47 Ronin


Forty-seven Ronin Graves (2008)
Forty-seven Ronin Graves (2008) (Photo credit: jpellgen)

A Facebook friend of mine mentioned that this month marks the 311th Anniversary of the “Ako Incident”….otherwise known as the night the 47 Ronin carried out their attack on the mansion of Kira Yoshinaka. One noted Japanese scholar has described this tale as being the country’s “national legend.”

What is interesting however…as it always is when separating out historic facts from legend…is that according to the “Bushido Code” of the day the actions of the 47 Ronin were not unanimously viewed as being heroic.

To encapsulate the event. In 1701 two daimyo, Asano and Kamei, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their bi-annual service to the Shogun. They were to receive instruction in proper etiquette from a powerful court official named Kira. According to the legend, Kira expected a bribe/fee from the diamyo of which Kamei paid and Asano did not. Kira then treated Kamei civilly but continually insulted Asano. Eventually Asano had enough and drew a blade within Edo castle and wounded Kira. This was a grave offense and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku and all of his goods and lands were ordered to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin (leaderless). 

Of Asano’s over three hundred men, forty-seven refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so. Two years latter, the 47 Ronin attacked Kira’s mansion in the early morning hours during a heavy snow killing Kira and most of his retainers. When they had finished, the 47 turned themselves in to the authorities. Eventually all were ordered to commit seppuku.

While many people think that this was a classic example of “Bushido”, the Samurai of the day and even modern scholars of Japanese history are not so sure. One scholar succinctly puts the historic quandary like this:

The even greater ambiguity lies in the motivation and action of the ronin. They 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. Kira, after all, was not their master’s murderer: on the contrary, Asano had tried to murder Kira. Nor was there any justification for avenging the death of one’s lord, only that of a family member: the ronin even had to call on a Confucian scholar to come up with a textual basis for their action. Legalities aside, what was the underlying spirit of their act? Was it indeed personal loyalty to their lord, as the mainstream of the Chûshingura tradition would have it? Or was it a protest against the bakufu’s lenient treatment of Kira for his involvement in the incident? Or was it a simple matter of personal honor to carry out their master’s unfinished task? Or, as one school of interpretation would have it, were they impoverished samurai desperate for a new job and trying to prove their credentials?

The operating principle of revenge was based on an ancient Confucian dictum about not living under the same heaven as the killer of one’s father (or in this case, lord). In this case Kira was not the killer of Asano. Furthermore, some Samurai were conflicted on the entire planning and execution process employed. Plotting and careful planning for success was (oddly enough) not “The Way” of the Samurai when it came to situations like this. The Samurai Dazai Shundai (1680 – 1747) summed up this viewpoint in an essay:

“The guest asked: “In that case, what should the warriors of Ako have done?” Shundai said: “Nothing could have been better for them than to die at Ako Castle…. They should have come out of the castle and engaged in battle with the government emissaries (who were coming to seize the Asano goods and lands). Then, retreating into the castle, they should have set fire to it, and everyone should have killed himself. When their corpses had burned up with the castle, it could have been said that the Ako men had done all they could…. “If for some reason it was not possible for them to die at Ako Castle, they should have gone to Edo at once and, with all the troops available, attacked Kira. If they won the engagement, they thereupon should have killed themselves; if they lost, the same. The unifying element should have been death. Through it they would have discharged their responsibility. “Yet Oishi and his men were unable to do either. Instead, they waited leisurely and, employing idle conspiracies and secrecy, tried to kill Kira. What they had in mind was to achieve their aim, establish their reputation, and thereby seek fame and fortune. How unurbane of them! In the circumstances, it was lucky for the Ako warriors that Kira hadn’t died before their attack.”

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, the Samurai who’s statements are claimed to be reproduced in the Hagakure is reported to have said the following about the situation:

A certain person was brought to shame because he did not take revenge. The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one’s way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time. By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up; in the end you will give up. No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it.

