The 47 Ronin

One of the more famous stories about Samurai comes from a 1701 event during the Tokugawa era.  In 1701, a daimyo (territorial lord, roughly equivalent to a baron in Europe) from Ako named Asano Naganori was chosen to entertain the imperial family’s envoys.  He was assigned a government official named Kira Yoshinaka to train him in the ways of court manners (In Shogun Japan, you didn’t meet the imperial family without the utmost courtesy) for the meeting.  Sources claim that either on arrival Kira was not given a grand enough gift by Asano, or that he was a twerp, and he immediately began to berate and insult Asano during their lessons.  After several days of being called a country bumpkin, Asano went ballistic and whipped out his sword.  Slicing Kira’s head open, he was detained before he could kill him (when questioned later, his only regret was that he failed to kill Kira).  Asano had drawn a weapon on an imperial official while in the imperial palace, and his sentence was to commit suicide (seppuku).  Asano’s land and titles were taken from his family and his brother was placed under house arrest, which is where the story begins.

Of his 320 or so samurai on Asano’s payroll, 47 of whom ,led by Oishi Yoshio, decided that they would avenge their lord by going rogue.   Kira, fearing for his life after a close encounter with a samurai lord, reinforced his mansion and decked it out with guards and fortifications.  Oishi ordered his men to disperse through the country and bide their time waiting for the proper time.  Some became monks, some became merchants, some became tradesmen; one went so far as to marry the daughter of the man who built Kira’s mansion FOR THE SOLE REASON of getting a blueprint of it.  Oishi became a bum, drinking and visiting brothels, he made a clear display of his fall from grace for all of Kira’s spies who observed him.  After being kicked in the face (one of the cardinal dishonors for a samurai) Kira’s spies returned the word that the Ronin (samurai without a lord) were more or less harmless.  With his guard down, Oishi gathered the 47 together once more and began to prepare for their revenge, over a year and a half after the death of their lord.  Expecting one outcome from their plan, Oishi divorced his wife to prevent any blame for his actions from reaching her and designated the youngest of the Ronin to not be involved.  The forty seventh Ronin was tasked with spreading the story of their actions and was not going to join them on the assault.  First getting the neighbor’s approval for their actions (the neighbors were alright with a revenge slaying of Kira, he wasn’t a popular guy), the Ronin took the night guards of Kira’s mansion by surprise and took positions on the rooftops.  Beating on a drum, the 46 samurai began their attack on the unprepared warriors within the compound, killing as many as 40 of them with only minor wounds of their own.  Kira scampered away to a storage shed somewhere on his grounds, where he was found after an hour of Samurai manhunting.  Oishi presented to Kira the exact same blade that Asano had used to kill himself and offered Kira the choice of suicide.  When it became clear that Kira was unable to do himself in, Oishi lopped Kira’s noggin off and the 46 marched to the burial place of their lord where they presented the severed head.

The Shogun was left in an awkward spot soon thereafter, because the 47 Ronin had gained overnight fame for their actions.  The public clamored for their pardoning, while the officials of the government requested execution for the illegal attacks.  Giving in partway to the pressure, the Shogun allowed the samurai to commit Seppuku (more honorable than execution) on February 4th, 1703, and granted the title and a tenth of the land back to Asano’s eldest son.  The forty seventh Ronin, the storyteller, was given a full pardon.  Kabuki theater and puppet shows about the Ronin began almost immediately as the warriors gained a pop culture fame for their actions.  People had worried that the samurai class had lost its way and abandoned Bushido codes and their honor, but the 47 Ronin stood as a proud testament to a warrior’s devotion to their lord.  A shrine was erected to the Ronin, and according to legend, the Samurai who kicked Oishi in the face during his hobo days was the first man to visit, committing seppuku there to atone for his actions to such an honorable man.  The author of the Hagakure, on one of the major works about Samurai culture was one of the few critics of the Ronin, musing not about how their actions were wrong, but that they waited so long to kill Kira.  He wondered what the men would have done if Kira had died from an illness at some point during their undercover period, and wrote that it was better for a Samurai to be bold and decisive at all times.

The Ronin’s influence lasted far into the 20th century, when a film was produced by Imperial Japan in 1941 to spark the Japanese fervor for loyalty to and beyond death. They have also appeared in television, books, pop culture, art and music over the last 300 years.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, like why you don’t insult a guy with a sword.

Citations, Otherwise People Will Think This Is About That Keanu Reeves Movie:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty-seven_Ronin
http://asianhistory.about.com/od/japan/p/47ronin.htm
http://www.samurai-archives.com/ronin.html
http://www.wisegeek.com/who-are-the-47-ronin.htm

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