The tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin (also known as the Forty-Seven Samurai, the Akō vendetta, or in Japanese as the "akō rōshi" (赤穂浪士 Akō Wandering Samurai) or the "genroku akō jiken" (元禄赤穂事件 Genroku Akō Incident)) is a prototypical Japanese story. Described by one noted Japan scholar as the country's "national legend" , it recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, bushido. The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (became ronin) after their master was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira, who had insulted him. They avenged him by killing the court official after patiently waiting and planning for over a year. In turn, they were themselves forced to commit seppuku for committing the crime of murder, as they had known they would be—the tale being about the honorable fulfillment of revenge, especially for an honorable leader.
The original events
NOTE: The version given here is based upon Mitford, which is now known to contain numerous historical errors. A major re-write of the article is in preparation. In the meantime the entire section describing the historical events should not be relied on, as it contains major errors.
Note: The story was popularized in numerous plays including bunraku and kabuki; because of the censorship laws of the shogunate which forbade portrayal of current events, the names were changed. The names given in the account below are those of the real people.
Furthermore, those works are dramatic, without pretense to historical accuracy, and the most popular (the Chushingura) takes numerous liberties with the events. While the version given by the playwrights may have come to be accepted as historical fact by some, the Chushingura was written some 50 years after the fact, and numerous historical records about the actual events which pre-date the Chushingura survive. While sources do differ as to some of the details, the version given below is carefully assembled from a large range of historical sources, including some still-extant eye-witness accounts of various portions of the saga.
In 1701 (by the Western calendar), two daimyo, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of Akō (a small fiefdom or han in western Honshu), and Kamei Sama, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their sankin kotai service of greetings to the Shogun.
They were to be given instruction in the necessary court etiquette by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful official in the hierarchy of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi's shogunate. He became upset at them, allegedly because of either the small presents they offered him (in the time-honored compensation for such an instructor), or because they would not offer bribes as he wanted. Other sources say that he was a naturally rude and arrogant individual, or that Kira was corrupt, which offended Asano, a rigidly moral Confucian. In any event, he treated them poorly, insulting them and not bothering to teach them their duties properly.
While Asano bore all this stoically, Kamei Sama became enraged, and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, the quick thinking counsellors of Kamei Sama averted disaster for their lord and clan (for all would have been punished if Kamei Sama killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe; Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei Sama very nicely, which calmed his anger.
However, Kira continued to treat Asano harshly, because he was upset that the latter had not emulated his companion; Kira taunted and humiliated him in public. Finally, Kira insulted Asano as a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. He lost his temper, and attacked Kira with a dagger, but only wounded him in the face with his first strike; his second missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.
Kira's wound was hardly serious, but the attack on a shogunate official within the boundaries of Edo castle, the Shogun's residence, was a grave offense; any kind of violence, even drawing a sword, was completely forbidden there. (Some sources say that Asano's crime was that he damaged a celebrated golden sliding door when he threw his wakizashi at Kira.) Therefore Asano was ordered to commit seppuku that same day, his goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family ruined, and his retainers made ronin.
This news was carried to Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano's principal counsellor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, and handed over the castle to the agents of the government.
The ronin plot revenge
Of Asano's over three hundred men, forty-seven (some sources say there were more than fifty, originally) -- and especially their leader Ōishi -- 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.
However, Kira was well guarded, and his residence had been fortified, to prevent just such an event. They saw that they would have to put him off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen or monks. Ōishi himself took up residence in Kyoto, and begun to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano.
One day, as Ōishi returned drunk from some haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed at him. A Satsuma man, passing by, was infuriated by this behaviour on the part of a samurai - both by his lack of courage to avenge his master, as well as his current debauched behaviour. The Satsuma man abused and insulted him, and kicked him in the face (to even touch the face of a samurai was a great insult, let alone strike it), and spat on him.
Not too long after, Ōishi's loyal wife of twenty years went to him and complained that he seemed to be taking his act too far. He divorced her on the spot, and sent her away with their two younger children; the oldest, a boy, Chikara, remained with his father. In his wife's place, the father bought a pretty young concubine.
