Published: December 21st 2008November 30th 2008
Sengaku-ji and The 47 Ronin
Having a vague memory of the tale of the 47 Ronin, I traveled to Sengaku-ji. Sengaku-ji is the burial grounds of the 47 Ronin. Below is a little history and a brief overview of their story.
The revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin (四十七士, Shi-jū Shichi-shi), also known as the Forty-seven Samurai, the Akō vendetta, or the Genroku Akō incident (元禄赤穂事件, Genroku akō jiken) took place in Japan at the start of the eighteenth century. The tale has been described by one noted Japanese scholar as the country's "national legend." It recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, bushidō.
The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (became ronin) after their daimyo (feudal lord) was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was Kōzuke no Suke. The ronin avenged their master's honor after patiently waiting and planning for over a year to kill Kira. In turn, the ronin were themselves forced to commit seppuku — as they had known they would be — for committing the crime of murder. With little embellishment, this true story was popularized
in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should preserve in their daily lives. The popularity of the almost mythical tale was only enhanced by rapid modernization during the Meiji era of Japanese history, when many people in Japan longed for a return to their cultural roots. The story of forty-seven samurai
In 1701 (by the Western calendar), two daimyo, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of the Akō Domain (a small fiefdom in western Honshū), and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their sankin kōtai service to the Shogun.
Asano and Kamei were to be given instruction in the necessary court etiquette by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful Edo official in the hierarchy of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's shogunate. He became upset at them, allegedly because of either the small presents they offered him (in the time-honored compensation for such an instructor), or because they would not offer bribes as he wanted. Other sources say that he was a naturally rude and arrogant individual, or that he was corrupt, which offended Asano, a rigidly moral Confucian. Regardless of whether and how Kira treated them poorly, insulted them or failed to prepare them for fulfilling specific bakufu duties, offense was taken.
While Asano bore all this stoically, Kamei became enraged, and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, the quick thinking counsellors of Kamei averted disaster for their lord and clan (for all would have been punished if Kamei killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe; Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei nicely, which calmed Kamei's anger.
However, Kira continued to treat Asano harshly, because he was upset that the latter had not emulated his companion; Kira taunted and humiliated him in public. Finally, Kira insulted Asano, calling him a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. At the Matsu no Ōrōka, the main grand corridor which interconnects different parts of the shogun's residence, he lost his temper and attacked Kira with a dagger, but only wounded him in the face with his first strike; his second missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.
Kira's wound was hardly serious, but the attack on a shogunate official within the boundaries of the Shogun's residence was considered a grave offense. Any kind of violence, even drawing a sword, was completely forbidden in Edo castle. The daimyo of Akō had removed his dagger from its scabbard within Edo Castle, and for that offense, he was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku. Asano's goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin.
This news was carried to Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano's principal counsellor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, before complying with bakufu orders to surrender the castle to the agents of the government.
Of Asano's over three hundred men, forty-seven (some sources say there were more than fifty, originally)—and especially their leader Ōishi—refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so.
However, Kira was well guarded, and his residence had been fortified, to prevent just such an event. They saw that they would have to put him off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen or monks.
Ōishi himself took up residence in Kyoto, and began to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano.
One day, as Ōishi 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 by 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, Ōishi went to his loyal wife of twenty years and divorced her so that no harm would come to her when they took revenge, and sent her away with their two younger children to live with her parents; for the eldest boy, Chikara, he gave a choice to stay and fight or to leave. He remained with his father.
Oishi began to act oddly and very unlike the composed samurai. He frequented geisha houses (particularly the Ichiriki Ochaya), drank nightly, and acted very obscenely in public. Later Oishi's men bought a geisha, in hopes he would calm down. This was all a ruse to rid Oishi of his spies.
Kira's agents reported all this 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 after a year and a half. Thinking them harmless and lacking funds from his "retirement", he then reluctantly let down his guard.
The rest of the faithful ronin 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 (Kinemon Kanehide Okano) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain plans. All of this was reported to Ōishi. Others gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo, another offense.
Two years later, when Ōishi 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, and renewed their oaths.
