Three different perspectives on Miyamoto Musashi’s “Arresting Shadows”

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In Musashi’s Go Rin No Sho 五輪書 (Book of Five Rings) (c.1645) we read about a principle called “Arresting Shadows” – to be used when adversaries’ aggressive intentions toward you are perceptible. 

The book introduces many intriguing concepts like this – but doesn’t give away much detail about what they mean in practice. Instead, Musashi advises you to explore and discover each point for yourself, via careful reflection and thorough practice.

So we can’t draw on the Five Rings directly in the same way as a formal textbook – or read it cover to cover like a novel. It’s more of a collecton of hints, which may be fleshed out over a lifetime – through transmission from a good teacher, and your own private martial arts study and reflection.

In terms of accessing a many-layered text like this, a possible starting point comes from Takeshi Tanigawa Sensei, whose wisdom I’ve recently been fortunate to encounter a little of. He teaches the critical reading of written texts through three lenses . . . as a warrior, a scholar and a monk.

In this article, I’m going to apply his framework to Musashi’s passage on Arresting Shadows, and see what emerges. Just as a caveat, I’m not trained in the Tanigawa Ha way of reading texts, and so this is just my interpretation of what the approach could look like . . .


The text itself

Thomas Cleary’s translation gives us a starting point:

Arresting Shadows

Arresting shadows is something you do when adversaries’ aggressive intentions toward you are perceptible.

In large-scale military science, this means to arrest the enemy’s action at the point of the very impulse to act. If you demonstrate strongly to opponents how you control the advantage, they will change their minds, inhibited by this strength. You change your attitude too – to an empty mind, from which you take the initiative and seize victory.

In individual martial arts as well, you use an advantageous rhythm to arrest the powerful determination of the adversary’s motivation; then you find the winning advantage in the moment of pause and now take the initiative. This must be worked out thoroughly.



1. Reading Arresting Shadows as a scholar

There would be so many ways to read this passage as a scholar. For simplicity, I’m going to structure this section in line with a basic blog post called “Advice for Students: How to Read Like a Scholar“. Writer Dustin Wax suggests reading a text with the following questions in mind:

What is the author trying to say?

Musashi seems to be advising us to seize the initiative, and proactively change the other person’s mind, in order to control them.

He then advises you to change your own mind too, to put yourself into the right place to seize victory.

The Five Rings (scrolls) are: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. Arresting Shadows is from the Fire Scroll, which compares combat to fire.

Musashi explains that people often focus on little things in their training such as the minor advantages of speed or training their hands and feet in this way. In the Fire Scroll, he takes a bigger-picture view, explaining that the best training for killing enemies comes from understanding the principles of how real combat works. Arresting Shadows is one of the strategies he advises for taking control in a battle.

How does the author say what they’re trying to say?

Musashi is using a beautiful, powerful and complex metaphor. Metaphor can convey so much more than direct description – Aristotle said:

Ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.

The Japanese noun kage 影 is ambiguous – its seemingly contradictory meanings* include: shadow; silhouette; figure; shape; reflection; image; ominous sign; light (stars, moon); trace; shadow (of one’s former self)

The verb osaeru おさえる can also be translated in different ways. This means that kage o osaeru has been translated variously – for example Controlling the Light (William Scott Wilson) or To hold down a shadow (Victor Harris).

This ambiguous image gives us a sense of yin balanced with yang; of working with an inexorable natural principle; of controlling something that may seem intangible and impossible to control.

Why is the author’s point important?

Thomas Cleary argues that The Book of Five Rings gives us two important principles:

– Keeping inwardly calm and clear even in the midst of violent chaos.
– Not forgetting about the possibility of disorder in times of order.

Cleary explains that:

As a warrior of two very different worlds, a world of war and a world of peace, Musashi was obliged to practice both of these fundamental aspects of the warrior’s way in a most highly intensified manner.

It may be almost 400 years later, but this wisdom feels just as relevant today.

Do you agree or disagree with the author?

I can definitely appreciate the value in this concept of Arresting Shadows. Even though, as Jackie Bradbury says, most of us are thankfully not fighting on “real” battlefields every day, conflict is part of life, and Musashi’s principle could be of great help in many situations.

