47 Rōnin

On January 30, 1701, 47 rōnin, former vassals of the Akō Clan, killed Kira, a high-ranking government official. They offered his head at their lord’s tomb. They then surrendered themselves, and all were sentenced to die by seppuku (ritual disembowelment).

For some still-unknown reason, their lord, Asano, had sliced Kira in the shōgun’s palace. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku— and he obeyed. His castle was confiscated. His vassals were disenfranchised and became rōnin—lordless samurai. The sword gash on Kira’s head healed within two weeks, and he went unpunished. For 21 months, a group of Akō rōnin waited for the opportunity to avenge their lord.

For nearly a century, samurai had been making the transition from warrior to bureaucrat. The general populace was mesmerized by the idea that there were still samurai who would sacrifice their lives to right what they perceived as a wrong, and to fulfill their obligation of fealty.

LOYALTY OR DISLOYALTY

Government officials were torn as to how to deal with the attackers. Avenging the death of a parent or senior relative was legal—but this was the first case of avenging one’s lord. Because their act of loyalty disturbed the general peace, it was deemed an act of disloyalty to the shōgun and the nation. As such, they were ordered to commit seppuku—a sentence deemed too harsh by many. Their perception by the public as heroes was further enhanced by romanticized versions of the incident in stage performances. Soon Chūshingura, or the Treasury of Loyal Retainers, became one of the most beloved tales in Japanese history.

47 Ronin: A Tale of Honor and Loyalty features the story in the form of woodblock prints. Also included are examples of romanticized and actual biographies of the protagonists. Just like the storming of the Alamo, romanticized versions of the event took on lives of their own. Clouds of incense smoke still rise daily before the tombstones of the rōnin in Sengaku Temple. •

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