Crash Course: The 47 Samurai

A grievous insult. A man wronged. A life avenged. Conspiracy. Murder. Honor. It’s the plot of one of Japan’s most popular kabuki plays, Chushingura. Only this story is no fiction, but the famous tale of the 47 Samurai (or 47 Ronin).

The story begins back in 1701, when the country was in the throes of the Tokugawa regime. Daimyo (feudal lords) from around the country were forced to spend every other year living in the capital under the watchful eyes of the shogun. the better to prevent an uprising against the government. This made for a lot of egos in one place at one time and tensions between the lords occasionally ran high.

Reenactors on the march to Sengaku Temple
Reenactors on the march to Sengaku Temple

Such was the case on April 21st of that year when Lord Kira, a court official for the Tokugawa regime, insulted Lord Asano, the daimyo of Ako. Asano drew his sword and lunged at Kira – the latter was only slightly wounded but Asano was doomed. The penalty for drawing a weapon in the shogun’s presence or residence was death and Asano was forced to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

That left Asano’s retainers without a lord, forcing them into the status of ronin (masterless samurai). Some fell to drinking, others ended up begging in the streets. It seemed they had become as disgraced as their late master. Yet, under the leadership of one of Asano’s most trusted councillors, Oishi, nearly four dozen of the former retainers plotted an attack on Kira. They waited over a year and a half to act, to be sure that the suspicious Kira had finally let down his guard. Finally, on the night of December 14th, Oishi and the other ronin” scaled the walls of Kira’s estate, trapped the lord in his outhouse, and killed him.

As the sun rose on the morning of the 15th, Oishi and the others took Kira’s head through the streets of Tokyo to Sengaku-ji (Sengagku Temple), where Asano was buried. After laying the head and the dagger that had killed Kira in front of their master, the samurai gave themselves up to the shogun’s officials. They themselves were then required to commit suicide, and are buried in front of their master at Sengaku-ji.

Sengaku Temple
Sengaku Temple

If you happen to be in Tokyo on December 14th, it’s worth hanging around either the Ryogoku neighborhood or Sengaku-ji to witness the historical reenactment of the 47 samurai marching from Kira’s old estate to the temple down south. I caught up with the parade as they approached Zojo-ji, the Tokugawa family temple in the Daimon neighborhood, and had the delight of snapping pictures of the “warriors” as they met with their wives and lunched together on rice balls. 🙂

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