Japan History: Forty-seven Ronin


A band of rònin (samurai without leader) avenged the death of their master. The event is known as the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin (四 十七 士 Shi-jū-shichi-shi, forty-seven samurai), also as the Akō incident (Akō jiken) or Akō’s revenge, and is considered an historical event in Japan.

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The story tells of a group of samurai remaining without leader after their daimyō Asano Naganori was forced to execute seppuku for assaulting Kira Yoshinaka, a court official whose title was Kōzuke no suke. After waiting and planning for a year, the rōnin avenged their master’s honor by killing Kira. In turn, they were forced to commit seppuku because of the murder crime. This story has been made popular in Japanese culture as a symbol of loyalty, sacrifice, perseverance and honor, values people should look for in their daily lives. The story’s popularity grew during the Meiji era, when Japan underwent rapid modernization, and the legend became important in national heritage and identity.

The fictional stories of the Forty-seven Rönin are known as Chūshingura. The story has been made popular in numerous shows, including bunraku and kabuki. Because of the shogunate laws of censorship in the Genroku era, which prohibited the portrayal of current events, the names were changed. The first Chūshingura was written about 50 years after the event.

The censorship laws had subsided a bit 75 years later, at the end of the eighteenth century, when Isaac Titsingh recorded for the first time the history of the forty-seven rōnin as one of the significant events of the Genroku era. It continues to be popular in Japan, and every year on December 14, in the Sengakuji Temple, where Asano Naganori and the rōnin are buried, a festival is held to commemorate the event.

In 1701, two daimyōs, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori and Lord Kamei Korechika of the Tsuwano domain, were ordered to organize a reception for the emperor’s messengers to the castle of Edo, during their sankin-kōtai service to the shōgun .

Asano and Kamei were to receive instructions on the necessary court code from Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful Tokugawa Tsunayoshi shogunate official. He got very angry with them, either because of the insufficient gifts they offered him, or because they could not provide the bribe requests. Other sources describe him as naturally rude and arrogant or corrupt, this behavior offended Asano, a devoutly moral confucian. According to some reports, it seems that Asano was not familiar with the complexities of the shogunate court and had not shown the right amount of deference to Kira.

Initially, Asano endured everything stoically, while Kamei raged and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, Kamei’s advisors avoided the disaster for their lord and teamed up by collecting and giving Kira a big bribe; Kira then began to treat Kamei well and this contributed to calm him down.

However, Kira continued to treat Asano hard to the point of insulting him, calling him a country farmer without good manners, and Asano eventually stopped holding back. At Matsu no Ōrōka, the main hallway of Honmaru Goten residence, Asano lost his temper and attacked Kira with a dagger, wounding him in the face. They had to intrude the guards to separate them.

Kira’s injury was not severe, however attacking a shogunate official within the boundaries of the shogun’s residence was considered a serious crime. Any violence was completely forbidden in Edo’s castle. Akō’s daimyō had used his dagger inside Edo Castle, and for this crime, he was ordered to make seppuku. Asano’s assets and lands had to confiscated after his death, his family had to be ruined, and his servants had to become rōnin,according to the general rule of the time.

The news arrived to Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano’s chief adviser, who took over the command and transferred the Asano family before delivering the castle to government agents.

Forty-seven men, among the over 300, and especially their leader Ōishi, refused to allow their lord to take revenge. They teamed up in secret swearing to avenge their master and kill Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for that.

Kira was however well guarded and his residence had been protected. The ronin realized they should not rise Kira’s and other shogunate authorities suspicion, so they dispersed and became merchants and monks.

Ōishi took residence in Kyoto and began to frequent brothels and taverns. Kira feared a trap and sent spies to monitor the former servants of Asano.

One day, Ōishi, returning home drunk, fell down and fell asleep in the street. A man, Satsuma, was so enraged by this behavior of a samurai that he began to insult him, kicking him in the face and spitting on him.

Not long after, Ōishi divorced from his faithful wife after twenty years of marriage. He did not want to harm her her when the rōnin would have taken their revenge. He sent her away with their two younger children to live with her parents. He asked their eldest son, Chikara, whether he would have preferred to stay and fight or leave. Chikara stayed with his father.

Ōishi started to behave in a strange way and very different from the samurai style. He attended geishas (particularly Ichiriki Chaya), he drank every night and spoke obscenely in public. Ōishi’s servants bought a geisha, hoping she would calm him down. All this was a plot to free Ōishi from Kira’s spies.

Kira’s agents reported all this to Kira. Kira was then convinced he was safe from the servants of Asano, considering one year and a half elapsed he judged them without the courage to avenge their master. Thinking they were harmless, he lowered his guard.

