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Ronin Samurai in Japan

A story to take you straight to the heart of Japan…

Every country has at least one story that strikes a deep chord within the heart and soul of a culture resonating through out the entire being of its society. It’s the kind of story every person knows about regardless of their educational background though they aren’t always sure of the exact details. It’s a story which so well illustrates the basic elements of a society’s ideology and fundamental characteristics that it’s told over and over again passing from generation to generation.

In America, every school child knows about the heroic and tragic battle at the Alamo in Texas. It’s an event that has been permanently etched in America’s cultural psyche, with fact and fiction so blurred that it’s difficult to disentangle the actual truth.

Japan has many epic stories of love, tragedy, vengeance, etc., in its long history but one story in particular stands out: the story of the 47 Ronin. It is a story that exemplifies the samurai spirit and the cult of filial love between a retainer and his master. In its essence the story captures the spirit of the Japanese.

The 47 Ronin were former samurai retainers who avenged their master’s death by killing his enemy then stoically awaiting the sentence of death to be passed on them by the government.

Their act of defying the government’s laws and following the Way of the Samurai to be faithful to their lord unto death, won the 47 Ronin everlasting fame and admiration of the Japanese people.

Every year on December 14th, people gather at their graves at Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo to commemorate the deeds of the 47 Ronin.

Their story began in 1701 at a time when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world by government edicts. Control of the country was in the hands of the Shogun who ruled in Edo, now called Tokyo. The Shogun of that time was known for his bizarre laws protecting dogs and other animals to the point of detriment to his own people.

It was also a time of lavish extravagance and decadent corruption. The samurai were losing their status and many began acting less and less like samurai by drinking, gambling, and attending Kabuki plays.

One country lord, Lord Asano of Ako, a man of simple but honest beliefs was called upon by the Shogun to come to Edo and meet with envoys from the Emperor. This would require him to learn the complex intricacies of Court Ceremony.

Lord Asano was assigned to the Master of Court Ceremonies, Kira Kozukenosuke, to be taught in the ways of Imperial Ceremony. Kira was, like many court officials of the time, accustomed to receiving gifts of a monetary nature from his pupils. When Lord Asano failed to bribe Kira properly, Kira became enraged, and insulted him often. Finally, Lord Asano could take it no longer and in a fatal moment of indiscretion, unsheathed his sword and attacked Kira while they were in the Shogun’s castle. This action earned Lord Asano a quick death by seppuku: ritual suicide.

Lord Asano’s samurai retainers led by Oishi Kuranosuke found themselves ronin – masterless samurai – and the Asano lands confiscated. There were many who felt the judgment was too harsh as well as unfair particularly because Kira, who many felt orchestrated the attack, was left unpunished.

A core group of Lord Asano’s retainers plotted vengeance against Kira. However, the spies of the Shogun and Kira himself were on the look-out and Kira was well-guarded against such reprisals. Oishi and the other plotters disguised their true intentions and pretended to become farmers, merchants, gamblers, and even drunkards.

Oishi who was watched the closest by the spies went so far as to lull his enemies into a state of false security that he left his wife, frequented brothels, and passed out drunk in the most unsamurai-like manner in the streets of Kyoto. His performance was so good that a passing samurai kicked and spat on him thinking Oishi a disgrace for sinking to such depths while not avenging his master.

The spies believed Oishi had truly become a harmless destitute creature and so Kira relaxed his guard. Oishi, however, secretly stole away to Edo and met with 46 other loyal companions to plot their assault on Kira’s mansion.

On a snowy evening on December 14th, 1702, the 47 Ronin attacked Kira’s home and took it completely by surprise. They found Kira cowering in a charcoal shed. Kira was offered the choice to commit seppuku but he refused so Oishi cut off his head with the same dagger that his lord used to kill himself. The

47 Ronin then walked to Lord Asano’s grave in Sengakuji Temple and placed Kira’s head upon it. After that, they turned themselves into the Shogun except for the youngest ronin whom Oishi sent back to Ako to tell of Kira’s death.

The Shogun was beside himself on what to do with the 46 Ronin in his custody. To some degree he much admired them for being true to Way of the Samurai. Their actions set off a controversy of debate. Much of the general public wanted their release. Several lords pleaded for the men to be granted life and be allowed to serve them. On the other side, critics argued that the ronin had willfully disobeyed the Shogun’s law and to pardon them would be to invite lawlessness and anarchy.

In the end they were allowed to commit honorable seppuku rather than be executed like common criminals. They were interned with their lord at Sengakuji Temple. The surviving ronin was pardoned by the Shogun and lived until he was 75 before being buried along side his comrades.

Countless plays, novels, and later movies and documentaries have been done on this story that so caught the people’s attention. Even today, they are not forgotten and the 47 Ronin are still held in high esteem.

Their story strikes so close to the heart of Japanese thought and belief that some Japanese scholars have said: “…to know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know Japan.”

David Weber

David Weber is a historian who lives in Japan.