Musashi’s teaching from Gorin no sho: What are “Kan” and “Ken”?  宮本武蔵「兵法の眼付, 観見の二つあり」とは? 

武蔵A well-known samurai from the 17th century, Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵 photo right) wrote a famous book called Gorin no sho (五輪書) that consisted of five volumes. This book became very popular recently and I hear it was used as a textbook at several of the major US business schools (Harvard was one of them). It is very interesting to see that the professors in business administration thought that his book was beneficial to the university students who are studying business. The publisher, Bantam even published a translated book with an interesting cover with a subtitle of “The real art of Japanese management”.

I have read this book (in Japanese) many times and found some parts are difficult to understand. Regardless, I learned a lot about bujutsu (martial arts) concepts from it, even though I am not practicing kenjutsu (Japanese sword fencing).

Today I want to share one concept that is challenging to understand and even more difficult to practice, even for the kenjutsu experts. If you have read this book then I am sure you have seen this particular concept written in it. If you had some difficulty in understanding it, I do not blame you. I hope my explanation here will be of some help to you.

In Gorin no sho, there are five volumes or books. They are “The book of Earth 地の巻”, “The book of Water 水の巻”, “The book of Fire 火の巻”, “The book of Wind 風の巻” and lastly “The book of Empty or void 空の巻”. First of all I find it very interesting how he named the volumes with those names.  He borrowed the idea of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Empty from the Buddhist teachings to convey in each volume of his deep understanding from kenjutsu (he called it heiho 兵法). Though I wish to write something about these symbols in the future, I will focus on the one concept today that I found to be one of the most interesting and important of the concepts. This is found in Chapter 3 in the volume of water (水之巻) that consists of 38 chapters total.

5 chapters to Bhuddism

According to Musashi, there are two different methods of looking at an opponent or (opponents). Isn’t this puzzling? When we look at an opponent, most people agree that there is only one method for us. You open your eyes and look. You could look carefully or not as carefully but this is not what he was saying. Musashi said there were completely different methods of looking. He called one method, Kan (觀) and the other Ken (見). Many kenjutsuka (swordsmen) also consider the teaching here as being very challenging. So, we need to study and evaluate each word so that we can understand his teaching.


I will put the concept in Japanese first.

Beneath it, I will attempt to translate with some added explanation.

 第三節  兵法の眼付と云ふ事



眼の付け様は、大きに広く付るなり。(Meno tsukeyo ha, ookini hiroku tsukeru nari)

The literal translation of this sentence is as follow; “The setting of the eyes must be large and wide.” This is sort of surprising to me. I was thinking it was better to narrow the eyes a little rather than to open them wide. But he is suggesting we shMusashi 2ould keep them wide open.

観見の二つあり、観の目つよく、見の目よわく、遠き所を近く見、近き所を遠く見ること、兵法の専なり。(Kan ken no futatsu ari, kan no me tsuyoku, ken no me yowaku, tooki tokoro wo chikaku mi, chikaki tokoro wo tooku miru koto, heiho no sen nari.)

The literal translation, “There are two methods; ‘Kan’ and ‘Ken’. The eye of ‘Kan’ needs to be strong and that of ‘Ken’ needs to be weak. You need to look at the far vision as near and the near vision as far. This is the requirement of bujutsu.”

This is the most important part of this teaching but at the same time, it can be very confusing. Musashi is explaining about two different ways when you look at an opponent. He used two kanji, 観 and 見 to differentiate the two ways of looking. Those two kanji, both, mean “look” or “see”. Each kanji has the Chinese way of pronunciation and the Japanese way. Though the Chinese pronunciation is different, the Japanese sound is the same, “Miru 観る, 見る). So, even for a Japanese person this differentiation bKan Ken illustrationetween those two kanji is difficult. Typically 観 is used when you are looking at something that is far. For instance, we use this kanji when we go to a stadium to watch a game of baseball or football. Another situation is to go to a park to watch the cherry blossoms in the spring time or the trees on the mountain. On the other hand, 見 is typically used when you are looking at something near you and in a narrow view. For instance, when you say “I look at my hands”, we always use見 and never 観. However, if we are going to investigate or to inspect something, we use 観 even if that something is near (i.e. 観察 observation, 観光 sightseeing).