How does this work connect / compare / contrast with other works?

Thomas Cleary explains that Musashi’s work is distinctive – both technically and philosophically – because Musashi was a masterless samurai pursuing a career as a dueler and an independent teacher of martial arts. (As opposed to a writer such as Yagyu, with his more stable background of public service).

The use of metaphors is also distinctive, when compared with a typical modern day martial arts textbook which is more likely to give literal descriptions of techniques.

Green and Svinth explain that at one point, European fencing also used to use metaphorical names for techniques. However, as Humanist thought flourished during the Renaissance, these names were replaced with mechanical or numerical names, to reflect the more rational scholarly language coming into fashion in the West.

What is the social context of the work?

All of the questions listed here could lead on to deep scholarly study, which there isn’t space here to embark on. Just to give you a glimpse of where such study could go, here’s Dustin Wax’s guidance for exploring the social context:

To answer this question, you would need to reflect on the historical period Always consider the historical moment in which a work was created. What kind of person wrote it, and for what kind of audience? What historical events shaped the author’s perceptions and ideas? How was their world different from yours, and how was it similar?


2. Reading Arresting Shadows as a Warrior

So what does this evocative metaphor mean in practical, martial terms? Again, you could surely explore this forever, but here are a few possible examples:

Changing your opponent’s mind through relentless physical attack – Emilianenko vs Sylvia

Rory Miller writes:

In my style we emphasize getting and maintaining the initiative, taking the fight to the threat.

The Japanese phrase for this constant assault tactic is “Leaving no space for death to enter.” Loren Christensen has phrased it as elegantly as possible: “There are so many beats in a fight. I want those beats filled up with my (italics) stuff. An overwhelming attack is a very, very reliable way to take out a threat. You take up all the tine, leaving none for him. – Meditations on Violence p.48

Jack Slack notes that this is a constant theme in Musashi’s teaching, who was a major proponent of staying on offense rather than fighting on the counter. Jack invokes Musashi’s teaching of “Pressing Down the Pillow” to take the initiative:

When he is going to strike, before the word strike could even be pronounced, be intent on suppressing him and prohibit the rest of his action […] Sustain your action over your opponent so that anything he does comes to nothing. Thus you will be forged in the martial arts.”

As an example, Jack highlights a MMA match between Fedor Emelianenko and Tim Sylvia:

From the moment the fight began, Fedor checked Sylvia’s lead hand, leapt in with a left hook, recognized that Sylvia was hurt (as we spoke about in Knowing Collapse), and swarmed all over him with punches. He immediately took the back and choked Sylvia for the finish in under thirty seconds.

Another physical interpretation of Arresting Shadows could be to enter into your opponent’s space and restrain their movement in some way. For example, in The Tao of Self Defence, Scott Shaw interprets Arresting Shadows as follows:

Watch your opponent, study your opponent, observe who he is. With this style of initial self-defense you will be able to launch an attack before your adversary has the ability to unleash his full frontal assault.

Shaw relates this to concrete technique:

A little known, yet highly regarded, fact of self-defence is that if you control your opponent’s elbow, you virtually control his entire range of motion.

and goes on to give detailed instructions on how to do this.

Changing your opponent’s mind through words – Macbeth vs Macduff

In Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy Macbeth, the tyrant king finally comes face to face with Macduff, whose wife and children he has already had murdered. Macbeth has been apparently untouchable until now, confident in the witches’ prophecy that: 

None of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.

He warns Macduff of his advantage. But Macduff chillingly replies:

Despair thy charm […] Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped.

(In other words Macduff was born by C-section, which was rare in those days, and used for example to save a baby if the mother had died.)

We literally see Macbeth crumble, as he says:

Accursed be that tongue that tells me so / For it hath cow’d my better part of man

He tries to fight, but with his mind shattered, he is no match for Macduff, who kills and beheads Macbeth.

This is a vivid example of Arresting Shadows. The audience is able to witness the psychological impact of Macduff’s assertion of control over Macbeth, as he voices his shock and disorientation, and literally loses his ability to fight.

