Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The 47 Loyal Samurai

The 47 Loyal Samurai is one of the most famous stories in all of Japanese history. The story of the 47 are referred to by many names including The Forty-seven Ronin, The Ako Samurai, the Ako Vendetta, and the Genroku Ako Incident. Fictionalized accounts of the incident are known as Chushingura. There have been literally dozens and dozens of books, plays, TV shows, and movies about this event.

Here is the story of the events that led to the famous Ako Vendetta.

In 1701, imperial envoys were being entertained at Edo Castle after their arrival from Kyoto. Supervising the ceremonies was Kira no Suke Yoshinaka (1641-1702). Kira sent a message to a Kajikawa Yoriteru, a keeper of the castle, that the presentation of gifts would take place earlier than scheduled. To confirm these arrangements, Yoriteru proceeded along the main corridor, known as the Corridor of Pines on account of its paintings, in search of Kira. Unable to find him, he asked Asano Naganori (1667-1701), the daimyo lord charged with entertaining the imperial envoys, be summoned. Having exchanged the usual greetings, assuring each other of their cooperation, Asano returned to his seat. Then Kira appeared, and Yoriteru approached him to confirm the timing of the ceremonies. As the men were standing in discussion, Asano suddenly struck Kira with his sword from behind, shouting: "Did you forget my recent grievance?" Taken by surprise, Kira turned around and attempted to flee, but Asano struck him again, causing him to fall. At this point Yoriteru managed to restrain Asano, who was then led away shouting loudly that though the time and place were inappropriate, for some days he nursed a grievance against Kira and thus had to strike him. That same evening Asano was ordered by the authorities to disembowel himself. Because the area had been defiled by the shedding of blood, the ceremonies for the envoys were moved to different room s of the castle.

This is what the contemporaneous records tell us about the event that 18 months later caused forty-seven of Asano Naganori's retainers to attack Kira Yoshinaka's mansion in the dead of night, cut off his head, and place it on Asano's grave at Sengakuji. Forty-six of the retainers gave themselves up to the authorities and were ordered to commit suicide some two months later.

Over time the story transformed and developed. Kira was made the evil villain--the greedy, corrupt government official who had insulted Lord Asano one too many times. The 47 loyal samurai were made to be the perfect examples of samurai loyalty and bushido. They avenged their lord by taking the villainous Kira Yoshinaka's head and placing it on Asano's grave. The 47 samurai brilliantly lulled Kira into complacency by waiting almost 18 months to seek their revenge and by acting like drunks and cowards in order to throw Kira off. They then turned themselves into the authorities and later committed seppuku like honorable samurai.

However, as is usually the case with famous stories from history, events usually happened somewhat different than what the later stories tell. Author Beatrice Bodart-Baily, in the book The Dog Shogun, provides and excellent examination surrounding the famous incident of the Forty-seven Loyal Ronin. The author examines how the incident, rather than glorifying the samurai, speaks much more of the decline of the warrior tradition. Here are some interesting points from the book regarding the 47 Ronin incident. Some of these points may seem pretty obvious and yet the loyalty and honor of the 47 Ronin are glorified even today.