In English you have different words to view or see. If you say “I see a person” then it is different from “I look at a person”. There are more different verbs too. One is “watch”. You watch TV to see a program so “I see TV” means something completely different. Another one would be “view”. So, all those different words have slightly different meaning even though you are doing some function with your eyes.

So, Musashi is saying that the far vision needs to be strong or intense. We need to view the far sight as though near. On the other hand, the near vision must not be seen so intensely. As they are at a close distance, it is easy for us to be preoccupied and forget the sights of the far. Then, he says we need to view the scene of close distance as if it is far away.

I am pretty sure you can understand the literal meaning of what he wrote. It is another matter to truly understand what Musashi was trying to convey. Even if we did understand the true meaning of what he was saying, being able to do those things would be another matter. It is not like we have a zoom capability so we can see something far. He is saying we have those two capabilities (to see near and far) with our eyes but he is telling us that we need to execute those two functions simultaneously which makes it very challenging if not impossible.



(Teki no tachi wo shiri, isasakamo teki no tachi wo mizuto iukoto, heiho no daiji nari. Kufu arubeshi.)

“One must know the opponent’s sword in advance, thus one does not watch the opponent’s sword. This is a very important point for kenjutsu strategy. We must do our best to master this skill.”

It is true that if one can predict how the opponent will swing the sword, one does not need to watch the sword. However, how can that be possible? From what I can guess, you can do this by developing the “Kan no me” and “Ken no me”.



(Kono metsuke, chiisaki heiho nimo, dainaru heiho nimo onaji koto nari.)

“This viewing method is the same with the small fighting and large fighting situations.”

By small fighting he meant an individual samurai fighting against one or multiple opponents. On the other hand, by large fighting he was talking about a battle and a war strategy.


Vision range目の玉動かずして、両脇を見ること肝要なり。

(Menotama ugokazu shite, ryowaki wo mirukoto kanyo nari.)

“It is critically important that you can see the side views without moving your eyes.”

Now he is talking about a specific technique which is interesting. We need to be able to see with a 180 degree vision without moving our eyes. I think it is possible but it will require some serious training if we wish to be able to do this during our fighting time.



(Kayo no koto, isogashiki toki, niwaka ni wakimae gatashi.)

“This ability (note: to have a 180 degree vision) is quite difficult to have when you are busy (note: fighting time).”

Not surprisingly, he is warning us that this technique is quite difficult when we are fighting for our life. Normally, in a fight for your life situation, your vision narrows and becomes sort of tunnel vision. Thus, Musashi felt the need of telling us about this. He pointed to us that developing this technique requires a lot of training and discipline.



(Kono kakitsuke wo oboe, joju kono metsuke ni narite, nanigoto nimo metsuke no kawarazaru tokoro, yokuyoku ginmi arubeki mono nari.)

“Memorize these statements in this document, develop this vision skill into your daily life, do not change the view method regardless of the situation. You must remind yourself about this deeply.”

I believe this statement above is quite obvious and understandable.


