Located in Takanawa, a suburb of Yedo, Japan, is Sengakuji “Spring-hill Temple” and its cemetery that contains the graves of forty-seven Rônin, who are famous in Japanese history as examples of strict adherence to the samurai code of honor “bushido”. The story exemplifies the "way of a warrior."
In feudal Japan, each fiefdom or domain was ruled by a lord, called a daimyo. Each daimyo had personal bodyguards, called samurai, who helped him control his domain. A central military ruler, a shogun, exerted power over each daimyo in his shogunate but the samurai in each daimyo felt bonded to their lord. These fiercely loyal samurai were highly trained and highly regarded by the people of the shogunate. A samurai who was not affiliated with a lord roamed the land as an independent warrior for hire known as a Rônin.
The story of the forty-seven Rônin, commonly known as the Genroku Akō Incident, tells of a group of forty-seven samurai who were left leaderless after their daimyo was forced to commit ritual suicide “seppuku” for assaulting a court official, thus forcing them to become Rônin. The group of Rônin patiently waited for two years and then avenged their master's honor by killing the official. Because of the killing, they were ordered to commit seppuku for their dishonor act of disobeying the shogunate. While this is a true story, it has been embellished, exaggerated, and popularized in Japanese culture for hundreds of years as an example of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should exhibit in their daily lives.
There are many versions of what led up to and what occurred during the Genroku Akō Incident. The following is but one version of this event.
One version of the story of the Forty-seven Rônin
In 1701, two daimyos, Lord Asano of the Akō Domain and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain, were ordered to arrange a reception for some envoys of the Tokugawa Tsunayoshi shogun in Edo. Kira, a powerful Edo official in the shogunate, was selected to give Asano and Kamei instruction in court etiquette.
Kira became upset with the two daimyos. Some say it was because of the small presents they offered him. Some say it was because they would not offer him bribes. Others say it was because he was rude and arrogant. Whatever the reason, the two daimyos were offended by Kira’s behavior.
While Asano, a rigidly moral Confucian, bore it all stoically, Kamei became enraged and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, his counselors averted disaster for their lord and clan by quietly giving Kira a large bribe for him to treat Kamei politely to calm Kamei's anger. However, Kira continued to treat Asano harshly, because he had not handled the situation as had Kamei.
Finally, Kira insulted Asano, calling him a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. At the Matsu, no Ōrōka, the main grand corridor that interconnects different parts of the shogun's residence, Asano lost his temper and attacked Kira with a dagger. His first strike only wounded Kira in the face and his second missed and hit a pillar before the guards separated them.
Kira's wound was minor, but the attack on a shogunate official within the boundaries of the shogun's residence was a grave offense. Any kind of violence, even drawing a weapon, was completely forbidden. Asano was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku, and orders were given for his goods and lands to be confiscated, his family to be ruined, and his samurai to become Rônin.
Samurai were bound by the rigorous Code of Giri “burden of obligation” to avenge their master's death by killing the man responsible for killing him. So compulsory was the Code of Giri that the shogun assumed there would be more bloodshed. To end the feud, he sent his warriors to surround Asano's castle and demand the surrender of Asano's samurai. Ōishi Yoshio, the leader of Asano's samurai, heard of the shogun’s plans and moved the Asano family away before the castle was surrounded by the shogun’s warriors.
Ōishi met with all the samurai about the situation. Some favored resisting the shogun's warriors, while others advocated committing ritual suicide, as had their lord. Some felt their obligation had ended with their master's death, and others felt bound by the rigorous Code of Giri.
As a test to determine who was faithful to the Code of Giri, Ōishi offered the samurai the option of dividing Asano's wealth among themselves and leaving or remaining and avenging their master’s death. Of the more than three hundred samurai, only forty-seven decided to remain. The group made an oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, each cutting a finger and joining hands, sealing their pact with their blood, even though they knew they would be severely punished for going against the shogun’s orders. The forty-seven surrendered to the shogun's warriors, claimed to disavow any obligation to the Code of Giri and their dead lord, and appeared to accept their role as a Rônin.
Hundreds of the 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. The honorable actions of the forty-seven Rônin cleared their names and many of the unemployed Rônin found jobs. The shogunate allowed Asano’s younger brother to re-establish the Asano name, though his territory was reduced to a tenth of the original.
Immediately following the Genroku Akō Incident, there were mixed feelings amongst the Japanese about whether such vengeance had been the right thing to do. Some believed that, given their master's last wishes, the Rônin had done the right thing, while others believed such a vengeful wish was not proper.
