In 1701, a state ceremony was under way in Edo Castle, then the headquarters of the Shogun Tsunayoshi, the de facto ruler of Japan under Emperor Higashiyama. There was nothing out of the ordinary going on at the event, until, as Toda Mosui wrote in his Chronicle of the Current Rule, “Chief of Carpentry Asano [Naganori] wounded Lieutenant-Governor of Kōzuke Kira [Yoshinaka] with a sword.”
After Naganori’s immediate arrest, he was ordered to commit ritual suicide [seppuku], and that’s when the whole sorry saga started. 47 of his followers, now made redundant retainers or ronin by their master’s execution, vowed to avenge him, and two years later they violently broke into Yoshinaka’s house and killed him. 17 men died and 21 were wounded in the raid. The ronin were subsequently caught by the authorities and 46 of them sentenced to death, but were permitted nonetheless to commit seppuku as an honourable atonement for their crime. “We the retainers are not sanguine,” they wrote, “but we are unable to ignore the principle that one does not share Heaven with the enemy of one’s lord or father.”
The first extended account of the episode was the Records of the Righteous Men by a scholar named Muro Kyūsō, written eight months after it happened, but the almost story immediately passed into legend. It was immortalized over the subsequent centuries, notably with a kabuki play by a conglomeration of authors entitled Chūshingura [an amalgam of chūshin, “loyal retainers,” and gura, “treasury”], which is often regarded as the Japanese epic, discussed as such by Hiroaki Sato: “in no time,” he tells us, “the name chūshingura would mean the Forty-Seven Samurai and their action,” and that “the story captured the attention of foreign people as well.”
In 1910 the first film version appeared, and, nearer our own times, we could mention The Forty-Seven Ronin, a Japanese film (1941) directed by Kenji Mizogushi, and finally a more recent English version (2013) starring Keanu Reeves. There are also various manga and anime versions as well as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story “A Day in the Life of Ōishi Kuranosuke”, which is included in this book. Akutagawa’s protagonist was not himself one of the 47 avengers, but found himself mixed up in the aftermath and also forced to commit seppuku.
The ronin were buried in the graveyard at Sengaku-ji temple in what is now the Minato district of Tokyo, and one can still sometimes find fresh incense burning on their grave-markers today. The whole episode became, thanks to its perpetuation in literature and then in film, a widely admired symbol of samurai honour or bushido. Even Emperor Meiji himself, addressing Ōishi Kuranosuke (Yoshitaka), was moved to write (1868) of how “you, Yoshitaka, and others, kept the bond (gi) between lord and subject, avenged your enemy and died under law.” He went on to say, “I deeply treasure this.” The emperor’s comment clearly shows that, like so many of his subjects, he clearly understood the difference between the political and the ethical aspects of the incident. They died “under law”, clearly expecting that they would, but they had done the right thing, which was to avenge their lord’s death, keeping “the bond between lord and subject.” As Sato says in his preface, “they did so in a society that sanctioned it—ethically honoring it, politically condemning it.”
Hiroaki Sato, a poet, author of Legends of the Samurai (where he first retells this story) and the PEN award-winning translator of many Japanese writers including Princess Shikishi, Yukio Mishima and Kenji Miyazawa, does something which others have not attempted, namely to provide more than just an accurate historical account of the event and its aftermath. Sato allows the participants to speak in their own words through their own haiku and letters, which immediately renders them three-dimensional and thoroughly human. Yes, they followed the code of bushido and no doubt expected to die for what they believed was a just cause; as one of them, Ōtaka Gengo, put it hopefully and poetically in one of those short death-poems known as jisei, “A house there’ll be to sip tea on plum blossoms on Mt Death.” Before his suicide, Gengo even found the time to visit the grave of the haiku master Bashō! Actions like this remind us that for these men, death was not something negative or frightening, but the natural outcome of the actions for which they knew they were responsible. They were also family men, friends, brothers and husbands who had lives outside what as Westerners we may perceive as a strange, rigid, codified society with expected modes of behavior. Ōishi Kuranosuke, for example, wrote a last letter to one of his relatives, recalling happier times: “While I was in Kyoto I often visited your house,” it reads, “met you, and you regaled me with fine food.” Wistfully he adds, “All this is a story of the past, all like a dream.”
Sato gives readers plenty of information about the context of the times in which the events occurred, including a history of vengeance in Japan and a chapter on “Grudge and Seppuku under ‘Dog Shogun’,” the latter being a nickname for Tsunayoshi, based on his “Pitying the Sentient” policy, which was sometimes taken to extremes, such as sentencing people to death (they were later exculpated and survived) for neglecting to keep an eye on their dog.
In the end, though, it’s the portrayal of the protagonists in their own words which makes this book so compelling. Sato makes persuasive as well as extensive use of source material, and at the same time discusses the various versions of the events and their participants which were presented in subsequent literature, providing as he does so a correction, or at least an adjustment, to romanticized conceptions of vengeance and honor as they developed in later accounts.
As well as showing us what these men did, his approach also gives us more than a mere glimpse into who they were and what they were like, achieving more than the imaginative and speculative accounts delivered by literature and film, for history is often stranger and more interesting than fiction. Much of the material presented by Sato, notably the haiku and letters, has not received much attention, and indeed may be, according to the back cover note by Professor Allan Sosei Palmer, “unknown even to the Japanese people”, as it’s the literary and film legacy that most of them know best. The latter tends to present the men as rather one-dimensional, often rendering them as symbols rather than actual living, breathing people.
Sato tells the story of the ronin vividly and clearly, and the endnotes show that he has done a great deal of research into the original Japanese sources. He approaches the episode from a multiplicity of angles, including the personal, historical and literary, together with enough background information for Western readers to understand more than a little about Japanese society in the early 18th century, a society whose customs and beliefs must indeed seem strange to many. Sato introduces us to the varied and differing interpretations of the story in history, folklore and literature, so we are left in the end with a thorough and sometimes perplexing depiction of what actually happened and why it has touched the very soul of a people. As Tan, the wife of Junai, one of the ronin, wrote after her husband’s and son’s suicide,
Spouse and son waiting for me, I’d like to hurry,
with nothing to keep me in this world;
She starved herself to death in a Kyoto temple, an heroic example of the loyalty due from one family member to another, but nonetheless, likely a perplexing attitude for a Western reader to grasp, whether or not the context is made. At the same time, what is there not to admire and respect?