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  • James Houser

February 4, 1703 - The Revenge of the 47 Ronin

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 4, 1703. Forty-six men commit ritual suicide on a snowy night in the mountains. They are missing one from their number, pardoned from their collective crimes on account of his youth. Their crime is the storming of a fortified compound and the murder of an important Japanese noble. For this deed of vengeance, the 46 and 1 go down in history as the "Yonju Nanashi" - the 47 Ronin.

(Note: in pre-1945 Japan, family names come first. Hence Yamamoto Isoroku: Yamamoto is the family name, whereas in the West it is the last name. Just for reference.)

Asano Naganori, a great Japanese feudal lord, ruled part of Harima Province during the Tokugawa Shogunate - a period of Japanese isolation under a feudal military government headed by a Shogun. Asano was not a remarkable man, but he certainly inspired loyalty from his nobles and knights - including almost 300 samurai. In 1701, Asano was appointed to an important post - the Shogun's liaison to the Emperor. This post entailed formal ceremony and ritual that most Japanese nobles did not know; the Shogun appointed their master of ceremonies, Kira Yoshinaka, to teach Asano the elaborate court procedures of the Japanese Imperial rites.

Asano Naganori

Kira was...well, an asshole. He constantly insulted and belittled Asano, to the point of outright humiliation. After a period of this toxic tutelage, Asano had enough. One day, after enduring a particularly blistering series of insults and affronts to his honor, Asano snapped and attacked Kira, slashing his face with a katana. This was a grave affront to the Shogun; not only had Asano attacked a high official, but he had drawn a sword within Edo Palace - one of the deepest violations of court honor. Faced with an Imperial proscription, Asano had no other honorable choice. On April 21, 1701, Asano committed ritual suicide - seppuku - to absolve his dishonor.

Ukiyo-e scene depicting Asano's assault on Kira. By Kanadehon Chushingura c. 1870s

In Japan, the Asano name was now dirt. Most of his followers and even his family abandoned his memory. Only a few of his samurai remained devoted to his memory: 47 of them. With their master dead, they now became ronin - masterless samurai, despised and shunned across Japanese society. While some expected them to seek revenge for their master's dishonor, they seemed to be disappointed.

To outward appearances, the forty-seven abandoned their samurai heritage. Their leader, Oishi Yoshio, stumbled through the streets of Japanese cities, reduced to a drunken fool. Many of the others took up low, menial trades (in Japanese eyes) such as carpenters, tradesmen and monks. Others vanished into the countryside. Oishi, once a noble samurai, wandered the streets as a beggar. A local Satsuma man, observing Oishi's fall, insulted him in the streets and called him a coward for not avenging his master and dying with him. As a final reproach, the Satsuma man spit on Oishi.

It was all a front. The apparent dissipation of Asano's last followers allowed Kira to relax his guard and lower his defenses. The tradesmen and carpenters, once samurai on Asano's service, had found jobs in Kira's household. Some of those who had vanished filtered back into the city. Others had bribed the architects of Kira's house for the blueprints.

The Ronin storm Kira's castle, artist unknown

On December 14, 1702, the 47 Ronin struck. Oishi and his fellow samurai had constructed a careful plan and struck from two points, carving through Kira's guards and penetrating to the heart of the house. They initially thought they had lost their quarry, but found a secret passage and followed him through the corridor. They found Kira cowering and weeping as they marched in. Oishi offered his foe the opportunity to commit seppuku, but Kira could not bring himself to do it. The samurai held Kira down as Oishi beheaded him.

The 47 Ronin delivered Kira's head to their lord Asano's grave at the Sengaku-ji temple, and awaited the Shogun's justice. While the Shogun could not accept the murder of his minister, popular support for the Ronin was high, and their task had been honorable. The Shogun decided that they must die, but they would not be hanged as common criminals: they would have the opportunity to commit seppuku. On February 4, 1703, 46 of the 47 slit their stomachs in front of their master's grave at Sengaku-ji. Only one samurai was spared death because of his innocent youth.

The Satsuma man who had insulted Oishi, remorseful for his insults and his actions, soon followed the samurai to Sengaku-ji. There, he also committed suicide, and was buried next to the 46 at the feet of their master - rounding out the cohort that have become known to Japanese legend as the 47 Ronin.

The graves of the 47 Ronin in Sengaku-Ji, Tokyo, via Wikipedia

A symbol of loyalty and duty to the Japanese people, the story of the 47 Ronin has been repeated in countless formats; even the Shogun's censorship of the story could not stop poorly disguised versions of it from appearing in Kabuki theater productions, opera, poetry, and song. At least six films and multiple TV shows have portrayed the 47 Ronin, including a 2013 American movie starring Keanu Reeves. It is a cultural touchstone in Japanese culture to this very day.

It's a really good story. Whether it's more than a story, because it sounds almost too good to be true...

Even if it's not true, it should be. And that's all I'm gonna say.

For a modern take on the story, try Thomas Harper's 47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akô (New Haven, CT: Leete's Island Books, 2019).

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