The story of the 47 Rônin is one of Japan's most famous and most beloved tales. The fact that it is a true story (well, mostly true), only adds to its enduring appeal.
The year was 1701, in the closing days of the prosperous Genroku Era during Japan's long and peaceful Edo Period. Under the effete shogun Tsunayoshi and the effect of complacency, the Tokugawa shogunate had becoming increasingly venal and more concerned with emulating courtly culture than with the exigencies of warrior rule.
In this world of idle dalliance and foppery, the feudal lord of Akô domain, Asano Naganori, was compelled to reside in Edo for extended periods, under the sankin kotai or "alternate attendance" system of social control that forced lords to spend roughly half their time in the capital. On this particular visit, Lord Asano and another daimyo, Lord Kamei, had been put in charge of receiving an embassy of imperial envoys from the court in Kyoto.
As provincial lords from distant domains (Akô is west of Himeji, in present-day Hyogo prefecture), the two daimyo were not familiar with the countless minutia of imperial protocols, and thus had to rely upon the guidance of the bakufu's senior protocol advisor, one Kira Yoshinaka. Somehow, a grudge arose between Lord Asano and Kira, and on the final day of the envoy's visit, while the two daimyo and Kira were walking down a corridor in Edo Castle, Lord Asano drew his wakizashi sword and slashed Kira across the head and right shoulder. Kira was only slightly wounded and Lord Asano was quickly restrained. Placed into custody, he was ordered by the shogunate to commit seppuku that very same day, the 14th day of the Third Month of Genroku 14, better known as April 21, 1701.
We will never know exactly why Asano attacked Kira, as the historical records are silent on this matter. Some tales make it an insult to Lord Asano's wife, or a slight against his status as a samurai. The popular conception is that Kira was demanding bribes for his services, and turned to insults when his initial hints fell on the deaf ears of a righteous Lord Asano. The commonly included detail about Lord Kamei also wishing to kill Kira cannot be substantiated. History only records with certainty that upon striking Kira with his sword, Lord Asano was heard to proclaim "This is for that grudge I've borne against you!" (Kono aida no ikon oboetaru ka).
It was strictly forbidden to draw one's sword with in the precincts of Edo Castle, let alone attack a high-ranking shogunal authority. And thus, even though Asano outranked Kira by virtue of his daimyo status, he must have realized what his fate would be as soon as his anger cooled. But Lord Asano would have had several reasons to complain about his subsequent treatment. At the time of the incident, there had been a long standing legal precedent known as "equal punishment of quarrels," which stipulated that both parties in a dispute receive equal treatment regardless of who was the instigator, yet while Asano was ordered to suicide, Kira received no punishment whatsoever. Adding insult to injury, Lord Asano was forced to commit suicide the very same day, without a proper investigation, and was ordered to die outside in a residential garden, a location more suitable for a run-of-the-mill felon than a lord of Asano's rank. As a final insult, Lord Asano's lands were confiscated and his heir and family divested of the lordship of Akô, a fate typically reserved for traitors and dishonored enemies rather than a loyal vassal who had died honorably by his own hand.
Lord Asano's family and retainers immediately protested and pressed for the reinstatement of the Asano house, but all appeals were denied and Lord Asano's 308 samurai retainers were ordered to surrender Ako Castle and disband. If a samurai did not have a master, he was no longer a samurai, and thus, after some debate, the castle was duly turned over to shogunal authorities, and most of the retainers went their separate ways, some finding new masters and joining other houses, while others took up lives as ordinary tradesmen.
But 47 did not.
Or rather they appeared to go their separate ways, but secretly plotted their revenge. Led by the former chief retainer of Lord Asano, Ôishi Kuranosuke, the 47 planed to finish what their Lord had started - to kill Kira Yoshinaka. Perhaps most remarkable was their patience. No hot-blooded, heat-of-the-moment act was this. Nay, after pressing for months in a failed bid to reinstate Lord Asano's heir, the 47 waited a full year while they carefully plotted and schemed under the watchful eyes of shogunal spies who, wary of a potential vendetta, tracked their every move. Ôishi divorced his wife and disowned his children so they wouldn't be dispossessed after the crime (although his eldest son refused and joined the vendetta). Moreover, he convincingly took up a profligate life of gambling, drinking, and brothel-visiting, maintaining a facade as a "fallen" samurai to throw the hounds off the scent. Another of the retainers divorced his wife and married the daughter of the architect who designed Kira's house, just so he could learn as much as possible about its layout. Talk about careful planning! In any case, there was certainly ample time to reflect on the consequences of their action.