Changing your opponent’s mind in several ways all at once – Musashi v Sasaki Kojirō (佐々木小次郎)

According to Wikipedia:

Sasaki Kojirō was a long-time rival of Miyamoto Musashi, and is considered the most challenging opponent Miyamoto ever faced.

[…] According to the legend, Miyamoto arrived more than three hours late, and goaded Sasaki by taunting him [ . . . Sasaki . . . ] 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 had been late for the duel on purpose in order to psychologically

Still image from Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island

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.

It’s also also said that Musashi made use of the sunset or sunrise to dazzle Kojiro’s eyes and distract him.

This element lends subtlety and elegance to the narrative, as we see Musashi manipulating kage (light/shadow) both metaphorically (destroying his opponent’s state of mind) and literally (using the position of the sun to his advantage)


3. Reading Arresting Shadows as a monk

So we’ve looked at how Arresting Shadows might be used by the warrior to destroy an enemy. What might it mean to a holy man or woman?

Boyė Lafayette de Mente explains that the Book of Five Rings contains: Fundamental wisdom that can be applied in constructive as well as destructive ways.

If you read Musashi’s text again, you’ll see that it’s about being victorious against someone else’s aggression – but it doesn’t actually mention killing or injuring the other person anywhere.

If you demonstrate strongly to opponents how you control the advantage, they will change their minds, inhibited by this strength.

The text is open-ended and ethically neutral. You could use this principle to fend off an attacker – or to manipulate and kill an innocent victim – or to lovingly stop a small child from misbehaving – or to get your boss to give in on something – or in infinite other ways.

This makes it a useful principle for those who aspire to overcoming aggression without harming the other person. When people talk of “Aikido” conflict resolution, they often think of softness – of yielding and “giving in to get your way” (Terry Dobson and Victor Miller).

But in some contexts it can be helpful to use hard power to demonstrate how you control the advantage – and overcome someone in a strong, compassionate, protective way.

We use arresting shadows in a kind and centred way with children all the time, to distract or deter them from misbehaving. Indeed, Robert Frager writes (in the Foreword to Quentin Cooke’s A Way to Reconcile the World):

I asked, “[O] Sensei, what is the correct attitude to our training partners in aikido? He smiled and […] replied, “It is like a parent to a child. You lead your training partners with the expectation that they will follow you”.

Law enforcement people also use it. Police officer and Karateka George J Thompson told this story:

A man holding hostages once told me, “I want a million dollars and an airplane!”

I said, “So do I!” and laughed […] “Sir, we’d both like those things, wouldn’t we? But […] that’s not going to happen. The people surrounding the house, sir […] they’re the SWAT team, and they want to kill you […] Let’s you and I work together […] I’ll see what I can do about getting you out of here alive and not in such deep trouble.”

He worked with me.

But it can also be ok to use your own anger and aggression harshly, to demonstrate your advantage, to overcome others’ aggression. A mesmerising example is found in the book The Small Woman – the true story of Gladys Aylward which inspired the 1958 movie: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Gladys is a British missionary living in China, who is gaining a reputation within the local community as once who cares about people, and has the power to make a difference. A riot breaks out in the prison, and can’t be quelled. The local administrative office summons Gladys to see what she can do.

Gladys is pushed into the prison courtyard, abandoned by the officials who are too scared to go in with her. She sees blood and fighting everywhere, and several dead bodies already stretched out on the flagstones . . .

Still image from the movie: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

The madman with the axe halted only a few feet away from her. Without any instinctive plan, hardy realizing what she was doing, she took two angry steps towards him.

“Give me that chopper,” she said furiously. “Give it to me at once!”

The man turned to look at her. For three long seconds the wild dark pupils staring from bloodshot eyes glared at her.

He took two paces forward. Suddenly, meekly, he held out the axe. Gladys snatched the weapon from his hand and held it rigidly down by her side. She was conscious that there was blood on the blade and that it would stain her trousers. The other convicts – there must have been fifty or sixty men cowering there – stared from every corner of the courtyard. All action was frozen in that one moment of intense drama. Gladys knew that she must clinch her psychological advantage.

“All of you!” she shouted. “Come over here. Come on, form into a line!” […] She screamed at them, gabbled like an undersized infuriated sergeant-major, like a schoolmarm with a class of naughty children. “Get into line at once. You, over there! Come on, form up in front of me!”

