The Samurai word comes from the verb to serve, to accompany, and for those accomplished warriors of feudal Japan now gone, there was no greatest honour but to live and die in the service of a daimyō (feudal lord). There’s no better-known tale in Japan exemplifying the Samurai code of honour and duty, than that of the 47 Rōnin of the Akō Domain. Theirs is a tale of perseverance, of ultimate sacrifice to avenge the unjust death of their daimyo, and to restore his besmirched honour.    

1# Of Samurais and seppuku

The Samurai had been the dominant class of Japan since at least the 12th century. Of noble-birth, the samurais were akin to the knights of Europe, and like them, theirs was a life dedicated to fighting. Although they also held lands and castles, often on behalf of their daimyō. Their existence was dictated by the bushidō (way of the warrior), a moral code that dictated the lifestyle and behaviour of the samurais. Its pillars were honesty, mastery of martial art, loyalty and duty towards one’s liege. Long story short, they were the equivalent of the European knight in most regards.

Samurai picture. Picture taken by Felice Beato. Circa 1860-70
Samurai with sword. Picture taken by Felice Beato. Circa 1860-70

However, the samurai’s sense of honour was far more demanding than that of a knight, because for a samurai, to fail his daimyō was to dishonour himself irremediably. At this conjuncture, there was only one way out for the Samurai to redeem himself: the seppuku. Sometimes referred as hara-kiri, this was a ritualistic form of suicide, in which the samurai, sitting with the legs underneath and dressing white, had to plunge a dagger to the hilt on his stomach, and draw left to right. It was at this painful moment that the kaishakunin (a second) would cut his head. Seppuku was also offered as a capital punishment for an offending samurai as a way to preserve his honour, and to spare his family from public shame and disgrace, so most complied with it. This leads us to the story of the forty-seven Rōnin.      

A scene from a stage play of 1897 depicting Seppuku. Author: Rev. R. B. Peery. Image Scanned by Wikipedia User DopefishJustin. Page 85 of The Gist of Japan – The Islands, Their People, And Missions, The Rev. R. B. Peery, A.M., Ph.D. © 1897 Fleming H. Revell Company. See. Source

2# A tale of revenge

Although the Emperor of Japan was considered a deity himself, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, he didn’t rule Japan for many centuries. This role was reserved for the Shogun, an office that rose to power in the 12th century and abolished during the Meiji Restoration in 1867. The Emperor remained most of this time, a mere symbolical figure, much revered and worshipped though, while the Shogun wielded the real power. Since the Tokugawa Shogunate had come to power, their capital had been transferred to Edo (the future Tokyo), from where the Tokugawas demanded of the daimyō’s to alternate their residence between their domains and Edo, to keep an eye on them.      

The year was 1701, when Imperial envoys from Kyoto were to be received in the court of the Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. For this purpose, the daimyōs Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori of the Akō Domain, and Kamei Korechika of the Tsuwano Domain, were called by the Shogun’s master of ceremonies, Kira Yoshihisa, to be trained in court etiquette in order to receive the envoys. Now, whether it’s a shogun, an emperor, or a democratic president ruling us, if a thing hasn’t changed much, is that corruption is persistent like weed. Accounts variate, but the most popular versions says that Kira regaled both daimyōs with rudeness and insults. Kamei’s servents were sharper than Asano’s, for they offered a bribe to Kira, and immediately his arrogant attitude towards Kamei subsided.

However, he kept bullying Asano to the the point that he yielded to indignation and fury, and drew his dagger to attack Kira. Although his assault only made a superficial wound on Kira’s face, the act of drawing a weapon against a Shogun’s officer was a capital crime, made even worse by the fact that it had been commited in Edo Castle, the residence of the Shogun. For this, Asano was made to commit seppuku, his domain and lands confiscated, and his family dishonoured. But most important to this tale, his samurais became masterless. They became rōnin.

Scene depicting the act that triggered the drama, Asano wields a knife against Kira, who lays helpless and covering his wounded forehead with the hand. Author: Utagawa Kuniteru. Source

3# The disgraced Rōnin  

A rōnin was a masterless samurai. He served nobody, and when he did, it was regarded as a mercenary job. As a result, rōnins were considered a disgrace by samurais and daimyōs alike. The three hundred samurai who had served Asano were ordered by the Shogun to surrender their master’s castle in Akō and to give up any ideas of revenge. Had they refused and attacked Kira on that conjuction, they would have regained their honour with their death, but Kira would have survived, for he expected Asano’s men to attempt such thing. However, revenge seemed to be the last thing on the mind of these newly-made rōnin, who took on other trades or became monks.

Their leader, Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, seemed to be faring the worst in his new and dishonourable condition, and was often found in taverns and in the company of geisha. He was always drunk and in a deplorable condition, a shaming one considering he had been Asano’s Karō (house elder or chamberlain), only second to the daimyō himself. In one famous instance, he was so drunk that fell on the street and went to sleep right there, much to the mockery of the people who passed him by. A man from Satsuma recriminated him for having renounced to avenge Asano, insulting and kicking him on the face. But Ōishi said nothing.

