The revenge of the , also known as the Forty-seven Samurai, the Akō vendetta, or the took place in Japan at the start of the eighteenth century. The tale has been described by one noted Japanese scholar as the country's "national legend. It recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, bushidō.
The story tells of a group of samurai who were left leaderless (became ronin) after their daimyo (feudal lord) was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) for assaulting a court official named Kira Yoshinaka, whose title was Kōzuke no Suke. The ronin avenged their master's honor after patiently waiting and planning for over a year to kill Kira. In turn, the ronin were themselves forced to commit seppuku — as they had known they would be — for committing the crime of murder. With little embellishment, this true story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should persevere in their daily lives. The popularity of the almost mythical tale was only enhanced by rapid modernization during the Meiji era of Japanese history, when many people in Japan longed for a return to their cultural roots.
While sources do differ as to some of the details, the version given below was carefully assembled from a large range of historical sources, including some still-extant eye-witness accounts of various portions of the saga.
Fictionalized accounts of these events are known as Chūshingura. The story was popularized in numerous plays including bunraku and kabuki; because of the censorship laws of the shogunate in the Genroku era which forbade portrayal of current events, the names were changed. While the version given by the playwrights may have come to be accepted as historical fact by some, the Chūshingura was written some 50 years after the fact; and numerous historical records about the actual events that pre-date the Chūshingura survive. The popularity of the story is high still today. With ten different television productions in the years 1997–2007 alone, the Chūshingura ranks among the most familiar of all stories in Japan.
These daimyo names are not fictional, nor is there any question that something actually happened in . What is commonly called the Akō incident was an actual event.
For many years, the version of events retold by A. B. Mitford in Tales of Old Japan was considered authoritative. The sequence of events and the characters in this narrative were presented to a wide popular readership in the West. Mitford invited his readers to construe his story of the Forty-seven Ronin as historically accurate; and while his version of the tale has long been considered a standard work, some of its precise details are now questioned. Nevertheless, even with plausible defects, Mitford's work remains a conventional starting point for further study.
Whether as a mere literary device or as a claim for ethnographic veracity, Mitford explains: Mitford appended what he explained were translations of Sengakuji documents the author had examined personally. These were proffered as "proofs" authenticating the factual basis of his story. These documents were:
(See Tales of Old Japan for the widely-known, yet significantly fictional narrative)
While Asano bore all this stoically, Kamei became enraged, and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, the quick thinking counsellors of Kamei averted disaster for their lord and clan (for all would have been punished if Kamei killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe; Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei nicely, which calmed Kamei's 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, calling him a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. At the Matsu no Ōrōka, the main grand corridor which interconnects different parts of the shogun's residence, 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 the Shogun's residence was considered a grave offense. Any kind of violence, even drawing a sword, was completely forbidden in Edo castle. The daimyo of Akō had removed his dagger from its scabbard within Edo Castle, and for that offense, he was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku. (Some sources give a different version, saying that Asano's crime was that he damaged a celebrated golden sliding door when he threw his wakizashi at Kira.) Asano's goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin.
This news was carried to Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano's principal counsellor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, before complying with bakufu orders to surrender the castle to the agents of the government.
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 began 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 went to his loyal wife of twenty years and divorced her so that no harm would come to her when they took revenge, and sent her away with their two younger children to live with her parents; for the eldest boy, Chikara, he gave a choice to stay and fight or to leave. He remained with his father.
Oishi began to act oddly and very unlike the composed samurai. He frequented geisha houses (particularly the Ichiriki Ochaya), drank nightly, and acted very obscenely in public. Later Oishi's men bought a geisha, in hopes he would calm down. This was all a ruse to rid Oishi of his spies.
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, after a year and a half. With the thought of them being harmless and lack of funds from his "retirement", he then reluctantly let down his guard.
The rest of the faithful ronin 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.
Two years later, 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.
In , early in the morning 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 Kira 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. The code of bushido does not require mercy to noncombatants, although it doesn't forbid it.
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 that no harm would come to anyone else: they were all perfectly safe. The neighbours, who all hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to hinder the raiders.
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 veranda, 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.
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. Kira was killed on the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of Genroku.
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 ashigaru Terasaka Kichiemon, was ordered to travel to Akō and inform them that their revenge had been completed. (Though Kichiemon's role as a messenger is the most widely-accepted version of the story, other accounts have him running away before or after the battle, or being ordered to leave before the ronin turn themselves in.)
As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira's head to their lord's grave in Sengaku-ji, 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 daimyo.
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 they had 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. As expected, the ronin 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. It is known that each of the assailants ended his life in a ritualistic fashion.
Each of the forty-six ronin did kill himself in . 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. 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 assailants who died by seppuku were subsequently interred on the grounds of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their master.
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. The graves at this temple have been visited by a great many people throughout the years since the Genroku era. One of those who was the man 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.
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 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, from the perspective of bushido, 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, the worst sin a samurai can commit. This is why Yamamoto and 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 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 most successful of them was a bunraku puppet play called Kanadehon Chūshingura (now simply called Chūshingura, 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 that 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).
The 1962 version, Chūshingura: Hana no maki yuki no maki is most familiar to Western audiences. In this, Toshiro Mifune appears in a supporting role as legendary spearsman Genba Tawaraboshi. Mifune was to revisit the story several times in his career. In 1971 he appeared in the 52-part television series Daichūshingura as Ōishi, while in 1978 he appeared as Lord Tsuchiya in the 1978 epic Swords Of Vengeance, aka Ako-Jo danzetsu.
Many Japanese television shows, including single programs, short series, single seasons, and even year-long series such as Daichūshingura and the more recent NHK Taiga drama Genroku Ryōran, recount the events of the Forty-seven Ronin. Among both films and television programs, some are quite faithful to the Chūshingura, while others incorporate unrelated material or alter details. In addition, gaiden dramatize events and characters not in the Chūshingura. Kon Ichikawa directed another version in 1994. In Hirokazu Koreeda's 2006 film Hana yori mo naho, the event of the 47 ronin was used as a backdrop in the story, one of the ronin being a neighbour of the protagonists.
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.