Kira's agents reported all this to Kira, who became convinced that he was safe from the retainers of Asano, who must all be bad samurai indeed, without the courage to avenge their master, and were harmless; he then relaxed his guard.
The rest of the faithful retainers now gathered in Edo, and in their roles as workmen and merchants, gained access to Kira's house, becoming familiar with the layout of the house, and the character of all within. One of the retainers (Kinemon Kanehide Okano) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain plans. All of this was reported to Ōishi. Others gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo, another offense.
In 1702, when Ōishi was convinced that Kira was thoroughly off his guard, and everything was ready, he fled from Kyoto, avoiding the spies who were watching him, and the entire band gathered at a secret meeting-place in Edo, and renewed their oaths.
Early in the morning of December 14, in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Ōishi and the ronin attacked Kira Yoshinaka's mansion in Edo. According to a carefully laid-out plan, they split up into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Ōishi, was to attack the front gate; the other, led by his son, Ōishi Chikara, was to attack the house via the back gate. A drum would sound the simultaneous attack, and a whistle would signal that Kira was dead.
Once he was dead, they planned to cut off his head, and lay it as an offering on their master's tomb. They would then turn themselves in, and wait for their expected sentence of death. All this had been confirmed at a final dinner, where Ōishi had asked them to be careful, and spare women, children and other helpless people.
Ōishi had four men scale the fence and enter the porter's lodge, capturing and tying up the guard there. He then sent messengers to all the neighbouring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but retainers out to avenge the death of their master, and no harm would come to anyone else; they were all perfectly safe. His neighbours, who all hated Kira, did nothing.
After posting archers (some on the roof), to prevent those in the house (who had not yet woken up) from sending for help, Ōishi sounded the drum to start the attack. Ten of Kira's retainers held off the party attacking the house from the front, but Ōishi Chikara's party broke into the back of the house.
Kira, in terror, took refuge in a closet in the verandah, along with his wife and female servants. The rest of his retainers, who slept in a barracks outside, attempted to come into the house to his rescue. After overcoming the defenders at the front of the house, the two parties of father and son joined up, and fought with the retainers who came in. The latter, perceiving that they were losing, tried to send for help, but their messengers were killed by the archers posted to prevent that.
Eventually, after a fierce struggle, the last of Kira's retainers was subdued; in the process they killed sixteen of Kira's men and wounded twenty-two, including his grandson. Of Kira, however, there was no sign. They searched the house, but all they found were crying women and children. They began to despair, but Ōishi checked Kira's bed, and it was still warm, so he knew he could not be far.
The death of Kira
A renewed search disclosed an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll; the courtyard held a small building for storing charcoal and firewood, where two more hidden armed retainers were overcome and killed. A search of the building disclosed a man hiding; he attacked the searcher with a dagger, but was easily disarmed.
He refused to say who he was, but the searchers felt sure it was Kira, and sounded the whistle. The ronin gathered, and Ōishi, with a lantern, saw that it was indeed Kira - as a final proof, his head bore the scar from Asano's attack.
At that, Ōishi went on his knees, and in consideration of Kira's high rank, respectfully addressed him, telling him they were retainers of Asano, come to avenge him as true samurai should, and inviting Kira to die as a true samurai should, by killing himself. Ōishi indicated he personally would act as a second, and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself.
However, no matter how much they entreated him, Kira crouched, speechless and trembling. At last, seeing it was useless to ask, Ōishi ordered the ronin to pin him down, and killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger. They then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house (lest any cause the house to catch fire, and start a general fire that would harm the neighbours), and left, taking the head. One of the ronin, the youngest, was ordered to travel to Akō and inform them that their revenge had been completed.
As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira's head to their lord's grave in Sengaku-ji temple, causing a great stir on the way. The story quickly went around as to what had happened, and everyone on their path praised them, and offered them refreshment.