The key statement of this teaching was certainly in the second sentence and I am sure all the readers will agree. Even if we understand what Musashi was trying to tell us, it remainOld cameras challenging because he did not tell us how to achieve those two methods. We sort of understand the difference between them but how do we apply both? I cannot explain how different they are and how to achieve them, but I think I can give you an analogy. If you were born in the 20th century, you remember those analog cameras. These days, most of us including the senior citizens, like me, depend on our cell phones. The cameras we use now are all digital.  Do you remember how difficult it was to focus correctly using an analog camera? A camera on an iPhone is simple and no need to focus so all of us love it. However, I remember that one of my friends who happens to be a semi professional photographer told me once a few years ago that with the digital cameras we were now forgetting how to take the good photos. I told him I did not understand. I disagreed with him by saying that we no longer need to play around and focus. We can take many photos so we can delete the bad ones and keep only the good ones. With an analog camera (excluding the professional use high speed cameras), we can take only one at a time and we did not know how the photos would come out until we had them developiPhoneed. He agreed on what I told him but he continued to explain where he was coming from. He said to take a professional quality photo, you need to pay attention to two different things in the camera finder. One is, of course, the object or the person who you are taking a photo of. The other is the background. At this time, I told him, “Exactly, this is why we had a lot of problems with the analog cameras. We had to check both the target and the background and we constantly messed up the focus.” He came back and told me this was one of the reasons why the photos taken by a professional photographer always resulted in better looking photos than those taken by the amateurs. Of course, there were other reasons such as the shutter speed, distance, f stops etc.

I remembered my friend’s statement when I read the second sentence of Musashi teaching. Maybe, a professional cameraman could look at the background using the eyes of Kan (観) simultaneously he would look at the target (object or person) with the eyes of Ken (見). All along he would be checking and feeling the light, shade, all the details of what is going on behind and around the target. The professional person can do all those functions simultaneously and click the shutter at the right time. He/she knows exactly when to click the shutter and most of the time, the photos are Zanshinusually beautiful and exciting. On the other hand, if that was us, the amateur cameramen would not be able to do them right and miss the right moment and the photos will end up, most of the time, as mediocre and not so exciting. The action and the environment of taking a photo are totally different from fighting against an enemy who is trying to kill you. However, I think this analogy does explain the part of having two different kinds of viewing function. What do you think?

Then, how do we accomplish this in martial arts, our karate? I am not an expert in this so I cannot give an answer. However, two words come to mind. One is Zanshin (残心) and the other is Ki (気). As you know zanshin is typically used after you complete your kata. By this, you are supposed to keep your attention to the enemy who is supposedly knocked down by you. This understanding is partially correct and partially incorrect. It is so because we, the karateka, are to keep this attention not only to the fallen enemy but to any possible enemy who are around us and we are to do this all the time and not only after kata or fighting. With the true Zanshin feeling we are to pay attention to 360 degrees around us at all times. So, there is a similar expectation as in the Musashi teaching such as seeing the near and the far at the same time, and to be able to see with a 180 degrees vision. We, the karate practitioners, are expected to develop Ki. Most of us have some idea of what Ki is but it is also a difficult concept for many of us. I have written an article, “What is Ki?” which comes in Part 1 and Part 2. They are included in my third book, Shotokan Trascendence. If you have not read this book, it is available from Amazon Books US and UK.Ki

In short, Ki is an energy form or an entity that is within ourselves. So, we look at or see the things near, or the target, with the physical eyes or Ken (見). For the far things and the things around us that are being covered in 360 degrees we see with the eyes of Kan (観) or our heart or our Ki. In other words, you try to FEEL or see with your heart (Ki) the movements, thoughts and intention of the enemy. This may be a part of Kan. Of course, Kan will expand beyond the enemy you are facing but I think this concept will apply nicely here.

What I wrote above is only my thinking and I am not sure what Musashi would say if he could read this. Despite that, I feel quite confident that the teaching we learn in karate is applicable to that of Musashi.


This is the first teaching I picked up from Gorin no sho. I plan to find other interesting teachings from this valuable book and attempt to apply my interpretation sometime in the future. It will be posted on my blog site so check this site periodically if you are interested in finding the sequence as well as other karate and martial arts related articles.
If you do not have a copy of “A Book of Five Rings”, why not get a copy from Amazon Books? This is a must have book in the library of every serious karateka. I guarantee it is a well worth investment.

Here is the URL: cover 2


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *