The 47 Ronin
Among flowers, the cherry blossom; among men, the Samurai. (Japanese Proverb)
The story of the 47 Ronin, considered the national legend of Japan, is a tale of Honor, Duty and Loyalty. They were given the death penalty for their deed and yet, what they did so enshrines the Japanese ideal of the noble Samurai’s devotion to his Lord that the 47 Ronin were enshrined at Sengaku-Ji Temple beside their master and their graves are visited by thousands of pilgrims who light incense to their memory.
This is a true story that began in 1701 at a time of relative peace in Japan. The details of the story are hazy. It has been told so many times in plays, songs and poetry it becomes difficult to work out the precise details. However, the basic facts can be verified. The temple shrine to the 47 Ronin in Tokyo contains the armor and weapons of the Ronin as well as letters and other documents relating to the incident. To understand what took place it is necessary to explain a little about the social structure in Japan at that time.
Japan and the code of Bushido in the early 18th century
Socially and politically Japan was still in a feudal structure. The political and religious head of the country was the Emperor. Below him were the Daimyo (Lords) then came the Samurai, the professional warrior caste, and then peasants and artisans, below them were the traders and finally the Eta the untouchables who worked with animal slaughtering for food and the tanning of leather.
From 1192 until 1867 the Emperor was leader in name only. Political and military power was held by a series of dictators, mostly hereditary, called Shogun. The Shogun was a Daimyo like any other but he was the supreme commander of all other Daimyo. His word was law. Daimyo could also be, and frequently were, Samurai. As Samurai, all Daimyo and the Shogun were bound by the Samurai code of honor, Bushido.
Bushido, the way of the warrior, was a code similar to the European code of Chivalry. The seven virtues of Bushido are enumerated as: Rectitude, Benevolence, Courage, Respect, Honesty, Loyalty and Honor. It also included rules on personal grooming and cleanliness as well as compassion for those in a lower station. What was of utmost importance to the Samurai was dying an honorable death. When a Samurai was captured, defeated or disgraced, he was expected to commit ritual suicide. Known as Seppuku or Hara-kiri, it was the ritual disemboweling of oneself. Typically the Samurai would kneel, thrust his dagger into his left side then draw it across the abdomen. Women who performed Seppuku would first tie their knees together so they may have a “Decent” death without fear of exposing themselves.
Daimyo Asano Naganori
In April of 1971 The Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was preparing for the annual visit of the Emperor’s emissaries. This was a very structured affair and protocol was to be strictly observed. Two Daimyo were assigned by the Shogun to arrange the reception. They were; Asano Naganori and Kamei Sama. They were to be instructed in the appropriate protocol by the Shogun’s chief advisor, Kira Yoshinaka.
Kira had been in the service of the Shogunnate for over forty years. Ha was used to receiving bribes and expensive gifts for his services. Both Asano and kamei felt this was a dishonorable practice and refused to be involved in this practice. As a result, Asano treated them both very rudely. Kamei’s retainers, in an effort to avoid the public embarrassment of their lord, presented Kira with the appropriate gifts. Thereafter he treated Kamei with respect but Asano was disrespected publicly. The last straw took place on April 21st In the palace of the Shogun. Kira so insulted Asano that Asano drew his dagger and struck Kira. The blow did not kill Kira but for drawing his weapon in the palace and attacking a government official, the sentence was death. The Shogun commanded that Asano commit Seppuku. Asano complied that same day. His body was cremated and the ashes interred at Sengaku Temple.
Oishi Kuranosuki and the Blood Oath
The law of the time dictated that if a Daimyo was dishonored his home and all property is confiscated and his Samurai retainers must disband. Thus becoming Ronin, or Master-less Samurai.
Asano’s principal retainer, Oishi Kuranosuki, upon hearing the news moved his Daimyo’s family away before surrendering the castle and lands to the government. Asano had 371 Samurai, all were disbanded to become Ronin. In peacetime Japan it was not easy for such men to find honorable employment. Of the Ronin, only 47 determined they would not let their master’s death go unavenged. Vendetta was forbidden by law and even though they knew the punishment would be severe, the Forty Seven Ronin swore a blood oath to avenge their master’s death.
Preparing for vengeance
Kira lived in Edo, as Tokyo was known at that time. He suspected that the Samurai would try and seek vengeance so his home and personal security were fortified. Oishi realized that to succeed they must convince Kira that he was in no danger. The Forty Seven Ronin split up and disguised themselves as monks, and even traders. They met secretly, nothing else mattered only revenge. Oishi divorced his wife and sent her and his two youngest children away so they would not be implicated. His oldest son, Chikara, was given the choice to leave or stay and fight. He chose to stay, he was 16 years old.
Kira knew Oishi was in Edo so he sent spies to watch him and any other Ronin that he was aware of. To hide their intent, they went to Kyoto and began frequenting the taverns and brothels. Oishi gained a name for himself as a drunken gambler. For over a year and a half they kept up this pretence. Then, when Kira received news that the Ronin had forsaken the warrior way and given themselves to vice, he believed that he was safe. He relaxed his guard and the time was ready for the Forty Seven Ronin to strike.
The Ronin attack
December 14th 1702. It was snowing in Edo. The Ronin put on their armor and weapons, on top of these they wore the red uniform of the Fire Brigade so they could move freely through the city. When they came to Kira’s house they split into two groups. Oishi led the attack on the front of the house, some say it was Oishi’s son, Chikara, who led the attack on the rear. Others say it was Oishi’s lieutenant, Hara. Oishi sounded the war drum, the signal to attack. More than 120 retainers and visitors were in the house and though they defended themselves fiercely the Forty Seven Ronin defeated them. None of the Ronin was killed though some were wounded.
They searched the house and the grounds looking for Kira, finally discovering him hiding in a woodshed. Though some accounts have Kira fighting bravely to the end, the most popular account is the honorable behavior of Oishi.
It is said that he knelt before Kira and addressed him respectfully. He offered Kira the knife that Asano had used in his Seppuku and gave Kira the chance to die a Samurai death. Kira begged and pleaded for his life so Oishi decapitated him with Asano’s dagger.
Kira’s head was wrapped in a white cloth and all Forty Seven marched to the Sengaku-Ji Temple. There they washed the head of Kira in a well and placed it on Asano’s tomb. After prayers Oishi called the Abbot of the Temple and presented him with all the money left to the Ronin from their pensions. He asked that the Abbot prepare a place for their bodies. They then sent word to the Shogun, informing him of their deed and that they would wait at the Temple, obedient to his orders.
The 47 Ronin
The Fate of the 47 Ronin
The Ronin were held prisoner but the Shogun was in a dilemma. He was impressed, as was all of Japan, by the faithfulness they had shown to the Bushido code, but at the same time they had broken the law against vendetta. On February 14th 1703 the Ronin were divided into four groups. They were placed under the protection of the Daimyo where they were staying and were treated with every courtesy. After much deliberation the Shogun could not delay the inevitable. All forty Seven Ronin were ordered to commit Seppuku. This they did without complaint and so passed from life into legend.
Those who visit Tokyo are encouraged to visit Sengaku-Ji Temple. There can be found the armor and weapons that were used. Pay homage at the Kubi-Arai The head washing well, where the head of Kira was washed. There beside the Tomb of Asano, lie buried the remains of the Forty Seven Ronin. The spirit of the Samurai.