The rest of the rōnin gathered in Edo, and in their roles as merchants and workers, had access to Kira’s house, becoming familiar with the environment and people. Okano Kinemon Kanehide married the daughter of one of the builders of the house, managing to get the project. All this was reported to Ōishi. Others gathered and transported their weapons to Edo.

After two years, Ōishi was convinced that Kira was completely unaware, and everything was ready, He left Kyoto, avoiding the spies watching him, and joined the whole band gathered in a secret meeting place in Edo to renew their oaths.

On January 30, 1703 early in the morning, Ōishi and another rōnin attacked Kira Yoshinaka’s home in Edo. According to a carefully defined plan, they would divide into two groups and would attack armed with swords and bows. A group, led by Ōishi, would attack the main gate; the other, led by his son, Ōishi Chikara, would attack the house through the back gate. A drum would sound the simultaneous attack, and a whistle would signal Kira’s death.

Once dead, they planned to cut Kira’s head and place it as an offering on their master’s grave. They would then wait for their planned death sentence. All this had been agreed during a final dinner, during which Ōishi had asked to be careful and save women, children and other defenseless people.

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Ōishi had four men at the fence and entered the caretaker’s house, capturing and binding the guard. He then sent messengers to all neighboring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but servants avenging the death of their master, and that no harm would be done to others: the neighbors were all safe. One of the rōnin climbed up to the roof and announced aloud to the neighbors that the matter was an act of revenge. The neighbors, who hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to thwart the plan.

Dopo aver appostato gli arcieri per impedire agli abitanti di chiedere aiuto, Ōishi suonò il tamburo per iniziare l’attacco. Ten of the Kira keepers prevented the attack on the house from the front, but Chiishi Chikara’s side is attacked from the back.

Following setting up of the archers to prevent house residents asking for help, Oishi played the drum to start the attack. Ten of the Kira keepers prevented the attack of the house from the front, allowing Chiishi Chikara to attack from the back.

Kira, terrified, took refuge in a closet on the veranda, along with his wife and his maids. The rest of his servants, sleeping in the barracks outside, tried to enter the house to save him. After passing the defenders at the front of the house, the two parts led by father and son joined and fought the servants who were entering. The latter, realizing they were about to lose, tried to ask for help, but their messengers were killed by the archers already set up to prevent this.

After a fierce fight, the last of Kira’s servants was defeated; the ronin killed 16 men of Kira and wounded 22, including his nephew. However, no signs about Kira. They searched the house, they heard women and children cry. They were beginning to despair, when Ōishi checking Kira’s bed, discovered that it was still warm, so he knew Kira could not be far away.

In a courtyard hidden in the back, they discovered a man who was hiding and was easily disarmed.

He refused to say who he was, the ronin however knew he was Kira and they whistled. The rōnin gathered and Ōishi, with a lantern, confirmed he was indeed Kira and as a final proof, he discovered on his head a scar of Asano’s attack.

Ōishi knelt, and in consideration of Kira’s high degree, he respectfully addressed him, telling him that they were Asano’s servants, come to avenge him as the true samurai should, and inviting him to die like a true samurai should , killing himself. Ōishi said he would act like a kaishakunin (“second”, the one beheading a person who committed seppuku to spare him being unworthy of death) and offered him the same dagger that Asano used to kill himself.

However, no matter how much they begged him, Kira crouched, wordlessly trembling. Seeing that it was useless to continue, Ōishi ordered the other rōnin to killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger.

They turned off all the lamps and fires in the house and left with Kira’s head.

One of the rōnin, Terasaka Kichiemon, was ordered to go to Akō and report that their revenge had been completed. (Although the role of Kichiemon as a messenger is the most accepted version of the story, other sources see him escape before or after the battle).

The rōnin, on their way back to Sengaku-ji, stopped in the street to rest and refresh themselves.

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At dawn, they quickly brought Kira’s head from his residence to the tomb of their lord in the temple of Sengaku-ji, marching for about ten kilometers across the city, causing a great sensation on the road. The story of revenge spread rapidly and everyone praised them and offered them refreshment during their journey.

Arrived at the temple, the remaining 46 rōnin (all except Terasaka Kichiemon) washed Kira’s head in a well, and set it down with the dagger in front of Asano’s tomb. They then offered prayers to the temple and gave the temple monk the remaining money, asking him to bury them decently and offer prayers for them. The group was divided into four parts and placed under the guard of four different daimyōs.

Two friends of Kira came to take his head for burial.

Edo shogunate’s officials were embarrassed. The samurai had followed the precepts by avenging their lord’s death; however they also challenged the shogunate’s authority by executing revenge, which was forbidden. As expected, the rōnin were sentenced to death for Kira’s murder; the shogun eventually ordered them to commit honorably seppuku instead of having them executed as criminals. It is known that each of the assailants ended his life in a ritual manner. Ōishi Chikara, the youngest, was only 15 years old on the day of the attack, and only 16 the day he committed seppuku.