At last on the night of December 14, 1702, the loyal retainers of Akô stormed Kira's Edo mansion in a perfectly executed attack, 23 from the front and 23 from the back. Overwhelming Kira's guards, they fought their way into the house, pulled Kira out of a hidey hole in the floor, dragged him outside, and demanded he commit seppuku in the garden as their lord had done. When he refused, they relieved him of his head.
Thereafter, despite the fact that several were seriously wounded, 46 of the retainers marched 10 kilometers through Edo to Shinagawa, where they presented the head to their lord's grave on the grounds of Sengakuji, the Buddhist temple patronized by members of the Asano house when in Edo (the 47th retainer was dispatched to inform the shogunate, and was spared punishment for his efforts). Along the way, the retainers stopped at the houses of prominent lords to post pre-prepared letters explaining the righteousness of their action. This was more than mere revenge - it was a publicity campaign.
After a week or so of uncertainty, the Akô retainers turned themselves in and threw themselves on the mercy of the shogun, Tsunayoshi. The shogunate deliberated for a full seven weeks, while the 46 were detained in the houses of various lords around Edo and treated extremely well, in accordance with their full status as samurai. At last, the shogunate was swayed by the arguments of the famous Confucian scholar Ogyû Sorai, and ruled on the second day of the second month of Genroku 16 (March 20, 1703) that the retainers commit seppuku. The order was carried out that same day, and the 46 were interred alongside their lord at Sengakuji, where you can still see their gravestones today and even the well where they washed Kira's head on the night of the attack.
The spectacular vendetta seized the popular imagination immediately. In such a peaceful period as the Genroku, such a large attack would have been enough, let alone the spectacle of 46 bloody samurai, bearing torches, banners, and the decapitated head of major government official, publicly marching across the entire city in the wee hours of the night. Street plays and popular fictions referring to the vendetta sprang up almost immediately, although for the most part they had to change names and use veiled allusions to avoid incurring the wrath of the mercurial shogun and his lackeys.
But starting in 1710, just as soon as Tsunayoshi had died, a massive outpouring of plays, puppet shows, kabuki dramas, poems, stories and artworks appeared depicting the vendetta, eventually becoming known collectively by the name Chûshingura ("Story of the Loyal Retainers"), which was originally the title of a famous 1748 kabuki play. Soon the 47 retainers came to epitomize in the minds of the Japanese the samurai virtues of honor and loyalty, and to exemplify the so-called "samurai code" of bushido. More than 300 years later, books, movies, and television specials are still being produced in volume, and the legend continues to grow.
And yet, if the 47 Akô retainers are to be exemplars of samurai virtue, it is worth noting what an atypical example they were. Perhaps what is most remarkable is not that 47 of the retainers avenged their lord, but rather that 261 did not. Nor, it must be added, were such vendettas as that of the Akô retainers at all common, despite the fact that disputes between lords and instances of involuntary seppuku were comparatively frequent.
What then, was the motivation behind the attack of this small minority of revengeful samurai? In their letter of intent, the Akô retainers justified the attack as a vendetta (katakiuchi) on behalf of their lord, but in no way did the case fit either the legal or the customary definition of katakiuchi. After all Kira was not Lord Asano's murderer - rather, Lord Asano had tried to murder Kira. Indeed, the Akô retainers relied in large part on a flimsy justification crafted by a Confucian scholar.
Setting aside the legalities, then, what was the underlying motive of their actions, which they certainly had ample time to weigh and consider? Was it indeed personal loyalty and abiding love for their lord? Or perhaps did they view themselves as bringing Kira the justice of "equal punishment" where the bakufu had failed? Could it have been a simple matter of personal honor to complete their Lord's unfinished task? Or maybe a last ditch effort to have the young heir reinvested by restoring honor to Lord Asano's name? Or could it even have been, as some have suggested, an attempt to gain new employment by showcasing their skills?
The answer, of course, is that we will never know for sure. But this central ambiguity in the story, and the resultant leeway to offer a wide range of interpretations for the motivations of both Lord Asano and the retainers, must be accounted as one of the main reasons for the tale's lasting appeal.
A Note on Names
"47 Ronin" is the English name of the Akô retainers. Rônin (浪人), literally, "masterless person," occurs much more frequently in English than it does in Japanese. A more common term for the Akô retainers in Japanese is Akô Rôshi (赤穂浪士), or "The Masterless Retainers of Akô," the subtistitution of shi, or "warrior" denoting that these were "samurai" and not just ordinary "men" (人). The preferred term in Japanese, however, is Akô Gishi (赤穂義士), or "The Loyal Retainers of Akô." After all, were they truly "masterless" if they continued to loyally serve their master even after his death?