On arriving at the temple, the remaining forty-six ronin washed and cleaned Kira's head in a well, and laid it, and the fateful dagger, before Asano's tomb. They then offered prayers at the temple, and gave the abbot of the temple all the money they had left, asking him to bury them decently, and offer prayers for them. They then turned themselves in; the group was broken into four parts and put under guard of four different daimyos.
During this time, two friends of Kira came to collect his head for burial; the temple still has the original receipt for the head, which the friends and the priests who dealt with them all signed.
The shogunate officials were in a quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido (by avenging the death of their lord) but also defied shogunate authority (by exacting revenge which had been prohibited). In addition, the Shogun received a number of petitions from the admiring populace on behalf of the ronin. However, as expected, they were sentenced to death, but the Shogun had finally resolved the quandary by ordering them to honorably commit seppuku, instead of having them executed as criminals.
The forty-six ronin did so on February 4, 1703. (This has caused a considerable amount of confusion ever since, with some people referring to the "forty-six ronin"; this refers to the group put to death by the Shogun, the actual attack party numbered forty-seven.) They were also buried in Sengaku-ji temple, as they had requested, in front of the tomb of their master. The forty-seventh ronin eventually returned from his mission, and was pardoned by the Shogun (some say on account of his youth). He lived until the age of seventy-eight, and was then buried with his comrades.
The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to possibly arouse suspicion by purchasing any.
The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. One of those who came was a Satsuma man, the same one who had mocked and spat on Ōishi as he lay drunk in the street. Addressing the grave, he begged for forgiveness for his actions, and for thinking that Ōishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide, and is buried next to the graves of the ronin.
Re-establishment of the Asano clan's lordship
Though this act is often viewed as an act of loyalty, there had been a second goal, to re-establish the Asanos' lordship and finding a place to serve for fellow samurai. Hundreds of samurai who had served under Asano had been left jobless and many were unable to find employment as they had served under a disgraced family. Many lived as farmers or did simple handicrafts to make ends meet. The 47 ronins' act cleared their names and many of the unemployed samurai found jobs soon after the ronin had been sentenced to an honorable end. Asano Daigaku Nagahiro, Takuminokami's younger brother and heir was allowed by the Tokugawa Shogunate to re-establish his name, though his territory was reduced to a tenth of the original.
The ronin wasted a year waiting for the "right time" for their revenge. It was Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of the Hagakure, who asked this famous question: "What if, nine months after Asano's death, Kira had died of an illness?" To which the answer obviously is: then the forty-seven ronin would have lost their only chance at avenging their master. Even if they had claimed, then, that their dissipated behavior was just an act, that in just a little more time they would have been ready for revenge, who would have believed them? They would have been forever remembered as cowards and drunkards—bringing eternal shame to the name of the Asano clan. The right thing for the ronin to do, wrote Yamamoto, according to proper bushido, was to attack Kira and his men immediately after Asano's death. The ronin would probably have suffered defeat, as Kira was ready for an attack at that time—but this was unimportant. Ōishi was too obsessed with success. His convoluted plan was conceived in order to make absolutely certain that they would succeed at killing Kira, which is not a proper concern in a samurai: the important thing was not the death of Kira, but for the former samurai of Asano to show outstanding courage and determination in an all-out attack against the Kira house, thus winning everlasting honor for their dead master. Even if they failed at killing Kira, even if they all perished, it wouldn't have mattered, as victory and defeat have no importance in bushido. By waiting a year they improved their chances of success but risked dishonoring the name of their clan, which is the worst sin a samurai can commit. This is why Yamamoto Tsunetomo and many others claim that the tale of the forty-seven ronin is a good story of revenge—but by no means a story of bushido.
The Forty-Seven Ronin in the Arts
As one might expect, the tragedy of the Forty-seven Ronin has been one of the most popular themes in Japanese art, and has lately even begun to make its way into Western art.
Immediately following the event, there were mixed feelings among the intelligentsia about whether such vengeance had been appropriate—many agreed that, given their master's last wishes, the forty-seven had done the right thing, but were undecided about whether such a vengeful wish was proper. Over time, however, the story became a symbol, not of bushido, as the forty-seven can be seen as seriously lacking it, but of loyalty to one's master and later, of loyalty to the emperor. Once this happened, it flourished as a subject of drama, storytelling, and visual art.
