A Court duel
- On 14 March 1701, at the court of Edo, in modern-day Tokyo, the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) was preparing to welcome three envoys of the emperor Higashiyama. The order of ceremonies was entrusted to two young Lords, one of whom was called Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori, a daimyô from Akô. This delicate diplomatic event was supervised by the master of ceremonies, Kira Kôzuke-no-suke. Since the young Asano was still a novice in such matters of protocol, he asked Kira for advice, but Kira disdainfully gave him an evasive answer so as to trip him up. Kira’s attitude, however, proved to be ill-informed: Asano felt insulted, drew his sword and wounded Kira in the face.
- Now, any attack within the shogun’s court boundaries was considered a grave offense. The two men were immediately arrested. By law they were immediately found guilty without any further trial. However, the authorities considered that Kira, by refusing to retaliate, had shown self-composure, and was therefore pardoned. As for Asano the daimyo, he was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku, or hara-kiri. Thus, in the true Samurai ritual tradition, he cut open his stomach with his own sword. He was buried in the cemetery of the Sengaku-ji temple.
- The sentence further pronounced that Asano’s goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family to be ruined. The custodian of the Ako castle, Asano’s principal councillor, Ôishi Kuranosuke, filed an appeal for grace but the shogunate authority remained merciless in spite of his many attempts to obtain a pardon. His appeal was finally dismissed. Asano’s faithful comrades-in-arms were deprived of all their rights and made “rônin”, meaning samurai without a lord or master.
The pact of the forty-seven
- With nothing further to lose, 47 of these comrades made a secret pact to avenge their master and kill Kira, whom they considered responsible for the downfall of their clan. Now, in times of revenge, the vengeful fury of fallen Samurai arouses great mistrust… and justifiably so. So it was that the 47 set about dispelling all suspicion. Ôishi Kuranosuke, the former palace custodian, in a ruse to quell any distrust, conjured up a plot and, pretending to indulge in drunken, debauched behaviour, began to frequent taverns and brothels in Gion, Kyoto. He was soon taunted for his odd, drunken behaviour. Other comrades became simple tradesmen, opening up shop near Kira’s residence so they could observe his comings and goings and await the perfect time to act. After one year and a half, the time for revenge had come.
- In the night of 14 December, 1702, the heavily-falling snow and chill wind pervaded the narrow pitch-black streets of Edo. Dressed in black, armed with sticks, mallets and carrying ladders, the plotters had no trouble breaking into unsuspecting Kira’s residence. After a merciless fight, much clashing of steel and iron, flying of sparks from rapidly-drawn swords and bodies thudding heavily to the ground, the conspirators took control of the place. They exited the court brandishing Kira’s head on a spear-end, then went to the Sengaku-ji temple to lay the bloody trophy on the grave of their master, Asano. Having taken their revenge, they left the temple in an orderly manner and gave themselves over to the authorities.
The feat of the Akô-gishi
- The affair caused a great stir in Edo. Ôishi Kuranosuke and his comrades were soon dubbed the “47 Akô-gishi”, or the “47 loyal warriors of Akô”. At court, the shogun counsillors were highly embarrassed as they knew that these samurai were only applying literally the precepts of the bushidô, or warrior, which had been they had been taught by authority. However, their actions implicitly went against Asano’s sentence and opposed the law of the shogun, which was intolerable. At this time in history, justice was usually rendered summarily, but in this case, one whole month went by before they were condemned to commit seppuku. According to the legend, they cut open their stomachs without even batting an eye.
Spirit of revolt
- In the 18th century, this “vendetta” captured the imagination of the Japanese people who saw it as the defiance of the shogun’s authority. So popular was the tale that it gave rise to many kabuki (plays) and bunraku (puppet shows). To avert the attention of the censors, playwrights were careful to divide the story into episodes, each of which was made into a separate play set at different periods of history. The authorities were not fooled but were keen not to lose the support of the merchants of Osaka, the prosperous native city of many playwrights. Thus it was that, until the end of the Meiji era, the tragedy of “The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers” of Chûshingura was staged 5000 times. The forty-seven rônin also became one of the favorite themes depicted in Japanese woodblock prints or ukiyo-e for woodblock artists, such as Utamaro, Hokusai or Hiroshige.
A national myth
- Since the Meiji era, countless artistic works have been inspired by this event. Today, the tale is portrayed in many media, from plays to Japanese prints, novels, manga, films, and television dramas, with new episodes released every year on the anniversary date of 14 December. The “Loyal forty-seven warriors” were laid to rest next to Asano’s grave in the Sengaku-ji temple in Tokyo, but it is at the Kagaku-ji temple in Akô where they have acquired true cult status.