Obediently the convicts shambled across, forming into a ragged group before her. She regarded them stormily. There was silence. Then suddenly her fear had gone. In its place was an immense, soul-searing pity that pricked the tears into her eyes.

We may not associate such overt aggression with the figure of the monk – but Gladys was a devout, nun-like woman, seeking to spread peace. In this case she did enormous good, restoring peace and going on to ensure substantial reform of the prison’s conditions. 

So reading this text as a monk gives us at least two possibilities for arresting shadows with a protective spirit, depending on the situation. One approach is calm, good-natured and even friendly; the other is aggressive – if that’s what the situation calls for.





We’ve looked at three very different ways of approaching this tiny fragment of the Book of Five Rings. Even just one of these lenses could be of great help in enabling us to access the text.

Used together in an integrated way, the Warrior, the Scholar and the Monk viewpoints start to open up an unprecedentedly rich, balanced yin/yang (in/yō) perspective on the text.

There are many aspects of the passage that I haven’t even touched on here – for example Musashi’s advice to change your attitude too – to an empty mind, from which you take the initiative and seize victory; and his idea of using advantageous rhythm.

The potential for study within this one tiny fragment of text seems endless.

Overall this is a brilliant framework for studying a text; and one that I definitely intend to use again! .

* (As a non-native speaker of Japanese, this messes with my head a bit. How can the same word have such opposite meanings? But in fact the English language is full of words like this, which we often don’t even notice. They are called contronyms, and include:

1. Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights
2. Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
3. Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
4. Transparent: Invisible, or obvious)

Related article: How to apply Miyamoto Musashi’s Nine Strategic Principles in modern life – A quick guide


8 Responses

  1. M J Orella

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this Ancient Classic, the book of the five rings has a lot of striking similarity to the art of war, by sun tzu, and the alternative meaning for the same word or situation is very ying or yang, where one blends from one to the other and understand that the opposite contains a little of its mirrored image, and as it blends one throws away emotionally content and weighs up the pros and cons, to understand the situation, have you read the keun kuit? This is the fighting poetry of wing chung and helps give insight and advice on fighting strategies, which can easily be used by any martial arts practioner who uses the three lens technique, one verse explains Greet what comes, follow what leaves, and jump into lose, which is very often interpreted as, intercept the attack, follow it as it returns to load up, keeping range, and as they pause attack, it How a fighter and a scholar blend

    • Kai

      Many thanks for your very thoughtful and interesting comment. I hadn’t heard of the Kuen Kuit and will definitely follow that up – thank you for signposting to it 🙂

      I especially appreciate your insights into the literary effect of ambiguous words within these texts; your explanation has helped to move my thinking on a little more

      best wishes Kx

    • Kai

      Thanks Fiona, I thought of you while writing it actually, knowing how much you love Musashi’s thought 🙂

  2. Greg Laforce

    Thank you for providing such an interesting lens Kai. I can definitely attest that in my reading, there are often times when passages look different, depending on the time of day, the energy of the moment, or the circumstances in my life. Gladys’ example is a stark reminder that the Dao, and our life’s flow with it, is like that of water following a riverbed. Sometimes it meanders lazily around wide turns and sandy beaches, other times, it throws itself without care over steep terrain, rolling and crashing into the opposing rock. But still, it flows the same, sticking perfectly to the situation. As Bruce Lee said: “be water my friend!”.

    In health, all ways!


    • Kai

      Hi Greg, lovely to hear from you 🙂

      just to clarify, this idea of the lenses comes from a Karate school called Tanigawa Ha, it’s not my own creation!

      your reflections are pure poetry as always, and a deep pleasure to read – thank you for sharing 🙂 take care X

  3. Joelle White

    “If you read Musashi’s text again, you’ll see that it’s about being victorious against someone else’s aggression – but it doesn’t actually mention killing or injuring the other person anywhere.” Love that! Thanks for this interesting and deep exploration of something that sounds simple until you really look at it 🙂

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Joelle – yes, the depth within just this tiny fragment of the text seems quite astonishing! glad you liked it anyway 🙂 Kx

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