bushi, especially when wielding the yari. His system is still taught today in Japan, being one of the well respected martial systems on the Japanese spear.

Now, for the tale about Matabei and Musashi’s encounter. There is little detail in English, other than the actual duel. In Japanese, there are slight differences in how the duel played out; sources like the Tanjihoukin Hikki7, Heiho Senshi Denki8, and Suhaku Sensei Den9 have varying perspectives from the details of the warriors’ actions to the words exchanged. However, in a recent historical publication called “Miyamoto Musashi Kokou ni Ikita Kensei”, there is a pretty extensive write up10 on both warriors’ background, first encounter, and their duel (along with some other historical details). It also appears to take details from the other Japanese sources and incorporate their points more cleanly, and presents a “complete” story.

In around 1633 A warlord named Tadazane Ogasawara (Lord Ogasawara from here on) was relocated11 to Kokura District in Buzen Province, where he was sent to rule over. Matabei was Lord Ogasawara’s vassel, and as expected was with him in this area. It just so happen that Musashi, along with his adopted son Iori12, were residing in Kokura District at the time. Matabei met them both and, training together on a regular basis, developed good relations with them.

One day, being aware about how well the 2 renowned warriors like Musashi and Matabei got along, Lord Ogasawara decided on the unexpected. He requested a friendly match between Musashi and Matabei. Although Matabei refused, Lord Ogasawara’s insistence for the duel proved to be too much to go against. In the long run Matabei had to obey his master and prepare for the match. Musashi was called to Lord Ogasawara’s castle, for the match was to take place in his presence.

Since it was a friendly bout, no live weapons would be used. Instead, training weapons were to be used to avoid bloodshed. It will follow a point system based on the person scoring a “clean” hit, whether physically or theoretically. Matabei chose a bamboo jumonji yari (in English, a cross spear), which has padding on the tip of the spear head, and a small strip of bamboo inserted about a foot under the spearhead through the shaft to act as the crossbar. Musashi, on the other hand, picked a single bokuto13, a much shorter weapon than his adversary. Due to the varying lengths of the weapons, it would play out more as an irimi shiai14, where Musashi had to get pass the spearhead of Matabei’s yari in order to beat him, while Matabei had to tag him before that happens.

Both warriors square off, with Lord Ogasawara and a small group of observers as witnesses of the match. Musashi stated that he will end the duel in 3 exchanges, claiming victory from a chuudan posture15. From a distance, Matabei also took up a chuudan posture and attacked Musashi with a thrust. Musashi, in return, evaded the attack and got pass the offense in order to close the distance. This would be considered a point to Musashi. In the second exchange, Musashi successful evaded again Matabei’s assault to close the distance. Again, a point that should be awarded in favor of Musashi. The third exchange progressed differently, where Matabei’s jumonji yari dipped down and inadvertently slipped in between Musashi’s legs. Musashi sold the idea that Matabei struck his thigh for a clean hit before he could close the distance, so he sat down onto the ground and complimented his opponent on besting him this round. However, Matabei (along with other observers) saw it differently, and believed that Musashi gave him the point. Matabei humbly replied to this, with one example as written in “Miyamoto Musashi Kokou ni Ikita Kensei” below:


Which I translate below:

“I guess I won this round, thanks to you.”

Before the duel could continue on, Matabei suddenly called for the duel to stop, put down his weapon and gave up. There are a few examples what was said, such as this below:


Which is a more romantacized version from “Miyamoto Musashi Kokou ni Ikita Kensei”. My translation of this quote below is as follows:

“The spear is a long weapon, compared to the sword, which is a shorter weapon. Despite having a considerable reach advantage, I was not able to claim victory in 3 exchanges. In the end, I am bested while wielding my long prized possession.”

It is written that Lord Ogasawara, satisfied with the display of skills from both warriors, concluded the duel at 3 exchanges and called it a draw. Possibly this was done in respect to both warriors, or to not have bad blood between both men. This isn’t clear, although most accounts agreed that Musashi was the better out of the two. The number of points claimed in the 3 exchanges also varies between sources depending on from which side the writer is loyal to, for both fighters apparently didn’t physically hit each other. Some say that Musashi got all 3, but gave the third to Matabei before he could fully close the distance. Some say that it was one a piece. There are others that say no man scored a point, thus Matabei calling quits. It is agreed, thought, that Musashi and Matabei remained friends after the duel.

This concludes the duel between Miyamoto Musashi and Takada Matabei. Hope this helps to give a clearer image of Miyamoto Musashi, one that show that he, historically, did engage in many battles, but not all ending in the death of his opponent.

1) Sasaki Kojiro is said to be a famed bushi renowned for his sword skills with an exceptionally long sword called. The popular lore is that Musashi defeats Kojiro in mortal combat on Ganryu Island, although the exact details are sketchy and vary amongst the numerous historical sources on Musashi’s life. One of the more “accepted” interpretations is this: to gain the advantage, Musashi used certain psychological tactics, such as arriving very late to infuriate Kojiro, carving a long bokken out of his oar to match Kojiro’s long reach with his sword, and taking the duel out into the ocean tides. With all these tactics in place, an enraged Kojiro attacked carelessly, giving Musashi the opening needed to strike him down.

