Monday, August 13, 2007

The 47 Ronin

The true story of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) of the province of Harima is probably the best-known story of valor and ideals (the Code of Bushido) of Japan's famous samurai warriors. Our tale begins in 1701, a time of relative peace during the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Shogun Tsunayoshi lived and ruled from Edo, while the Emperor, who had little political power, lived in Kyoto. To show respect to the Emperor, Tsunayoshi sent gifts and envoys to Kyoto for the New Year's celebrations, and in return, the Emperor sent his own envoys to Edo in March. To receive the Imperial envoys, Tsunayoshi appointed two young daimyos (feudal provincial lords), Naganori Asano-Takuminokami, The Lord of the Castle of Ako in Harima Province, and Munehare Date, Lord of Sendai to act as hosts during the forthcoming visit of a member of the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Because the daimyos were inexperienced in entertaining high born guests, the Shogun appointed an elderly high official named Yoshinaka Kira-Kozukenosuke to assist them.

Kira, whom history describes as greedy and conceited, became very angry with Lord Asano for not presenting him with expensive gifts (to show appreciation, respect, etc.) and instead of helping Lord Asano became very abusive and insulting towards him. Kira, determined to get even, used every opportunity to publicly humiliate Asano. After two months of abuse, Asano's tolerance was gone.

On March 14, unable to take the insults from Kira anymore, Lord Asano drew his sword (itself a capital offense when done inside Edo Castle) and struck Kira wounding him slightly. For his offense, The Shogun Tsunayoshi ordered Lord Asano to immediately commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Kira, on the other hand, received no punishment; in fact, he became an object of sympathy and was allowed to continue his official duties.

The Shogun's failure to have Kira share in the responsibility angered the followers of Asano,who felt that Kira's improper actions were ignored and Asano's punishment too harsh.

By law, when a samurai lord committed seppuku, his castle was confiscated by the Shogun, his family was disinherited, and his 321 samurai retainers were ordered to disband, thus becoming ronin or masterless warriors. Asano's samurai were unsure of how to act in the wake of this disaster. Some thought they should refuse to turn over the castle to the Shogun, some thought they should plot revenge and kill Kira, and others thought they should respect the law and surrender peacefully.

Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano's Chief Councilor, listened to the varying opinions and finally decided on a plan. He would petition the Shogun to reestablish the House of Asano with Lord Asano's younger brother, Daigaku, as it's head. If that failed the samurai of Lord Asano would refuse to turn over the castle and defend it to the death.

In the next few days, as the Shogun's agents were on the road enroute to the Ako, all of the Asano samurai which were opposed to the petition deserted the castle, leaving only 60 loyal samurai behind. Before the shogun's men could reach the castle, Daigaku Asano sent a letter to Oishi, asking him to obey the orders of the Shogun and hand the castle over.

Oishi and the 59 other samurai accepted Daigaku's request as binding on them as the word of Lord Asano himself, but before they quit the castle they made plans to avenge their Lord Asano's disgrace by killing Kira, whose un-samurai like character had brought their lord and house to such a tragic end. Only this would restore Asano's rightful honor.

The men split up to conceal their plans from Kira, who naturally suspected that Asano's retainers would try to get revenge against him. Oishi went to Yamashina, a suburb of Kyoto, where he earned a reputation as a drunken gambler, a ruse that successfully deceived the Shogun's police and Kira's many spies.

The Shogun, still concerned that the affair might not be ended, ordered the arrest of Daigaku Asano and sentenced him to confinement in the main villa of the Asano family, thus ending any remaining hope that the House of Asano might be reestablished.

For nearly two years they waited, disguised as merchants, street vendors and even drunks to get information on Kira and to be close to him should an opportunity arise to storm Kira's mansion. Finally, Kira and his allies finally relaxed their suspicions of Oishi and his men.

At a secret meeting, Oishi and the other 59 ronin decided that the time had come to move against Kira. But Oishi would allow only 46 of the men to participate with him in the attempt. He sent the other 13 back home to their families.

One by one Oishi and his men infiltrated Edo, and on a snowy winter night of December 14, 1702 the 47 ronin attacked the mansion of Kira while he was having a tea party. The 47 ronin divided into two bands and stormed the mansion from the front and rear gates. In the great battle that followed, the 47 ronin entered into battle against Kira's 61 armed guards. At the end of the 1 1/2 hour battle, Asano's ronin had either subdued or killed all of Kira's men without any losses of their own.

After a thorough search, Kira was found hiding in an outhouse. The ronin brought Kira to the courtyard and offered him the same chance their Lord Asano was given to honorably commit seppuku. Kira could not commit seppuku, so the ronin beheaded him. Then, to symbolize the completion of their mission, the 47 returned to Asano's grave at Sengaku-ji Temple and set Kira's head before it, thus declaring their Lord's honor redeemed.

Prepared to die for their deed, Oishi sent two delegates to the Magistrate of Edo, informing him of what had been done and telling the official that they would be waiting at the Sengaku-ji Temple, awaiting orders from the Shogun.

The Shogun Tsunayoshi, instead of being angry, was deeply impressed with the loyalty demonstrated by the 47 ronin. This made Tsunayoshi decision all the more difficult. Although clearly sympathetic to their heroic act, he was nonetheless faced with a dilemma. Should he spare the 47 ronin in recognition of their great display of bushido and their defense of their Lord Asano's honor, or should they be punished according to the law. If he overlooked their crime for sentimental reasons would that belittle their honor and weaken the samurai code? After 47 days of deliberation, Tsunayoshi ordered that Oishi and 45 of his men were to execute themselves not as criminals but as honored warriors. The youngest of the ronin, who had been sent to Ako with the news of Kira's death was spared from the sentence.

On February 4, 1703, the 46 ronin were divided into four groups and handed over to four different daimyo, who were ordered to supervise and witness their deaths. Oishi and the other 45 ronin all committed seppuku simultaneously, dignifying themselves in their valiant sacrifice. Upon their deaths, the 46 ronin were buried side by side next to their master at Sengaku-ji Temple.

Today, the memory of the 47 ronin is celebrated in a play called Chusingura which moves the audience to tears and excitement as it develops the theme of the magnificent sacrifice of the 47 ronin. Additionally, each year thousands of Japanese visit the gravesite of the 46 ronin at Sengaku-ji Temple to pay homage to the honor and loyalty of the 47 ronin and their dedication to the code of bushido.