Sunday, June 28, 2015

Life, Death, and 47 Ronin

One of the most familiar, and beloved, stories in Japan involves the heroic sacrifice--and suicide--of forty-seven loyal samurai.

The fictitious account, most commonly titled Chūshingura (忠臣蔵) has been produced as a written work, and in numerous manga, films, and plays. One reason it resonates so deeply with the Japanese people is that the story is based on real events.

The Ako Incident, on a signpost at Sengakuji

The "Ako Incident" took place in 1701-1703. The version that takes less than two years to tell goes something like this: 

In 1701, Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi ordered Asano Takuminokami, Lord of Ako, to entertain the imperial envoys visiting Edo (now Tokyo), following the directions of an official advisor, Kira Kozukenosuke. However, Kira disliked Asano and caused him to disgrace himself in public.

In response to the insult, Asano drew his sword inside the corridors of Edo Castle (a forbidden act) and attacked, injuring Kira (but, sadly, failing to kill him). Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (death by self-disembowelment) immediately--with no investigation or chance to explain--while Kira escaped without punishment even though, by law, he should have shared Asano's fate. Asano's estate was confiscated and his family shamed.

Asano's retainers requested an investigation of the events, but the request was denied. They lost their honor along with their lord and became ronin, masterless samurai--the most shameful position a man of noble rank could hold. 

Although ordered to disband (ronin were not allowed to travel in bands) Asano's retainers reassembled on December 14, 1702, under the leadership of Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano's former captain. They attacked Kira's residence and killed him to avenge the insult done to their master. 

18th century woodblock print of Chushingura

The 47 ronin marched to Sengakuji (Sengaku Temple) in Edo and presented Kira's head to Asano's grave. Immediately thereafter, they turned themselves in to the shogun to face justice.

On February 4, 1703, the 47 samurai were sentenced to commit seppuku--and did so en masse. Afterward, they were buried at Sengakuji, within meters of the lord whose honor they redeemed.

The gate to Sengakuji, as seen from the yard.

Today, Sengakuji (and its graveyard) remain a major site of pilgrimage for Japanese people (and some Westerners, present company included) who go to show respect for the 47 ronin and, often, to burn incense on their graves.

The temple itself is small, and lies in the heart of a modern Tokyo neighborhood. Unless you know what you're looking at, you could easily walk right by.

Front entrance to Sengakuji, from the road.

Inside, however, the buildings and courtyard seem frozen in time, a fitting testament to the samurai age and to the honorable men who rest there.

It rained the day we visited. Somehow, this seemed fitting.

I did not photograph the graves, from respect for the dead and for the living mourners who were there and leaving incense during my visit. Also, this was one of the only places in Japan that actually brought this crusty curmudgeon to actual tears. Chushingura was one of my first exposures to the historical samurai culture, and I feel a great respect for the noble men who held the honor of their lord in such regard.

Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friend.

Oishi Kuranosuke, man of honor.

Rest in peace, men of Ako. You served your master, your country, and history well.


  1. Thanks, Susan, for the story. It's well that I'm not living in Shogunate Japan, I wouldn't get along well. Of course, raised in that culture, I wouldn't be me, but still... the whole idea of honor (others' notions thereof) and seppuku (at someone else's behest) are just a bit too much against my independent grain. I'm not saying that a person shouldn't have their own personal idea of honor and live accordingly, but in too many cultures it's used as a method of controlling others, and being in control of oneself has always been one of my personal keystones.

    1. Medieval Japan was definitely not the best culture for the independent nonconformist. :)

      I'm glad I don't live there, either, for many reasons (flush toilets being high on the list) but I'm glad I could go and experience some of the places I've learned about for so long.

  2. Was that independent "grain" EvKa?

    Personally, Susan, I'm always moved by that story. I've seen at least two film versions of it, and it always works me up. Amazing the value of loyalty, it's something I've always treasured, though not sure I'd follow through with the seppuku style would be more like finding an extradition free hideaway.

    1. I'm with you on the self-disembowelment avoidance. Dishonor might have been something I could live with, given the alternative.

      Also like you, though, I do find the story moving. My son was shocked that I teared up at the graveyard, because as a rule I'm not much of a crier--but it was very moving to be in the presence of these men I'd heard so much about.

  3. Susan, I found the temple and looked at on my first trip to Tokyo, but I did not know the story. Honor killing is not something I admire. At least, in this case, it seems not to have resulted in the death of the innocent or powerless, as it so often does.

    1. One of the reasons this set of deaths resonates so deeply with the Japanese is that everyone involved was showing respect for the law in the process. I'm not much for honor killings myself, but this story resonated with me; I think it's because of the dedication these men showed in avenging a wrong to their master.