More than a year passed, and Kira’s spies reported that Asano’s followers had abandoned themselves, replacing their irreproachable conduct as samurais for a licentious existence in brothels and dens. The spies and everyone else saw that Ōishi and the other rōnin had forsaken their vows of loyalty to Asano. Cowards who had lost their pride as samurais.

4# Revenge is a dish best served cold

And that is exactly what Ōishi wanted everyone to believe, Kira most of all. For he and forty-six of his companions had never given up their intention to kill Kira and avenge the injustice commited against Asano. They had only bid their time. While lulling Kira into a false sense security, they had been meeting in secret to gather weapons and intel, preparing themselves thoroughly, even to the point that one of them, Okano Kinemon Kanehide, married the daughter of the builder of Kira’s mansion in Edo, thus obtaining the plans of the house. While the world believed them crushed, craven, and harmless, they had been sharpening their katanas and spears, and on Genroku 15 (14th December 1702), they finally struck.

Under the cover of night and a heavy curtain of snow, the forty-seven Rōnin split in two groups, one led by Ōishi which was to attack the front gate, and another one led by Ōishi’s eldest son, Ōishi Chikara, who would storm the back gate. The attack caught Kira’s retainers totally by surprise, and most were either captured or put to the sword by the forty-seven well-trained ronin. Kira’s mansion was soon theirs, and they didn’t suffer a single casualty during the scuffle. However, Kira was missing, and for a moment their year and a half of humiliating preparations seemed to have been wasted with the escape of their main target.

This is the spot where Kira’s mansion stood, in Ryogoku, Sumida-ku,Tokyo. Author: WikipediaUser: Kentin. Source

Ōishi kept a cool head and went to check Kira’s bed, finding it still warm and therefore knowing Kira couldn’t be far. The mansion was thoroughly searched again, and in a secret courtyard, the rōnin found a man hidden in a small hut. He tried attacking them but once restrained, they called for Ōishi, who recognised him as a Kira thanks to the scar on his face produced by Asano. That Ōishi had never ceased to be a true samurai was clear when he kneeled in front of Kira, acknowledging his superior rank, and informed him that they had come to avenge their master’s death. Ōishi offered him the chance to die honourably, by committing seppuku with the dagger that Asano himself had used to end his life. A most poetic end. Kira must not have thought the same, for it’s said he trembled in terror, and was in no condition to comply. Ōishi took the matter into his hands, and with the dagger he cut Kira’s head in one sweep.  

5# The death of the 47

After Kira’s death, the rōnin made for the Sengaku-ji Temple, where Asano was buried. When rumours of their deed spread, people went to the streets to cheer at them, for nothing beats the joy of seeing a band of armed men with a daimyo’s head under their arms, like a band of children heading to play with a ball. But before that, Ōishi ordered one of his ranks, Terasaka Kichiemon, to travel to Akō to inform them of the success of their scheme. Once in Sengaku-ji, the remainig rōnin washed Kira’s head on a well and placed it, together with the fateful dagger on Asano’s grave as an offering.

With their one and only goal now complete, they all surrendered to the Shogun’s soldiers, who put them under arrest, splitting them into four groups, each under the custody of a different daimyō, while the Shogun and his counsellors decided what to do with them. They had broken the law, and killed an official of the Shogunate, for which capital punishment was prescribed. On the other hand, the bushidō that guided a samurai’s code of conduct, urged them to avenge their lord, for which they were now praised everywhere across the country. And despite that many petitioned the Shogun to pardon them, justice had to be exacted.   

The rōnin were condemned to death, but acknowledging the virtue of their conduct, that of a true samurai, they were offered to die as such. They were allowed to commit seppuku, and thus preserve their honour in death. On Genroku 16 (February 4, 1703) the forty-six rōnin, including Ōishi and his son, commited sepuku and joined their lord Asano. If you’re any decent at maths, you’ll have realised that we’re on rōnin short of forty-seven. That’s right, on his return from Ako, Terasaka Kichiemon was pardoned and went on to live until the age of 87, after which he was buried with his companions and Asano in the Sengaku-ji temple.

The graves of the forty-seven Rōnin in Sengaku-ji temple. On the left, out of the picture, is Ōishi’s grave, covered by a little roof. Author: DocChewbacca. Source

6# The graves and legacy of the 47 Rōnin

Their tombs quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and it’s even said that the man of Satsuma who spat on Ōishi for his drunken conduct, begged for forgiveness on Ōishi’s grave, and then commited seppuku to wash away his shame. Their inspiring story has been since then represented in plays, literature, movies and television, most recently that starring Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin, featuring dragons and witches. And lots of seppuku, of course. Their example of duty, loyalty and sacrifice, is paramount to understand the values of bushidō and the samurais, which form the base of the values of modern Japan, and their culture of dedication and proud service to something bigger that oneself. Although we shouldn’t go around anymore cutting heads, we all can be inspired by the tale of the forty-seven Rōnin.

Statue of Ōishi holding a scroll with the names of all the forty-seven Rōnin, temple of Sengaku-ji, Tokyo. Author: Tak1701d. Source
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