The story of the forty-seven rōnin is one of the most famous and well-told tales in Japan, and is considered by many as ‘Japan’s National Legend’. While many believe it to be mere invention, owed in part to its many fictionalised retellings in the form of Chūshingura, the bloody events of the tale hold historical truth.
Also referred to as the Akō vendetta, the story of the forty-seven rōnin surrounds an 18th-century feud between a young lord named Asano Naganori and Kira Yoshinaka, a shōgunate official, that had tragic results.
In 1701, Kira was assigned the task of tutoring Lord Asano Naganori and another young lord in matters of court etiquette and protocol, to prepare them for a visit from state officials. During this tutelage, Kira was said to have grown bitter towards the two young men, with a number of theories as to why.
Some suggest that Kira did not receive acceptable gifts from the young men, befitting the compensation his work called for, while other accounts retain that they would not offer him the bribes he sought.
It may have also been that Asano was unaware of the protocols of the shogunate court – he was, after all receiving tutelage in this – and failed to afford Kira the reverence he expected.
Whatever the reason for Kira’s displeasure, he soon took a dislike for the young men and began to treat them with disrespect and severity.
Despite popular opinion, Lord Asano was not the initial of the two students to take offence to this treatment. His peer and fellow feudal lord Kamei Korechika was furious, even preparing himself to kill Kira over his disrespectful conduct.
He dodged the fate that would befall Asano however, when his pragmatic counsellors slipped Kira a large bribe. Appeased by this, Kira began treating Lord Kamei with dignity, and a crisis was averted.
Attack in the ‘Great Corridor of Pines’
If Lord Kamei’s bribe placed him back in Kira’s good books however, it only served to further tarnish the court officer’s opinion of Lord Asano. He continued to treat him severely, until openly insulting him when calling him a country boor with no manners.
Asano’s temper soon reached a pitch, and on 14 March he attacked Kira with a dagger in the Matsu no Ōrōka – or ‘Great Corridor of Pines’ – at Edo Castle. The attack was unsuccessful; rather than inflict a severe blow, Asano merely managed to wound Kira in the face before the pair were separated by guards. While the wound was hardly critical, the implications of Asano’s actions were deadly.
Any form of violence was forbidden at Edo Castle, and the mere act of removing a dagger from its sheath within its walls carried capital punishment, and worse so when aimed at a shōgunate official.
Upon hearing of the assault, Shōgun Tsunayoshi ordered Lord Asano to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), while Kira received no punishment at all. On the same day of his impulsive assault, Lord Asano killed himself aged 26.
Just before his suicide, he wrote a melancholic death poem:
‘More than the cherry blossoms,
Inviting a wind to blow them away,
I am wondering what to do,
With the remaining springtime.’
His goods and lands were confiscated, and his family left in disgrace.
Now that Lord Asano was dead, his group of samurai retainers were left without a leader, becoming what is called ‘ronin’ (leaderless). According to the Code of the Samurai, ‘rōnin’ were supposed to immediately commit ritual suicide upon the death of their master – and if they did not, they were looked upon with great shame. A group of these rōnin however, had other ideas.
Despite revenge against Kira strictly prohibited, a group of forty-seven of the rōnin lived on with one mission – avenge Asano’s death by killing Kira. Swearing a secret oath, the forty-seven set about meticulously planning their attack, with their leader Ōishi at the helm.
Suspecting such an attack, Kira and his home in Edo were guarded heavily. With heavy suspicion surrounding the the rōnin’s next move, they disbanded, taking up jobs as various tradesmen, merchants and even monks.
Ōishi himself, knowing that Kira would send spies after him, embroiled himself in a life of debauchery, frequenting drinking houses and brothels to give the impression that he was no longer an honourable samurai. Kira needed to believe him cowardly and uninterested in avenging his master for their plan to work.
The storming of Kira’s mansion
After hearing such reports from his spies, Kira indeed saw himself safe from attack, and let down his guard. The rōnin then secretly gathered in Edo. In their undercover roles as workmen and merchants, they had been able to gain access to Kira’s house, making note of its layout and those who worked and lived there.
They held a final dinner, confirming their carefully designed attack plan and emphasised that they would spare any women, children, and other vulnerable people they may encounter on their mission. On 15 December, 1702 they stormed Kira’s mansion, eventually forcing their way into his chambers, but mysteriously found no sign of him. They knew he couldn’t have been far however, as his bed was still warm.
After an extensive search, the rōnin discovered the entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll, and inside found the man they were looking for – confirmed by an ugly scar across his face, inflicted by Lord Asano the previous year.
They declared that they had come for revenge, and offered to let him die via the more honourable seppuku. After he made no response, they killed him, cutting off his head and taking it to Lord Asano’s tomb in his honour.
The rōnin then turned themselves in and themselves committed seppuku. Only one of the rōnin escaped this fate, after being pardoned by the shōgun. They were buried in front of their master’s tomb, having fulfilled their duty by him.
In this act the rōnin restored honour to Lord Asano’s family, allowing his younger brother to re-establish their name and affording their fellow rōnin uninvolved in the revenge plan to find employment out of disgrace.
Significance to the Japanese people
Over the years, the tale of the forty-seven rōnin has come to symbolise loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honour in Japanese culture. From as early as two weeks after the event, various dramatised depictions of the story arose, such as in traditional kabuki and bunraki performance arts.
Since then, countless numbers of books, plays, and films on the topic have been released across Japan and indeed the world, taking on various forms and artistic focuses. Whatever varying angles or messages these decide to portray however, the original tale of bravery will forever be grounded in truth.
A testament to this arrives every year on 14 December at the graves of the rōnin and their master, in which a festival is observed to celebrate the devout loyalty and honour of the real people who lived it.