Each of the 46 rōnin killed himself on February 4, 1703. The forty-seventh ronin, identified as Terasaka Kichiemon, eventually returned from his mission and was forgiven by the shogun (it is said because of his youth). He lived until the age of 87, dying in 1747, and was buried with his companions. The assailants who died of seppuku were buried in the ground of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their master.

Their clothes and weapons are still kept in the temple, along with the drum and the whistle; their armor was all homemade, since they did not want to raise suspicion by buying one.

The tombs became a place of veneration and people gathered there in prayer. They were visited by many people over the years since the Genroku era. One of the visitors, Satsuma who laughed and spat at Ōishi in Kyoto, begged forgiveness for his actions and for thinking that Ōishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide and was buried near the river.

Although revenge was seen as an act of loyalty, there was actually a second goal: re-establishing Asano’s lordship and finding a place where their fellow samurai could serve. Hundreds of samurai who served Asano had been left without work, and many were unable to find a job, as they had served under a dishonored family. Many lived as farmers or did simple crafts to make their living. The revenge of the forty-seven ronin erased their names and many of the unemployed samurai found work.

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The Forty-seven Rōnin

Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio/Yoshitaka (大石 内蔵助 良雄)
Ōishi Chikara Yoshikane (大石 主税 良金)
Hara Sōemon Mototoki (原 惣右衛門 元辰)
Kataoka Gengoemon Takafusa (片岡 源五右衛門 高房)
Horibe Yahei Kanamaru/Akizane (堀部 弥兵衛 金丸)
Horibe Yasubei Taketsune (堀部 安兵衛 武庸)
Yoshida Chūzaemon Kanesuke (吉田 忠左衛門 兼亮)
Yoshida Sawaemon Kanesada (吉田 沢右衛門 兼貞)
Chikamatsu Kanroku Yukishige (近松 勘六 行重)
Mase Kyūdayū Masaaki (間瀬 久太夫 正明)
Mase Magokurō Masatoki (間瀬 孫九郎 正辰)
Akabane Genzō Shigekata (赤埴 源蔵 重賢)
Ushioda Matanojō Takanori (潮田 又之丞 高教)
Tominomori Sukeemon Masayori (富森 助右衛門 正因)
Fuwa Kazuemon Masatane (不破 数右衛門 正種)
Okano Kin’emon Kanehide (岡野 金右衛門 包秀)
Onodera Jūnai Hidekazu (小野寺 十内 秀和)
Onodera Kōemon Hidetomi (小野寺 幸右衛門 秀富)
Kimura Okaemon Sadayuki (木村 岡右衛門 貞行)
Okuda Magodayū Shigemori (奥田 孫太夫 重盛)
Okuda Sadaemon Yukitaka (奥田 貞右衛門 行高)
Hayami Tōzaemon Mitsutaka (早水 藤左衛門 満尭)
Yada Gorōemon Suketake (矢田 五郎右衛門 助武)
Ōishi Sezaemon Nobukiyo (大石 瀬左衛門 信清)
Isogai Jūrōzaemon Masahisa (礒貝 十郎左衛門 正久)
Hazama Kihei Mitsunobu (間 喜兵衛 光延)
Hazama Jūjirō Mitsuoki (間 十次郎 光興)
Hazama Shinrokurō Mitsukaze (間 新六郎 光風)
Nakamura Kansuke Masatoki (中村 勘助 正辰)
Senba Saburobei Mitsutada (千馬 三郎兵衛 光忠)
Sugaya Hannojō Masatoshi (菅谷 半之丞 政利)
Muramatsu Kihei Hidenao (村松 喜兵衛 秀直)
Muramatsu Sandayū Takanao (村松 三太夫 高直)
Kurahashi Densuke Takeyuki (倉橋 伝助 武幸)
Okajima Yasoemon Tsuneshige (岡島 八十右衛門 常樹)
Ōtaka Gengo Tadao/Tadatake (大高 源五 忠雄)
Yatō Emoshichi Norikane (矢頭 右衛門七 教兼)
Katsuta Shinzaemon Taketaka (勝田 新左衛門 武尭)
Takebayashi Tadashichi Takashige (武林 唯七 隆重)
Maebara Isuke Munefusa (前原 伊助 宗房)
Kaiga Yazaemon Tomonobu (貝賀 弥左衛門 友信)
Sugino Jūheiji Tsugifusa (杉野 十平次 次房)
Kanzaki Yogorō Noriyasu (神崎 与五郎 則休)
Mimura Jirōzaemon Kanetsune (三村 次郎左衛門 包常)
Yakokawa Kanbei Munetoshi (横川 勘平 宗利)
Kayano Wasuke Tsunenari (茅野 和助 常成)
Terasaka Kichiemon Nobuyuki (寺坂 吉右衛門 信行)