  • Asano Naganori showed concern neither for the reputation of his house nor the fate of his family and retainers when he attacked Kira. Asano should have known that attacking a Shogunal official in the Shogun's castle was a grave offence that likely would result in his death and the destruction of his house and confiscation of his domain thereby destroying the livelihood of his loyal retainers.
  • Asano was a student of Confucian scholar Yamaga Soko, whose principal teaching was that in peacetime the samurai "should set a high example of devotion to duty." However, although apprenticed to Soko in the military arts, Asano showed a marked lack of samurai spirit as well as a lack of sword skill in his attack on Kira. Asano attacked Kira from behind while Kira was engaged in a discussion and Asano did not succeed in killing Kira. This showed neither courage nor ability.
  • There is no evidence in legitimate historical documents that shows that Kira Yoshinaka was the villain so often portrayed that would justify an attack on him in the Shogun's castle. But Kira had to become the villain in order to make the story of the 47 Loyal Ronin what it was. Little is ever mentioned of Kira's 40 year service in a responsible government position, only that he was a greedy official who gravely insulted Asano. Both of which there is a lack of evidence to support.
  • It has been argued by some that since the 47 Ronin knowingly violated the law of the Bakufu when they attacked Kira's mansion, it was absurd for the samurai to notify the authorities on completion of their crime with the message that they were now awaiting their orders rather than immediately committing seppuku. This leads some to suspect that the driving force was NOT the revenge of their dead lord but the hope that praise and admiration for this act of "loyalty" would secure them a pardon and reemployment elsewhere. If they had not expected to live, why did they not disembowel themselves immediately on completion of their revenge?
  • With a year and a half between Asano Naganori's death and the slaying of Kira, some had wondered whether the revenge was really a priority of Oishi Kuranosuke, the chief retainer of Asano Naganori. Of course the story goes that it was all part of Kuranosuke's plan to lull Kira into complacency. Yet the point has been made of the elaborate preparations for the attack in the dead of the night, after Kira's staff was tired out by entertaining guests and when snow muffled the footsteps of the attackers. Some contemporaries such as Sato Naotaka and Dazai Shundai thought such trickery was unworthy of a samurai.
  • Kira, according to his income, was a man of lowly hatamoto status. The fact that 16 of his retainers were killed in the attack, while only 4 attackers received relatively light wounds, indicated that this was an unequal battle. The large loss of life among the Kira retainers and servants could have been avoided in a spirited day-time attack on Kira on the open road by just a few men in traditional samurai fashion. In such an assault the attackers would, however, most likely have been cut down immediately afterwards and the chance of a pardon lost. The Bakufu's charge against the 47 Ronin after the incident explicitly mentions the use of projectile weapons which could mean anything from arrows and catapults to firearms. It may well also refer to spears. This clearly gave the attackers an advantage against the Kira retainers who were probably only armed with swords.
  • Consideration should be also given to the public emphasis on loyalty and filial piety. The 47 Ronin certainly must have been aware that at times Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi would overturn decisions of his officials to heap praise and rewards on people who in his opinion had lived up to these ideals particularly well. The suggestion that the Ako samurai did not commit suicide but gave themselves up to the authorities in the hope of being singled out for such shogunal praise was not altogether unlikely at the time.
  • When the loyalty of the 47 are referred to, it is of course the loyalty to their immediate lord, for Asano's retainers had disobeyed the laws of the bakufu in order to discharge their duties towards their lord.

The picture that emerges from the story of the 47 Loyal Ronin is that of desperate men trying to survive in the maelstrom of change. With an abrupt discrediting of traditional values, the 5th shogun attempted a major paradigm change. This must have produced feelings of helplessness and confusion in the minds of many samurai as they attempted to make their way in this changed environment with its fundamental revision of the traditional value system. The Ako samurai came to symbolize this suffering as men from a nostalgic past, as battlers against the harsh government of the day that was intent on destroying their cherished values. Their summary death ordered by an unpopular shogun permitted quick deification. To complete the process of creating larger-than-life-size images, any human foibles had to be shed. Every part of their action came to be uncritically accepted as serving a greater public good, and those that appealed to an examination of the facts were in turn accused of delusion.


  1. One of my many regrets is that I didn't ever go to see Sengakuji while I was in Tokyo.

  2. I would love to visit there someday as well, especially during the annual festival.

  3. Its too bad we don't know what the original (or series) of slights against Asano by Kira were. I suppose that is the unanswered question that everything hinges on. Was the perceived grievance so heinous that Asano would throw his honor, training, and family aside?

    I can imagine a few.

    Your book sounds very interesting. I think a telling fact is that though the author doesn't believe the 47 encompass the true 'samurai persona' the Japanese did. So what does the rest matter?

  4. Good point. You are right that we will never know what the slight was. One can only guess.

  5. My husband spent several years living in Japan as a kid. I'm really glad that I was introduced to your page from your comment on my blog.

    Now I can learn about the history and stories before we take a holiday.

  6. There are so many tellings of this story. I have to agree with you on Asano's lack of restraint and poor swordsmanship. He clearly did not consider the fate of his retainers of the Ako Domain. In any case it is still an impressive story of the loyalty and sacrifice of the men of Ako Castle.

    My favorite film version is Kon Ichikawa's 47Ronin starring Ken Takakura and my one time dream girl Rei Miyazawa.

  7. It is a great story, even if much of it is fiction. I have seen two film versions and I loved them both. They were Hiroshi Inagaki's Chishingura and Swords of Vengeance: The Fall of Ako Castle starring Sonny Chiba.

  8. The Sonny chiba version had some of that notorious 1970's choppy editing and segways but I do love the superb cast which later found themseleves on Shogun's Samurai.

  9. It had Sonny Chiba so what do you expect. But I thought the final battle scene at Kira's mansion was really, really good.

  10. Thank you for visiting Catherine. If you ever get a chance to visit Japan, you may develop an even greater interest in the history as well as in samurai genre movies. That's what happened to me.