The Forty-Seven Ronin (Chūshingura)


The story of the Chūshingura (literally, the 'Loyal League'), better known in the West as the 'Forty-Seven Ronin' (a ronin - literally "wave man" - is a masterless samurai, one who is tossed about, like a wave in the sea) is perhaps the most-known story of Japanese history, both inside and outside Japan, described by one noted Japan scholar as the country's "national legend". It is also one that offers a great insight into the Japanese character, during the feudal period and beyond. It is not far wrong to think of it as the Japanese equivalent of one of the great Shakespearean dramas.

It concerns a group of samurai who were left masterless in 1701 by the execution of their master, for assaulting a court official whom he felt had insulted him. After over a year of patient waiting and plotting, they succeeded in avenging him by killing the court official. Although they had committed murder, they had done so for that most noble of reasons (to the Japanese) - in obedience to their duty. As a result, they were allowed an honourable death.

With little embellishment, the true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, dedication and honor which all good people (but especially samurai) should persevere in their daily lives.

It was rapidly turned into a series of Kabuki plays. The most popular, the Kanedehon Chūshingura (literally, "Treasury of Loyal Retainers"), was originally written in 1748 for the bunraku (puppet) theatre, and was quickly adapted for Kabuki, in twelve acts. The names, as well as the action, were slightly changed from the real ones (because of a prohibition on plays about recent history), and the stage version is set in the fourteenth century.

It quickly became (and remains) one of the staples of the Kabuki repertoire, and remains one of the two most popular Kabuki plays, still performed every year; it has always been regarded as a cure for declining attendance, drawing audiences when nothing else will.

Detailed recounting

This detailed recounting is based on the version in the classic "Tales of Old Japan", by Lord Redesdale, one of the first foreign diplomats to serve in Japan after it was opened to the West. This influential book was published in 1871, after his tenure as Attache from 1866-1870, and it was the first time the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin appeared in print in the West.

(This account is now known to be somewhat inaccurate, historically speaking. Alas, I have not yet had the time to update this page to fix all the errors. In the meantime, the following volumes:

are useful for a more historically accurate version.)

Background Events

At the start of the eighteenth century, in 1701, two nobles, Kamei Sama and Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, were appointed to receive an envoy from the Emperor at the court of the Shogun (the military governor of Japan). To teach them proper court etiquette, a high official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was Kotsuke noh Suke, was assigned. He became upset at the small presents they offered him (in the time-honoured compensation for such an instructor), and he 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 be punished if Kamei Sama killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe. Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei Sama very nicely, which quenched his anger.

However, Kira now began to treat Asano even worse, because he was upset that the latter had sent no present. Finally, Kira insulted Asano as a country boor with no manners, and Asano could no longer restrain himself. He attacked Kira with a dagger, but only wounded him on the head with his first blow, and his second blow missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.

The council met, and decided that because Asano had attacked Kira within the grounds of the Shogun's palace, which was strictly forbidden, he would be ordered to commit ritual suicide, his goods and lands would be confiscated, his family ruined, and his retainers made into ronin. As such, masterless samurai, they were without means of support, and the position is generally somewhat disreputable.

As a indication of the humiliation felt by samurai who became ronin, Lord Redesdale records that during his stay in Japan, when he lived two hundred yards from the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin, a ronin killed himself at their graves. He left a note saying that being a ronin, and without means of honourably earning a living, he had tried to enter the service of the Prince of Choshiu, but was refused. That having been refused, he wanted to serve no other master, and being a ronin was hateful, so he had decided to kill himself, and what more fitting place could he find? Lord Redesdale reports that he himself saw the spot only a hour or two later, and the blood was still on the ground.

The Ronin Plot Revenge

Amongst the dispossessed retainers of Asano was a principal counsellor, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, and together with forty-six other faithful retainers they banded together to avenge their master, by killing Kira. However, the latter was well guarded, to prevent just this event. They saw that they would have to put him off his guard, before they could succeed.

So, they split up, and took up various professions, such as carpenters, merchants, etc. Their chief, Oishi, took up residence in Kyoto. He began to lead an extremely dissipated life, spending all his time and money on alcohol and women, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge.

Meanwhile, Kira 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 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, Oishi Chikara, remained with his father. In his wife's place, the father bought a pretty young concubine.

All this was reported 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; 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.

The Attack

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 gathered at a secret meeting-place in Edo.

On the night of December 14/15, during a heavy fall of snow, according to a carefully laid-out plan, the Forty-Seven Ronin split up into two groups and attacked. One, led by Oishi, was to attack the front gate, and the other, led by his son, Oishi 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, the Forty-Seven Ronin 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 asked them to be careful, and spare women, children and other helpless people.

At midnight, in a driving wind, the Forty-Seven Ronin attacked. 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, who were all perfectly safe. His neighbours, who all hated Kira, did nothing.

After posting archers, 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 Oishi 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 killed. 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.

The Death of Kira

A renewed search disclosed a hidden entrance to a secret courtyard holding 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, who 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 Forty-Seven 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 Kira, 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 (a person who assisted someone who was to commit suicide, and killed the person quickly with a sword-blow, to stop the pain).

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 same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself. They then extinguished all the 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.

The Aftermath

One of the Ronin was ordered to travel to Asano's old fiefdom and inform the people there that their revenge had been completed. (Though his role as a messenger is the most widely-accepted version of the story, other accounts have him running away before or after the battle, or being ordered to leave before the Ronin turned themselves in.)

As day was now breaking, they quickly made their way to their master's tomb, 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. Arriving at the temple where their master was buried, they washed and cleaned Kira's head, 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 waited patiently for the orders of the government. As expected, they were ordered to commit suicide for the crime of murder, and did so, after which their bodies were all buried at the temple, in front of the tomb of their master.

The clothes and arms they wore are preserved in the temple, and Lord Redesdale personally inspected them. 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 comitted suicide himself on the spot, and is buried next to the graves of the Forty-Seven Ronin.

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