Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the lord of Ako was disgraced and forced to kill himself, his samurai devised a plan for a revenge killing that took two years to carry out. Though they succeeded and were regarded as heroes, the Tokugawa shogunate forced them to commit suicide for defying its authority. Their deed has been celebrated in numerous stories, plays, and films as a model of loyalty and courage in the face of injustice and tyranny.

Summary of Event

During the rule of Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu (r. 1623-1651), traditions of court etiquette were instituted at Edo Castle Edo Castle to make this shogunal headquarters into a palace equal in prestige to the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. As part of this refining process, a representative of the Kira family, one of a group of aristocratic houses known as koke (lofty families) put in charge of various shogunate ceremonial occasions, was sent to Kyoto to study Imperial Palace etiquette. Koke lords had the same status as daimyo, great lords of feudal domains. Kira lords were in charge of supervising ceremonies at Edo Castle during periodic visits to the shogun by envoys from the emperor in Kyoto. [kw]Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin (Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703) [kw]Ronin, Revenge of the Forty-Seven (Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703) [kw]Forty-Seven Ronin, Revenge of the (Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703) Ronin (masterless samurai) Samurai Suicide in Japanese society Tokugawa shogunate Ako Incident (1701-1703) [g]Japan;Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703: Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin[0070] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703: Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin[0070] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 4, 1701-Feb. 4, 1703: Revenge of the Forty-Seven Ronin[0070] Asano Naganori Horibe Yasubē Kira Yoshinaka Ōishi Yoshio Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu Tokugawa Tsunayoshi

Kira Yoshinaka, also known as Kira Kozukenosuke, began his career as a page at Edo Castle in 1653, at the age of twelve, and spent nearly five decades as an official there, gaining a reputation as an authority on court etiquette. He became so entrenched in his position that he behaved condescendingly toward feudal lords visiting Edo Castle, unless they gave him money or costly gifts. The shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, ruled as an autocrat, and his chief councillor, Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, was more a close friend than an adviser. Influential courtiers such as Kira and Yanagisawa concentrated on pleasing the shogun to maintain their own positions.

Though Kira was the supervisor of ceremonies during the visits of Kyoto imperial envoys to Edo Castle, the actual costs were borne by tozama daimyo, “outer” feudal lords of domains distant from Edo, generally less favored by the shogun than his court officials, or lords from domains nearer Edo. Outer lords took turns paying for these visits, and when their turn came they also had to participate in the ceremonies.

On February 4, 1701, Asano Naganori, lord of the Ako domain, which was located on the coast of the Inland Sea (now the western end of Hyōgo prefecture), and Date Muneharu, lord of the Yoshida domain on the west coast of the island of Shikoku, were selected to host a Lunar New Year visit of imperial envoys and receive them at Edo Castle. Kira, the authority on etiquette Etiquette, Japanese and protocol, was to preside as kimo-iri, master of ceremonies. The envoys arrived in Edo on March 11, and a series of welcoming events began, during which Kira appeared to treat Date very kindly, and seemed to slight Asano. Believing that this was because Date had bribed Kira, Asano completely lost patience on March 14 and physically attacked Kira, cutting his forehead and shoulder with his sword.

A woodcut print depicting a ronin, or masterless samurai.

(Library of Congress)

The shogunate court authorities arrested Asano, because drawing a weapon in Edo Castle was a capital offense. Kira was sent home to recover, but Asano was ordered to commit suicide a few hours later, and he did. His samurai, now masterless and therefore to be called ronin, were summoned late that afternoon to take away Asano’s corpse. A hasty funeral was conducted at the Sengaku Temple. On March 17, Asano’s Edo estate and personal residence were confiscated, and on March 26, his samurai in Ako were notified that the Asano lands and castle in Ako were also being confiscated. That same day, Kira resigned his official post at Edo Castle and went into retirement. The Asano followers in Ako, led by the chief samurai Ōishi Yoshio, also known as Ōishi Kuranosuke, would not hand over the castle immediately. They began a series of meetings and discussions, finally deciding to leave the castle on April 12. Some Asano ronin chose to make the best of things and seek other employment, but Ōishi and many other ronin decided to seek revenge.