The incident immediately inspired a succession of kabuki and bunraku plays; the first, The Night Attack at Dawn by the Soga appeared only two weeks after they died. It was shut down by the authorities, but many others soon followed, initially especially in Osaka and Kyoto, further away from the capital. Some even took it as far as Manila, to spread the story to the rest of Asia.
The most successful of them was a bunraku puppet play called Kanadehon Chushingura (now simply called Chushingura, or "Treasury of Loyal Retainers"), written in 1748 by Takeda Izumo and two associates; it was later adapted into a kabuki play, which is still one of Japan's most popular.
In the play, to avoid the attention of the censors, the events are transferred into the distant past, to the 14th century reign of shogun Ashikaga Takauji. Asano became Enya Hangan Takasada, Kira became Ko no Moronao and Ōishi rather transparently became Ōboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio; the names of the rest of the ronin were disguised to varying degrees. The play contains a number of plot twists which do not reflect the real story: Moronao tries to seduce Enya's wife, and one of the ronin dies before the attack because of a conflict between family and warrior loyalty (another possible cause of the confusion between forty-six and forty-seven).
Cinema and television
The play has been made into a movie at least six times, the earliest staring Onoe Matsunosuke. The film's release date is questioned, but placed between 1910 and 1917. It has been aired on the Jidaigeki Senmon Channel (Japan) with accompanying benshi narration. The 1962 version is most familiar to Western audiences, where Toshiro Mifune appears in a supporting role. Many Japanese television shows, including single programs, short series, single seasons, and even year-long series such as the 52-part 1971 television series Daichushingura starring Mifune in the role of Ōishi, and the more recent Taiga drama Genroku Ryōran, recount the events of the Forty-seven Ronin. Among both films and television programs, some are quite faithful to the Chushingura while others incorporate unrelated material or alter details. In addition, gaiden dramatize events and characters not in the Chushingura. Kon Ichikawa directed another version in 1994.
The movie Ronin made a reference to this tale.
One episode of the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple featured an artifact called the War Fan of the 47 Ronin.
The Forty-seven Ronin are one of the most popular themes in woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e; the list of artists who have done prints portraying either the original events, or scenes from the play, or the actors, is a Who's Who of woodblock artists. One book on subjects depicted in woodblock prints devotes no less than seven chapters to the history of the appearance of this theme in woodblocks.
Among the artists who produced prints on this subject are Utamaro, Toyokuni, Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige. However, probably the most famous woodblocks in the genre are those of Kuniyoshi, who produced at least eleven separate complete series on this subject, along with more than twenty triptychs.
In the West
The first retelling of this story (and still one of the best) appeared in 1871, where the historical version is recounted; it was the first story in the first modern Western book on Japan, after the opening of Japan around the time of the Meiji Restoration. A translation of the play first appeared in 1876, and numerous versions have since come out.
Jorge Luis Borges retold the story in his first short story collection, A Universal History of Infamy, under the title "The Uncivil Teacher of Etiquette, Kotsuke no Suke."
The story of the Forty-seven Ronin makes an appearance in many modern works, most notably in John Frankenheimer's film Ronin.
The History Bites episode "Samurai Goodfellas" blends the story with elements reminiscent of The Godfather.
Lucia St. Clair Robson's historical fiction novel The Tokaido Road is adapted from the tale of the Forty-seven ronin.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer and Bart are forced to perform in a kabuki play about the Forty-seven Ronin while imprisoned in Japan. Homer stated he wanted to be Oishi but was made to be Ori.
In 2005 Beckett Comics Original Graphic Novels Ronin Hood of the 47 Samurai. A fictional the story set in the time of the Forty-seven Ronin, with a Robin Hood-like fictional character.
There are several references to the 47 ronin story in Martin Cruz Smith's novel December 6.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Final Statement of the 47 Ronin