2) Shishido Nanigashi (at times, referred to as the character Shishido Baiken from “Vagabond”, a manga about Musashi and his battle-intense lifestyle) is believed to be a famous swordsman from Iga Province in Japan. Nanigashi was especially proficient with the kusarigama, which was the chosen weapon to battle against Musashi. In the long run, Musashi bests Nanigashi using his Niten Ichi ryu, which incorporates a tachi in one hand and a wakizashi in the other. This episode is mentioned in the “Nitenki”, a biographical book written about Musashi’s adventures by Toyota Kagehide. However, most of the tales written there are based on heresay and have little evidence to back their validity.

3) Birth name is Takada Yoshitsugu (高田吉次). He is commonly referred to as Takada Matabei (高田又兵衛), where “Matabei” is a nickname.

4) Old fashioned certification stating complete transmission of a martial system has been learned.

5) Loosely translates to “Takada System of Spear Techniques, of the Hozoin Style”

6) Translated as “The Rebellion at Shimabara”, the uprising and rebelling of peasents, ronins, and Christians due to overtaxation, famine, and the persecution of followers of Christianity in the Southwestern part of Japan. This happened from 12/11/1637 to 4/12/1638.

7) A book on the life of Miyamoto Musashi written by Tachibana Houkin in 1727. He was the 5th successor of Chikuzen Niten ryu, a branch of Miyamoto’s martial system.

8) Another book on Miyamoto Musashi written by Niwa Nobuhide in 1782. He was the 7th successor of Chikuzen Niten ryu, and the grandson of Tachibana Houkin.

9) An autobiography written by Matabei, under the pen name Suhaku.

10) The writeup is entitled, “Musashi to Taiketsu Shita Sannin no Bugeisha Houzoin Ryu Takada Ha Sojutsu Takada Matabei”, written by Matsubara Hideyo, and published by Shinjinbutsu Ouraisha in 11/11/2002.

11) The word used in Japanese is tenpuu (転封), which means a forced relocation of a feudal lord from one area to another, mandated by the Shogun. In Lord Ogasawara’s case, it is the same situation. Despite how rough it sounds, the feudal lord is paid by the Shogunate for this relocation, so it’s not so bad a deal.

12) His real name was Sadatsugu prior to being in the care of Musashi. One of the 2 adopted sons of Musashi, the other being Mikinosuke.

13) It is said that at this time, Musashi hasn’t fully developed his “Niten Ichi” method, thus using only a single bokuto.

14) Meaning of this phrase can be interpreted as so: “to engage in a competitive match of getting inside the opposition’s weapon and closing the distance”. In the case of weapons, usuaully referring to the individual who is pitted against a spear wielding opponent. When practicing against the yari, the underlining principle is to get in the space anywhere between the wielder and the spearhead, thus neutralizing its threat of being stabbed so to attack safely. In defense, the spearman keeps the opposition out by maintaining distance so to strike successfully.

15) Translates as “middle level”, the weapon is held up and pointing forward around midsection height.

3 thoughts on “Musashi Versus Matabei

  1. This article is very interesting along the other about Yoshioka clan. Unfortunately I have no access to some historical account not translated in english. I am quite curious in “Suhaku Sensei Den”. I would like to know what is written exactly in relation to the match with Musashi, if it is possible. At the end of this dissertation is written that some accounts said “… that Musashi got all 3, but gave the third to Matabei before he could fully close the distance. Some say that it was one a piece. There are others that say no man scored a point, thus Matabei calling quits. It is agreed, thought, that Musashi and Matabei remained friends after the duel.”
    I suppose Tanjihoukin Hikki, and Heiho Senshi Denki are in favour of Musashi but the autobiography of Matabei tells another “truth” probably in favour of Matabei. However it is not clear what source said that it was one a piece and what said no man scored a point. I would be grateful (and I thanks in advance) if the author clarify these points.

    • Hi Marco. Thanks for the interest. These articles were quite enjoyable to research just as they were to write. From what I have been able to gather, Musashi and Matabei had a lot of respect for each other, and no ill will came from the match.

      Hmm, I agree I should’ve been more specific about which source states what. I will explain in detail the books that have written accounts of the match.

      1) Tanjihoukin Hikki (written by Tachibana Houkin in 1727) – Musashi actually scored all 3 points, but gave the last to Matabei because the tip of his yari touched his leg before he got in. The observers, along with Matabei himself, did not see the yari touch Musashi’s leg.

      2) Heiho Senshi Denki (written by Niwa Nobuhide in 1782) – Musashi scored the first 2 points by taking up a Chuudan no Kamae. In the 3rd exchange, Matabei’s yari dipped down between Musashi’s leg. In Musashi’s eye, he considered that a hit, and gave the point to Matabei. Matabei saw it differently and felt that Musashi was just being generous, so to speak.

      3) Suhaku Sensei Den (written by Matabei himself) – no one scored during the match. Out of fustration, Matabei forfeits the match, mainly because he couldn’t outbest Musashi despite having the clear advantage of reach.

      The 1st 2 are considered supporting narratives on Musashi’s side, while the last is supportive of Matabei’s side.

      Hope this clears things up.

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