The ronin, led by Ōishi, felt that their lord had been provoked by Kira’s insolence and had been unjustly forced to kill himself. They thought that his death was rushed and undignified, and that the swift confiscation of Asano properties was motivated by greed on the part of the authorities. Kira’s resignation failed to satisfy them, and they wished to kill him, to avenge the wrongs done to their lord and themselves. They knew that Kira was still favored by the shogunate, that killing him would be an unforgivable challenge to its authority, and that they would be severely punished.

Ōishi and his followers decided to wait for a good opportunity to kill Kira anyway, and so decided to pretend that they, like the other ronin, were planning to forget and move on. On April 19, Ōishi relinquished Ako Castle to the authorities and sent requests to the shogunate for the restoration of the Asano holdings to their deceased lord’s younger brother, Asano Daigaku, and for the punishment of Kira. Ōishi’s followers agreed to lie low and see whether these requests were granted before taking action. They went their separate ways, behaving as if they were parting permanently. On June 25, 1701, Ōishi left Ako and moved to Kyoto, where he pretended to go into retirement. Horibe Yasub Ī, a warrior dedicated to the Ako cause, operated clandestinely in Edo. This was the beginning of the greatest real-life revenge drama in Japanese history.

On December 12, 1701, Kira retired from his position as a domain lord, and his adopted son was named his successor. There were no indications that he would be punished. Then, on July 18, 1702, the shogunate ordered Daigaku permanently confined in Hiroshima, in the custody of an Asano relative. Since it was clear that the Asano lands would not be restored, the dispossessed ronin began preparations to kill Kira, and by early November they secretly had made their way to Edo.

The Ako warriors planned to attack December 5 but learned there would be a citywide security alert because the shogun was visiting Yanagisawa’s mansion that day. They changed the date to December 14, since their lord had died on March 14 of the previous year. Reduced to forty-six warriors, they followed a plan to kill Kira with minimal collateral death and damage, to demonstrate that this was justified revenge, not a vendetta. Led by Ōishi and Horibe Yasub Ī, the Ako warriors broke in, overcame Kira’s guards, killed Kira, and brought his head to the grave of their lord at the Sengoku Temple, before turning themselves in.

Significance

On February 4, 1703, all forty-six of the Ako warriors were forced to kill themselves and were interred at the Sengaku Temple. Kira’s estate was confiscated the same day, and his adopted son was arrested and died in captivity in 1706 at Suwa Castle, in what is now Nagano prefecture. The Ako lands never were restored to the Asano family, but Asano Daigaku was released from his confinement in Hiroshima in 1710, the year after Tsunayoshi died, and was given a small feudal domain.

The earliest story based on the Ako incident, as the “revenge” is also known, appeared in 1705, and the first dramatization was performed several years later, with the characters only thinly disguised. Tsunayoshi’s regime remained a hateful memory for many years, and Yanagisawa was portrayed as his evil adviser in many popular stories and dramatizations. In its performance versions, the Ako incident came to be known as Chushingura, and the play is called Kanadehon Chushingura (wr. c. 1748; Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, Chushingura (anonymous) 1971). It became a Japanese metaphor for unrelenting resistance to corrupt power, even under the most adverse conditions. There have been more than one hundred dramatizations, and a number of major novels, films, and television versions, of the tale.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allyn, John. The Forty-Seven Ronin Story. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1970. A retelling of the story of the Ako incident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bito Masahide. “The Ako Incident, 1701-03.” Monumenta Nipponica 58, no. 2 (Summer, 2003): 149-169. A focused and detailed account of the Ako incident by a Japanese scholar of the Edo period. Translated by Henry D. Smith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandon, James R. Chushingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theatre. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982. An account of the way the Ako incident became a theatrical epic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. An excellent account of the life of the samurai. The Ako incident is examined in the chapter “The Vendetta of the Forty-Seven Samurai.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jansen, Marius B. Warrior Rule in Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A reliable and detailed scholarly account of the history of the samurai.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald. Chushingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. An annotated translation and historical study of the classic 1748 drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ravina, Mark. Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. A study of the way in which changing national conditions in the mid-Tokugawa period challenged the traditional roles of domain warlords and their samurai.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Till, Barry. The Forty-Seven Ronin: A Story of Samurai Loyalty and Courage. Petaluma, Calif.: Pomegranate, 2005. An introduction to the story of the Ako incident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yamamoto, Tsunetomo. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. New York: Kodansha America, 2000. A classic samurai manual, written around the time of the Ako incident by a loyal Nabeshima domain samurai.

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