Concerning the night assault of Lord Asano’s ronin, the fact that they did not commit seppuku at the Sengakuji was an error, for there was a long delay between the time their lord was struck down and the time when they struck down the enemy. If Lord Kira had died of illness within that period, it would have been extremely regrettable. Because the men of the Kamigata area have a very clever sort of wisdom, they do well at praiseworthy acts but cannot do things indiscriminately, as was done in the Nagasaki fight.

The second element in debate was the fact that the 47 Ronin turned themselves in after the incident instead of immediately committing seppuku, which would have been truer to the Bushido ideals of the day. Some critics believe that the Ronin were gambling that perhaps through gaining fame, notoriety and public support that they would be able to escape death. Some critics even going so far as to accuse them of trying to leverage their fame into employment with another daimyo.

From a political/historic aspect it is interesting to read that this story really “got legs” and became the “National Legend” during the Meiji Period of Japanese history. The Meiji Restoration was a  period when Japan was undergoing “modernization” while still trying to hold onto some form of historic cultural identity. As Henry Smith said at Columbia University states:

For the first half of the Meiji period, Chûshingura survived with no major change in the two great Edo-period lineages of kabuki stage productions and kôdan story-telling. To be sure, the new regime seems to have appreciated the political uses of the 47 Ronin as early as 1868, when the Meiji emperor, on arriving in his new capital of Tokyo, sent an emissary to Sengakuji to place offerings before the graves of the Akô ronin, together with a proclamation addressed to Ôishi and praising him for upholding the principle of the master-follower bond. Yet this did not lead to any particular official manipulation of the legend to foster imperial loyalty: Chûshingura remained in the possession of the people.

The modern transformation of Chûshingura into what amounted to a piece of propaganda on behalf of martial values and selfless sacrifice to the state came, revealingly, only after the way had been paved by the first modern historical studies of the Akô incident.[17] This process began in 1889 with the appearance of The True Story of the Akô Gishi (Akô gishi jitsuwa), an account by Shigeno Yasutsugu (1827-1910), a pioneer of the modern critical method in history. Shigeno insisted on the need to separate out the many counterfeits among the surviving documents of the incident, in an effort to tell the “true story.” The form of the book (which was related orally to a newspaper reporter) was an act-by-act analysis of Kanadehon Chûshingura, indicating what was “true” and what not. This marks the beginning of a new element in the Chûshingura phenomenon, the perception that the historical event constituted a different kind of story to be told, with different tools and methods. The way to a greater historicity may have been paved by the kôdan tradition and its stronger sense of the actual event―particularly in the use of the historical names of the participants―but the line between history and fiction remained one that was never openly contested.

It is in this historic perspective that you can see the foreshadowing of events that led to the Imperial Japanese militarism of WWII. The 47 Ronin, Bushido: The soul of Japan, and the Hagakure were all used as propaganda to reinforce the Samurai heritage of Japanese soldiers.

Now..this is not to imply that you cannot find “Things Worth Believing In” in these works. I will end by quoting myself from another post on the Hagakure:

The Hagakure was written approximately one hundred years after the start of the Tokugawa era, a time of relative peace when Japan was closed to any foreign influence. With no battles left to fight, the samurai class was being transformed into an administrative arm of the government, training and practicing the martial arts but seldom engaging in combat outside of duels and brawls. After his master died, Tsunetomo was forbidden to perform a ritual suicide by an edict of the Tokugawa Shogunate and it is thought that the Hagakure may have been written as a response to the change in tradition and was an effort to define the role of the samurai in this more peaceful society. Several sections refer to the “old days”, and imply a dangerous weakening of the samurai class since that time.

His work represents one approach to the problem of maintaining military preparedness and a proper military mindset in a time when neither has much practical application. The Hagakure remained a fairly obscure work until 1930′s Japan where it played a role in the resurgent militarism of WWII imperial Japan. Illustrating the danger in trying to resurrect modes of thought from times that were vastly different from our own. The student studying these codes needs to remember that the “trick” lays in finding the similarities and consistency in human thought that may have remained over the ages and see how these ancient codes may or may not apply to our times.

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