Dec 11, 2007

The Legend of the 47 Ronin

On December 14th Gishi-sai no cha is a tea gathering to honor the memory of the 47 Ronin of Akō.

The legend recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, Bushidō. Loyalty, control, sacrifice, persistence, and honor: in the legend, these virtues were etched forever into the soul of the Japanese people. The tale, known as Chūshingura, is celebrated in stories, plays, books, woodblock prints, statues, movies and television.

The story begins with Asano Naganori of Akō, a samurai lord, who was summoned to the Shogun’s palace in the city of Edo, now Tokyo. Under the watchful eye of his tutor, Lord Kira, master of palace protocol, Asano was given court responsibilities. Friction between the two men was constant. Asano refused to pay the bribes that Kira demanded for his services. Kira used every opportunity to publicly humiliate Asano. After two months of abuse, Asano’s tolerance was gone. He drew his sword against Kira within the palace walls – a grievous offense – and attempted but failed to kill him. The punishment for this was inflexible: Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, a ritual act of suicide.

Upon his death, Asano’s estate was confiscated, his family was disinherited, and his 321 samurai retainers were ordered to disband, thus becoming ronin or masterless warriors. Many of them, in a secret blood oath, swore to avenge their Lord’s disgrace and restore his rightful honor. Headed by their general Oishi, they undertook nearly two years of great self-sacrifice and carefully conceived ruses to disguise their real purpose. Oishi himself moved to Kyoto, where he became an infamous drunk and gambler, all to deceive the Shogun’s police and Kira’s many spies.

The ruses worked. Kira and his allies finally relaxed their suspicions of Oishi and his men. On a winter night, December 14th, 1702, 47 of the Ronin met in Edo. They marched to Kira’s mansion, announcing themselves to those inside with Oishi’s beating of the Asano war drum. In the great battle that followed, the 47 stormed Kira’s mansion and attacked Kira’s 61 armed guards. In the course of a 1 ½ hour battle, they were able to subdue or kill all of Kira’s men without any fatalities of their own. Finding Kira, the brought him to a courtyard and offered him the chance to honorably commit seppuku. Kira was not able to commit seppuku, so the 47 Ronin beheaded him and a whistle signaled that he was dead. Then to symbolize the completion of their mission, the 47 Ronin returned to Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji Temple and set the head of Kira before it, declaring their Lord’s honor redeemed.

Prepared to die for this deed, the 47 Ronin proclaimed what they had done to the Shogun’s court authorities. The Shogun himself, though sympathetic to their heroic act, was nonetheless on the horns of a dilemma. To pardon them would be to condone future vendettas. After 47 days of deliberation, the decision was made that each of the 47 was ordered to honorably commit seppuku, instead of being executed as criminals.

On February 4, 1703, each of the Asano warriors committed seppuku, dignifying themselves in their valiant sacrifice. Upon their deaths, these loyal 47 men were buried side-by-side with their master at Sengaku-ji Temple.

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 arouse suspicion by purchasing any. The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The smoke of incense offered by sincere worshippers has been ascending there for 304 years.

1 comment:

  1. As I honour the day of my birth I reflect also upon the heroic deeds of Chūshingura and the 47,remembered forever on the same day, for their bravery and honour. May family, honour, and respect for all mankind be the foundations for the way we live our lives.