The Tale of the 47 Ronin
As told by Matthew Berrigan, May 2015
In the Spring of 1701, Lord Asano, the young daimyo of Ako Castle in the Hyogo Prefecture was appointed to serve at the castle of the Shogun to prepare for the visit of the Emperor of Japan. The job was important, as the Shogun and the Emperor were the two most important people in the country. Lord Asano did not want to insult the Emperor and he did not want to embarass the Shogun... either mistake could have deadly consequences.
Lord Kira was instructed to teach Lord Asano the etiquette of the court - what to do and what not to do. Usually, Kira was offered very expensive gifts by those who came to court to be trained, but all Asano brought him was a gift of dried bonito fish. Lord Kira was insulted, and throughout all of Asano's training, Kira treated him badly and was uncooperative.
Tensions were high on the day of the ceremony. Asano, worried that he did not know when to kneel before the Emperor, came to Kira for guidance. Kira responded smugly, "you should have figured that out a long time ago Lord Asano. I'm far too busy to help you now!
Asano was furious. He drew his katana from its scabbard and lashed out toward Kira, slashing Kira across his face before the palace guards were able to subdue him. Drawing one's blade in the home of the Shogun is a sign of deep disrespect, the punishment for which is death. In order to regain his honour, Lord Asano committed seppukku, or ritual suicide, by drawing his tanto blade and burying it into his stomach.
Word travelled quickly to Ako Castle, where news spread that Lord Asano was dead and that his lands would be forfeited to the Shogun of Japan as compensation for the insult to his house. His forces were on their way to claim Ako.
Asano's had a small military of his own, led by samurai warrior Oishi Kuranosuke. His 300 soldiers were now ronin, or masterless samurai. Although some advocated fighting to defend the castle to the death, it was decided that those remaining in Asano's court would petition the Shogun to give Asano's brother, Daisuke, control of the castle. The Shogun refused and the Asano clan .that had built Ako castle was no more.
Oishi and 46 of the other ronin sworn to the Asano family left Ako and swore revenge against Lord Kira in the name of their former daimyo. The men spent more than a year planning, training, gathering weapons and preparing for their opportunity to go to Edo and seek revenge on Kira.
To try to trick Kira, who had been spying on the ronin for fear that they may come for revenge, Oishi acted as though the death of his daimyo caused him to be free, and was living a public life of pleasure and debauchery. He went to the kabuki theatre, spent time in the teahouses and was known to enjoy the company of the geishas of Edo. He appeared drunk more often than sober, and Kira began to let down his guard.
On the date of December 14, 1702, Oishi and his men struck. Disguised as Buddhist priests, servants and artisans they spread themselves throughout the Edo Castle district, gathering information on the whereabouts of Kira and his own soldiers. The ronin returned to a local house that was their designated meeting spot, and donned their armour and weapons. In the cover of new falling snow, the forty seven ronin arrived at Lord Kira's mansion and placed a placard in front of the building telling the neighbours that they were here to exact vengeance upon Lord Kira alone and that they would be safe and to stay in their homes. Oishi then sounded the war drum, and the ronin swarmed the house.
Few of Kira's men stayed to fight the ronin on Ako. Many more, including Kira's own son, chose to flee the mansion. Kira himself was found alone, cowering in an empty storage hut next to the mansion. A whistle was blown, signifying to all of the disciplined ronin that Kira was found, and the congregated in the courtyard next to his house. With this, Oishi drew the very tanto that Asano had used to kill commit seppukku from it's scabbard, and with a single blow struck Lord Kira's head from his shoulders.
Kira's severed head was wrapped in a cloth, and the forty seven ronin immediately crossed town toward the Sengaku-ji Temple, and to the burial place of Lord Asano. There, they placed the head of Asano's foe at the foot of the grave, lit incence and offered prayers to the spirit of their fallen daimyo. Afterward, the ronin went directly to the authorities and turned themselves in.
Despite the fact that all of the people of Edo, particularly the Shogun, admired the forty seven ronin for their adherence to bushido code in avenging their daimyo, they had killed one of his trusted advisors, brandished weapons in the capital and followed through on an unauthorized vendetta. Their punishment was death.
The forty seven fallen samurai were regarded in reverence by the entire Edo community, and were granted the honour of being able to commit seppukku at the grave of their daimyo rather than to face the dishonour of execution like common criminals. The Shogun himself watched as the ronin ended their lives like true samurai. All forty seven were buried next to the grave of Lord Asano at Sengaku-ji.
Within days of the mass suicide, tales of the forty seven spread throughout Japan, and began to be immortalized in the drama of kabuki theatre. To this day, every December, the plays of Remembrance are performed, local television channels show movies dedicated to their memory, and admirers make the pilgrimmage to Sengaku-ji to light incence in their memory.
Photo of graves of the 47 Ronin by Jacopo Werther, 2006, Creative Commons
Photo of Ako Castle by 663Highland, 2014, Creative Commons
Photo of statue of Oishi Kursanosuke at Sengaku-ji by Tak1701d, 2009, Creative Commons