Since Kira was well guarded and had his residence fortified, the Rônin realized that to reach Kira they must use stealth and cunning to put Kira off guard. Therefore, they dispersed; some becoming tradesmen or monks, while some pretended to be disgraced warriors. One sold his wife into prostitution. Another killed his father-in-law and another arranged for his sister to become a mistress of the hated Lord Kira. They permitted their swords to rust and themselves to be spat upon, appearing to wallow in dishonor.
Ōishi took up residence in Kyoto and began to frequent brothels and taverns and became the town drunk. He divorced his wife of twenty years and sent her and their two younger children away so no harm would come to them when he took revenge. Chikara, his eldest son, chose to stay with his father. Even though the Rônin appeared to be harmless, Kira still feared a trap, so he sent spies to watch them.
After nearly two years of surveillance, Kira became convinced that he was safe from the Rônin. Since he was lacking funds for continued vigilance, he reluctantly removed surveillance of the Rônin and let down his guard.
Some of the faithful Rônin, in their roles as workmen and merchants, gained access to Kira's house and became familiar with the layout of the house and what happened inside it. To obtain plans to the house, one of the Rônin went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house. Other Rônin made and gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo.
After two years of waiting and planning, when Ōishi was convinced that Kira was thoroughly off his guard and everything was ready, he left Kyoto and gathered the entire group of Rônin at a secret meeting-place in Edo where they renewed their oaths and readied themselves for the attack on Kira.
On Tuesday, January 30, 1703, early in the morning in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Ōishi and the other Rônin approached Kira’s mansion in Edo. They split into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Ōishi, attacked the front gate; the other group, led by his son, attacked the back gate. A drum signaled the simultaneous attack, and a whistle was to signal that Kira was dead.
The attackers were careful to spare women, children, and other helpless people. The code of bushido does not require mercy to noncombatants, but it also does not forbid it. Ōishi sent messengers to neighboring homes, to explain that they were not robbers but were Rônin out to avenge the death of their master. The neighbors, who all hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to hinder the raiders.
After the Rônin took the mansion by killing or subduing Kira’s samurai, they could not find Kira. After a detailed search, they found a man hiding in a small building in a hidden courtyard who refused to say who he was. Suspecting the man to be Kira, the whistle sounded. Ōishi identified the man as Kira and, in consideration of Kira's high rank, went to his knees and respectfully addressed him, telling him they were Asano’s samurai who had come to avenge him as true samurai should and inviting him to die as a true samurai should, by letting him kill himself. Ōishi indicated he would act as a second and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself. Kira was cowardly crouched, speechless, and trembling, so Ōishi ordered the Rônin to pin him down, and killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger. One of the Rônin was sent to travel to Akō and inform them that the Rônin revenge had been completed.
As the day was breaking, the Rônin quickly carried Kira's head to their lord's grave in Sengoku-Ji. The story of their exploit had spread quickly, so everyone along their journey praised them and offered refreshments. Upon arrival at the temple, the remaining forty-six Rônin washed and cleaned Kira's head in a well and laid it and the fateful dagger before Asano's tomb. Afterward, they 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. Then they surrendered themselves to the shogun.
Shogunate officials were in a quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord; but they had also defied shogunate authority by exacting revenge, which had been prohibited. In addition, the shogun received several petitions from the admiring populace on behalf of the Rônin. As expected, the shogun sentenced the Rônin to death, but he allowed them to commit seppuku honorably, instead of having them executed as criminals.
On Tuesday, March 20, 1703, each of the forty-six Rônin committed seppuku. They were interred on the grounds of Sengoku-Ji, in front of the tomb of their master. When the forty-seventh Rônin returned from his mission, he was pardoned by the shogun. He lived until the age of seventy-eight and was buried with his comrades.
Over the centuries, the story began to lose its connection to bushido and became more a story about loyalty to one's master and the emperor. Once this happened, the story became more popular in Japanese culture and became a frequent subject in Japanese drama, storytelling, and visual art and it even began to make its way into Western art.
Today, the memory of the forty-seven Rônin is celebrated in a play called Chiengora that moves the audience to tears and excitement as it develops the theme of the magnificent sacrifice of the forty-seven Rônin. Each year thousands of Japanese visit the gravesite of the forty-seven Rônin at Sengoku-Ji Temple to pay homage to the honor and loyalty of the 47 forty-seven Rônin and their dedication to the code of bushido.