In Genroku 15, on the 26th day of the 10th month (元禄十五年十月二十六日, Genroku 15, on the 26th day of the 10th month Thursday, December 14, 1702), early in the morning in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Ōishi and the ronin attacked Kira Yoshinaka's mansion in Edo. According to a carefully laid-out plan, they split up into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Ōishi, was to attack the front gate; the other, led by his son, Ōishi 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 Kira was dead, they 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 Ōishi had asked them to be careful, and spare women, children, and other helpless people. The code of bushido does not require mercy to noncombatants, although it doesn't forbid it.
Ōishi 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 neighboring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but retainers out to avenge the death of their master, and that no harm would come to anyone else: they were all perfectly safe. The neighbors, who all hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to hinder the raiders.
After posting archers (some on the roof), to prevent those in the house (who had not yet woken up) from sending for help, Ōishi sounded the drum to start the attack. Ten of Kira's retainers held off the party attacking the house from the front, but Ōishi Chikara's party broke into the back of the house.
Kira, in terror, took refuge in a closet in the veranda, 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 eventuality.
Eventually, after a fierce struggle, the last of Kira's retainers was subdued; in the process they killed sixteen of Kira's men and wounded twenty-two, including his grandson. 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 Ōishi checked Kira's bed, and it was still warm, so he knew he could not be far.
A renewed search disclosed an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll; the courtyard held 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; he attacked the searcher with a dagger, but the man was easily disarmed.
He refused to say who he was, but the searchers felt sure it was Kira, and sounded the whistle. The ronin gathered, and Ōishi, with a lantern, saw that it was indeed Kira—as a final proof, his head bore the scar from Asano's attack.
At that, Ōishi went on his knees, and in consideration of Kira's high rank, respectfully addressed him, 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. Ōishi indicated he personally would act as a second, and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself.
However, no matter how much they entreated him, Kira crouched, speechless and trembling. At last, seeing it was useless to ask, Ōishi ordered the ronin to pin him down, and killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger. Kira was killed on the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku.
They then extinguished all the lamps and 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.
One of the ronin, the ashigaru Terasaka Kichiemon, was ordered to travel to Akō and inform them that their revenge had been completed. (Though Kichiemon's 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 turn themselves in.)
The ronin, on their way back to Sengaku-ji, are halted in the street, to invite them in for rest and refreshment
As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira's head to their lord's grave in Sengaku-ji, 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.
On arriving at the temple, the remaining forty-six ronin washed and cleaned Kira's head in a well, 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 turned themselves in; the group was broken into four parts and put under guard of four different daimyo.
During this time, two friends of Kira came to collect his head for burial; the temple still has the original receipt for the head, which the friends and the priests who dealt with them all signed.
The shogunate officials were in a quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord; but they had also defied shogunate authority by exacting revenge, which had been prohibited. In addition, the Shogun received a number of petitions from the admiring populace on behalf of the ronin. As expected, the ronin were sentenced to death; but the Shogun had finally resolved the quandary by ordering them to honorably commit seppuku, instead of having them executed as criminals. It is known that each of the assailants ended his life in a ritualistic fashion.
Each of the forty-six ronin did kill himself in Genroku 15, on the 19th day of the 12th month (元禄十五年十二月十九日, Genroku 15, Sunday, February 4, 1703). This has caused a considerable amount of confusion ever since, with some people referring to the "forty-six ronin"; this refers to the group put to death by the Shogun, the actual attack party numbered forty-seven. The forty-seventh ronin eventually returned from his mission and was pardoned by the Shogun (some say on account of his youth). He lived until the age of seventy-eight, and was then buried with his comrades. The assailants who died by seppuku were subsequently interred on the grounds of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their master.
The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; 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. The graves at this temple have been visited by a great many people throughout the years since the Genroku era. One of those who visited the tombs was the man who had mocked and spat on Ōishi as he lay drunk in the street. Addressing the grave, he begged for forgiveness for his actions, and for thinking that Ōishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide, and is buried next to the graves of the ronin.
Though this act is often viewed as an act of loyalty, there had been a second goal, to re-establish the Asanos' lordship and finding a place to serve for fellow samurai. Hundreds of samurai who had served under Asano had been left jobless and many were unable to find employment, as they had served under a disgraced family. Many lived as farmers or did simple handicrafts to make ends meet. The 47 ronin's act cleared their names and many of the unemployed samurai found jobs soon after the ronin had been sentenced to an honorable end.
Asano Daigaku Nagahiro, Takuminokami's younger brother and heir, was allowed by the Tokugawa Shogunate to re-establish his name, though his territory was reduced to a tenth of the original.