Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sengaku-ji: the Resting Place of the 47 Ronin

-- Susan, Every Other Sunday

One of Japan's most famous historical tales involves the revenge of the 47 ronin. More commonly known as the "Ako Incident," the tale is immortalized in the (numerous) Japanese film(s) and books entitled Chūshingura, which tell the story of the 47 ronin who avenged their master (and then committed mass suicide).

Signpost at Sengaku-ji (in Tokyo) telling the story of the Ako Incident

Many Westerners have heard of Chūshingura -- either because they've seen one of the famous (and, in some cases, brilliant) Japanese film or stage adaptations or (regrettably) due to the recent Keanu  Reeves Hollywood release, 47 RONIN (which modified the original very heavily but drew its inspiration from the Japanese tale).

What many Westerners don't realize is that the story--at least the Japanese versions--is true, and that the 47 loyal samurai who avenged their lord and then took their own lives en masse are buried, and honored, at a Tokyo temple called Sengaku-ji.

Formal entrance gate at Sengaku-ji

I visited the temple last summer, at the end of my research trip, because I owe these samurai a deep and personal debt, and wanted to pay my respects. Why?

The temple yard.

Their story is more interesting, so I'll tell that one first:

In 1701, the Japanese shogun ordered Daimyō Asano, Feudal Lord of Ako Province, to entertain a visiting imperial envoy. Prior to the meeting Lord Asano was instructed to seek instructions from his official advisor, Kira Kozuke-no-Suke, at Edo Castle. 

During the meeting, Kira treated Asano rudely, disgracing and dishonoring Asano in the process. Asano drew his sword--violating the law against drawing a weapon in Edo Castle--and wounded Kira, but Kira escaped and Asano was arrested.

By law, both Kira and Asano should have been punished for the fight (Kira for starting it and Asano for attacking another samurai). However, while Asano was sentenced to death by seppuku that very day, and his titles and lands were confiscated (leaving his family penniless and transforming his retainers into ronin, or masterless samurai) Kira escaped without punishment.

Asano's loyal samurai retainers were furious, and begged for reconsideration of Asano's punishment (which, admittedly, would not have helped Asano personally any longer, but would at least have prevented his family from becoming destitute and let the retainers keep their honor and status). 

The request was denied.

Two years later, on December 14, 1702, Asano's former senior retainer, Oishi Kuranosuke, assembled the 47 loyal retainers and led them in an attack on Kira's home. After surprising and killing Kira, the 47 loyal samurai marched to Sengaku-ji, presented Kira's head to Asano's grave, and then immediately turned themselves in to the shogun, fully expecting to receive the death penalty for murdering a samurai lord.

Statue of Oishi Kuranosuke at Sengaku-ji

On February 4, 1703, the 47 ronin were sentenced to death. Again led by Oishi Kuranosuke, the loyal retainers accepted their fate and committed seppuku en masse. 

After their deaths, the 47 samurai were interred beside their lord at Sengaku-ji, and their names and story have become one of Japan's best-known examples of bushidō and samurai honor.

The front gate to Sengaju-ji.

I first heard about the Ako Incident as a college freshman at Tufts University, and was struck by the dedication and commitment it would take to avenge a master knowing that doing so would require your death. The story compelled me to look more deeply at several aspects of Japanese culture and history, and was one of the pivotal factors in development of my lifelong love and respect for Japan.

View of the formal entry from the temple yard.

In many ways, my visit to Sengaku-ji--where an annual festival on December 14 still honors the courage and sacrifice of Asano's 47 loyal retainers--was a pilgrimage long overdue.

Worship hall at Sengaku-ji

It closed a circle that I had not realized needed closing, and as I burned incense on the graves of the 47 ronin, I thanked them for inspiring not only their own countrymen and women, but many others (including me) across a distant sea. 


  1. Susan, I hope we will visit here when we go to Japan on our trip. I will burn incense too, but to the spirits of the women and children all those dead man left behind. I am sorry, but I cannot admire this sort of masculine honor revenge. It looks to me like egomania and the scourge of the earth. Hell hath no fury like a man dishonored.

    1. It's not the vengeance part that I admire - I'm with you that killing isn't the answer to (almost all of) the world's problems.

      The part I admired was the sense of honor that would have men place others higher than themselves, and the sense of justice that made righting a wrong more important to them than life itself. While I'd have preferred a different method, I admire them for having principles stronger than their own self-interest. (Probably should have been more clear about that!)

  2. Like AmA, I've always had trouble with the idea of 'honor' as an excuse for murder, revenge, suicide, etc. While I recognize and 'appreciate' the extent that honor shaped the lives of people in Japan, it's always baffled me a bit.

    I always liked this quote from Lois McMaster Bujold's A CIVIL CAMPAIGN: “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.” and “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.” and “There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That's soul-destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating.” and finally, and most to the point, “…the trouble with oaths of the form, death before dishonor, is that eventually, given enough time and abrasion, they separate the world into two sorts of people: the dead, and the forsworn.”

    On another note, this week I encountered this article that I thought you would enjoy, Susan. I tried emailing it to you via the "Contact" on your website, but it kept erroring when trying to send. A few Roman coins from 300-400 AD were discovered in Japan:

    1. I love that Bujold quote too. (And agree with it!)

      Thank you for thinking of me with the article! We're doing some website renovations, and the email does seem to be down - I'll tell my webmaster. I'm sorry you had trouble with it! I saw the article - it's fascinating (but not surprising - the Japanese warlords were VERY interested in foreign coinage, and definitely collected it whenever they could get their hands on it. Like medieval magpies.) Thank you for thinking of me!!

  3. I, too, like Bujold's analysis of honor and reputation.

    I also agree on the Keanu Reeves review. Perhaps a film of his that more accurately describes events is "Matrix." At least that one seems closer to offering a believable explanation for what we're experiencing today than anything else I've heard.

    1. I never thought I'd see the day that The Matrix films were described as a documentary. Sadly, I'm not sure I can argue that description.