47 Ronin

The tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin (or Forty-Seven Samurai, 赤穂浪士 also known as the Ako vendetta) is probably the most prototypical of all Japanese stories; it recounts the most famous case of the samurai code of honor, bushido. It would not be excessive to describe it as the Homer of Japan (although it appeared much later in Japanese history than Homer did in Greece); it certainly captures the essence of the Japanese world-view better than any other single work.

Briefly, a group of samurai were left leaderless after their master was forced to commit seppuku for assaulting a court official, after being insulted by him. They avenged him by killing the court official, after patiently waiting and planning for over a year. In turn, they were themselves forced to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder, as they had known they would be-- the tale being about the honorable fulfillment of duty, especially to an honorable leader.

The original events

Note: The story was popularized in numerous kabuki plays; in them, because of the censorship laws of the shogunate, the names were changed. The names given in the account immediately below are those of the real people. Also, various sources differ as to some of the details.

In 1701 (in Western reckoning), two daimyo, Asano Takumi-noh-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of Ako province, and Kamei Sama, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoy of Emperor Higashiyama of Japan in Edo, during his sankin kotai service.

They were to be given instruction in the necessary court etiquette by Kira Kozuke-noh-Suke, a powerful official in the hierarchy of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's shogunate. He became upset at them, allegedly because of either the small presents they offered him (in the time-honoured compensation for such an instructor), or because they would not offer bribes as he wanted; he therefore treated them poorly, insulting them and not bothering to teach them their duties properly.

While Asano bore all this stoically, Kamei Sama became enraged, and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, the quick thinking counsellors of Kamei Sama averted disaster for their lord and clan (for all would have been punished if Kamei Sama killed Kira) by quietly giving him a large bribe. Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei Sama very nicely, which quenched his anger.

However, Kira continued to treat Asano harshly, because he was upset that the latter had not emulated his companion; Kira taunted and humiliated him in public. Finally, Kira insulted Asano as a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. He lost his temper, and attacked Kira Suke with a dagger, but only wounded him in the face with his first strike; his second missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.

Kira's wound was hardly serious, but the attack on shogunate official within the boundaries of Edo castle, the Shogun's residence, was a grave offense; any kind of violence, even drawing a sword, was completely forbidden there. Therefore Asano was ordered to commit seppuku that same day, his goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family ruined, and his retainers made ronin.

This news was carried to Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano's principal counsellor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, and handed over the castle to the agents of the government.

Forty-seven of Asano's reputedly three hundred men -- and especially their leader Oishi -- refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so.

However, Kira was well guarded, and his residence had been fortified, just to prevent just such an event. They saw that they would have to put him off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen or monks. Oishi himself took up residence in Kyoto, and begun to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano.

One day, as Oishi returned drunk from some haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed at him. A Satsuma man, passing by, was infuriated by this behaviour on the part of a samurai - both by his lack of courage to avenge his master, as well as his current debauched behaviour. The Satsuma man abused and insulted him, and kicked him in the face (to even touch the face of a samurai was a great insult, let alone strike it), and spat on him.

Not too long after, Oishi's loyal wife of twenty years went to him and complained that he seemed to be taking his act too far. He divorced her on the spot, and sent her away with their two younger children; the oldest, a boy, Chikara, remained with his father. In his wife's place, the father bought a pretty young concubine.

Kira's agents reported all this to Kira, who became convinced that he was safe from the retainers of Asano, who must all be bad samurai indeed, without the courage to avenge their master, and were harmless; he then relaxed his guard.

The rest of the faithful retainers now gathered in Edo, and in their roles as workmen and merchants, gained access to Kira's house, becoming familiar with the layout of the house, and the character of all within. One of the retainers went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain plans. All of this was reported to Oishi. Others gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo, another offense.

In 1702, when Oishi was convinced that Kira was thoroughly off his guard, and everything was ready, he fled from Kyoto, avoiding the spies who were watching him, and the entire band (except one who had died) gathered at a secret meeting-place in Edo, and renewed their oaths.

Early in the morning of December 15, in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Oishi and the ronin attacked Kira Yoshinaka's mansion in Edo. According to a carefully laid-out plan, they split up into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Oishi, was to attack the front gate; the other, led by his son, Chikara, was to attack the house via the back gate. A drum would sound the simultaneous attack, and a whistle would signal that Kira was dead.

Once he was dead, they planned to cut off his head, and lay it as an offering on their master's tomb. They would then turn themselves in, and wait for their expected sentence of death. All this had been confirmed at a final dinner, where Oishi had asked them to be careful, and spare women, children and other helpless people.

Oishi had four men scale the fence and enter the porter's lodge, capturing and tying up the guard there. He then sent messengers to all the neighbouring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but retainers out to revenge the death of their master, and no harm would come to anyone else; they were all perfectly safe. His neighbours, who all hated Kira, did nothing.

After posting archers (some on the roof), to prevent those in the house (who had not yet woken up) from sending for help, Oishi sounded the drum to start the attack. Ten of Kira's retainers held off the party attacking the house from the front, but Chikara's party broke into the back of the house.

