Today I Learned: The Duel at Ganryu Island

Musashi vs. Kojiro (from Wikipedia)

A reader reached out to me on Twitter to let me know that today is a very important anniversary. As he put it, Americans have the gunfight at the OK Corral, the Japanese have the “Duel at Ganryu Island”. Like the OK Corral, the Duel at Ganryu Island is shrouded in myth. Some of the agreed upon details are that it took place on April 13th, 1612, and pitted two of the greatest Japanese swordsmen of all time against each other, Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, with Musashi emerging the victor.

From Wikipedia:

Sasaki Kojirō was a long-time rival of Miyamoto Musashi, and is considered the most challenging opponent Miyamoto ever faced. There are a number of accounts of the duel, varying in most details except the essentials, such as Sasaki’s defeat. The age of Sasaki is especially uncertain – the Nitenki says that during his childhood, he

… received the instruction of Toda Seigen, a master of the school of the short sword, and having been the partner of his master, he excelled him in the wielding of the long sword. After having defeated his master’s younger brother he left him to travel in various provinces. There he founded his own school, which was called Ganryu.

The Nitenkis account initially seems trustworthy, until it goes on to give the age of Sasaki at the time of the duel as 18 years old; it is known that two years earlier he had been a head weapons master for a fief – but then that would imply he had reached such a position at the age of 16, which is extremely improbable. A further complication is that Toda Seigen died in the 1590s. This unreliability of the sources means Sasaki’s age could have varied anywhere from his 20s to as late as his 50s. Even worse, a number of scholars contend that identifying Seigen as Sasaki’s teacher is a mistake, and that he was actually trained by a student of Seigen’s, Kanemaki Jisai.

Apparently, the young Miyamoto, at the time, around 29 years old, heard of Sasaki’s fame and asked Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki, through the intermediary of Nagaoka Sado Okinaga, a principal vassal of Hosokawa, to arrange a duel. Hosokawa assented, and set the time and place as 13 April 1612, on the comparatively remote island of Ganryujima of Funashima, the strait between Honshū and Kyūshū. The match was probably set in such a remote place because by this time Sasaki had acquired many students and disciples, and were Sasaki to have lost, they would probably have attempted to kill Miyamoto.

According to the legend, Miyamoto arrived more than three hours late, and goaded Sasaki by taunting him. When Sasaki attacked, his blow came as close as to sever Miyamoto’s chonmage. He came close to victory several times until, supposedly blinded by the sunset behind Miyamoto, Miyamoto struck him on the skull with his oversized bokken, or wooden sword, which was 110 centimeters long. Miyamoto supposedly fashioned the long bokken, a type called a suburitō due to its above-average length, by shaving down the spare oar of the boat in which he arrived at the duel with his wakizashi. Miyamoto had been late for the duel on purpose in order to psychologically unnerve his opponent, a tactic he used on previous occasions, such as during his series of duels with the Yoshioka swordsmen.

Another version of the legend recounts that when Miyamoto finally arrived, Sasaki shouted insults at him, but Miyamoto just smiled. Angered even further, Sasaki leapt into combat, blinded by rage. Sasaki attempted his famous “swallow’s blade” or “swallow cut“, but Miyamoto’s oversized bokken hit Sasaki first, causing him to fall down; before Sasaki could finish his swallow cut, Miyamoto smashed Sasaki’s left rib, puncturing his lungs and killing him. Miyamoto then hastily retreated to his boat and sailed away. This was Miyamoto’s last fatal duel.

Among other things, this conventional account, drawn from the Nitenki, Kensetsu, and Yoshida Seiken’s account, has some problems. Kenji Tokitsu discusses a number of obscurities and counterintuitive claims that have been identified in the account by him and previous scholars. Would Miyamoto only prepare his bokutowhile going to the duel site? Could he even have prepared it in time, working the hard wood with his wakizashi? Would that work not have tired him as well? Further, why was the island then renamed after Sasaki, and not Miyamoto? Other texts completely omit the “late arrival” portion of the story, or change the sequence of actions altogether. Harada Mukashi and a few other scholars believe that Sasaki was actually assassinated by Miyamoto and his students – the Sasaki clan apparently was a political obstacle to Lord Hosokawa, and defeating Sasaki would be a political setback to his religious and political foes.

The debate still rages today as to whether or not Miyamoto cheated in order to win that fateful duel or merely used the environment to his advantage. Another theory is that Miyamoto timed the hour of his arrival to match the turning of the tide. He expected to be pursued by Sasaki’s supporters in the event of a victory. The tide carried him to the island then it turned by the time the fight ended. Miyamoto immediately jumped back in his boat and his flight was thus helped by the tide.

Another account comes from the site

The two greatest swordsmen agreed to fight, and the duel took place on April 13, 1612 on Ganryu Island, located off the coast of the Bizen Province. The duel was set for early the next morning. On the day of the fight, Sasaki Kojiro and the officials serving as witnesses waited for Musashi for hours. His absence lead to the rumor that Musashi had run away in fear of his life because he was so terrified of Sasaki Kojiro’s technique. Nothing was further from the truth.

Miyamoto Musashi was transported to Ganryu Island on boat by a local fisherman, and, as part of his strategy, he arrived late for the duel once again, thus disturbing his opponent’s inner state. During the short trip, he sculpted a wooden sword which he used for the duel against Sasaki Kojiro.

When the boat finally arrived, Sasaki and the officials were standing on the beach waiting for Musashi. Extremely irritated and blinded by rage, Sasaki Kojiro drew his katana and threw away his scabbard. Musashi saw this gesture and said to his enemy, “If you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead.”

The dual began, and both men were on guard with respect for the other’s ability. One mistake, and it would all be over. Musashi provoked Kojiro into making the first attack, and then countered quickly, breaking Kojiro’s left ribs and puncturing his lungs, thus killing him.

The duel has been immortalized in cinema, most famously in the 1956 Japanese film Samurai III: The Duel at Ganryu Island.

Musashi vs Kojiro in Samurai III Duel at Ganryu... by robertyoki

Thanks to @par3ace for letting me know about this famous duel. It was an interesting rabbit-hole to dive down.


  1. Sam L. says:

    It would seem the old story about samurai swords cutting thru rifle barrels would be wrong, if one couldn’t cut thru an oar.

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Today I Learned: The Duel at Ganryu Island

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