Kira, in terror, took refuge in a closet in the verandah, along with his wife and female servants. The rest of his retainers, who slept in a barracks outside, attempted to come into the house to his rescue. After overcoming the defenders at the front of the house, the two parties of father and son joined up, and fought with the retainers who came in. The latter, perceiving that they were losing, tried to send for help, but their messengers were killed by the archers posted to prevent that.

Eventually, after a fierce struggle, the last of Kira's retainers were subdued; in the process they killed sixteen of Kira's men and wounded twenty-two, including his grandson. Of Kira, however, there was no sign. They searched the house, but all they found were crying women and children. They began to despair, but Oishi checked Kira's bed, and it was still warm, so he knew he could not be far.

A renewed search disclosed an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll; the courtyard held a small building for storing charcoal and firewood, where two more hidden armed retainers were overcome and killed. A search of the building disclosed a man hiding; he attacked the searcher with a dagger, but was easily disarmed.

He refused to say who he was, but the searchers felt sure it was Kira, and sounded the whistle. The ronin gathered, and Oishi, with a lantern, saw that it was indeed Kira - as a final proof, his head bore the scar from Asano's attack.

At that, Oishi went on his knees, and in consideration of Kira's high rank, respectfully addressed him, telling him they were retainers of Asano, come to avenge him as true samurai should, and inviting Kira to die as a true samurai should, by killing himself. Oishi indicated he personally would act as a second, and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself.

However, no matter how much they entreated him, Kira crouched, speechless and trembling. At last, seeing it was useless to ask, Oishi killed him, and cut off his head with the dagger. They then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house (lest any cause the house to catch fire, and start a general fire that would harm the neighbours), and left, taking the head.

As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira's head to their lord's grave in Sengaku-ji temple, causing a great stir on the way. The story quickly went around as to what had happened, and everyone on their path praised them, and offered them refreshment. On arriving at the temple, they washed and cleaned Kira's head in a well, and laid it, and the fateful dagger, before Asano's tomb.

They then offered prayers at the temple, and gave the abbot of the temple all the money they had left, asking him to bury them decently, and offer prayers for them. They then turned themselves in; the group was broken into four parts and put under guard of four different daimyos.

During this time, two friends of Kira came to collect his head for burial; the temple still has the original receipt for the head, which the friends and the priests who dealt with them all signed.

The Shogunate officials were in quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido (by avenging the death of their lord) but also defied shogunate authority (by exacting revenge which had been prohibited). As expected, they were sentenced to death, but the Shogun had finally resolved the quandary by ordering them to honorably commit seppuku, instead of having them executed as criminals.

They did so on February 4, 1703. They were also buried in Sengaku-ji temple, as they had requested, in front of the tomb of their master. The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to possibly arouse suspicion by purchasing any. The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray.

One of those who came was a Satsuma man, the same one who had mocked and spat on Oishi as he lay drunk in the street. Addressing the grave, he begged for forgiveness for his actions, and for thinking that Oishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide himself on the spot, and is buried next to the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin.

The Forty-Seven Ronin in the Arts

As one might expect, the tragedy of the Forty-seven Ronin has been one of the most popular themes in Japanese art, and has lately even begun to make its way into Western art.

Plays

This incident immediately inspired a succession of kabuki plays; the first, The Night Attack at Dawn by the Soga appeared only two weeks after they died. It was shut down by the authorities, but many others soon followed, initially especially in Osaka and Kyoto, further away from the capital.

The most successful of them was a puppet play called Kanadehon Chushingura (now simply called Chushingura, or "Treasury of Loyal Retainers"), written in 1748 by Takeda Izumo and two associates; it was later adapted into a kabuki play, which is still one of Japan's most popular.

In the play, to avoid the attention of the censors, the events are transferred into the distant past, to the 14th century reign of shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Asano became Enya, Kira became Moronao and Oishi became Oboshi. Moronao also tries to seduce Enya's wife. This play has been made into a movie at least six times, with the 1962 version most familiar to Western audiences, where Toshiro Mifune appears in a supporting role.

Woodblock Prints

The Forty-seven Ronin are one of the most popular themes in woodblock prints; the list of artists who have done prints portaying either the original events, or scenes from the play, or the actors, is a virtual directory of woodblock artists. One book on subjects depicted in woodblock prints devotes no less than seven chapters to the history of the appearance of this theme in woodblocks!

Among the artist who produced prints on this subject are Utamaro, Toyokuni, Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige. However, probably the most famous woodblocks in this genre are those of Kuniyoshi, who produced at least eleven separate complete series on this subject, along with more than twenty triptychs.

In the West

The first retelling of this story (and still one of the best) appeared in 1871, where the historical version is recounted; it was the first story in the first modern Western book on Japan, after the opening of Japan during the Meiji Restoration. A translation of the play first appeared in 1876, and numerous versions have since come out.

The story of the Forty-seven Ronin makes an appearance in many modern works, most notably in John Frankenheimer's film Ronin.

Further Reading




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