The Genroku Akō Vendetta 1701-1703
‘When we forty-seven men shall have performed hara-kiri, I beg you to bury us decently.
I rely upon your kindness. This is but a trifle that I have to offer; such as it is,
let it be spent in masses for our souls!’
– Tales of Old Japan (1910)
The Revenge of the 47 Rōnin is one of Japan’s most famous tales. Even though the Keanu Reeves movie from 2013 wasn’t very good, the original story that it was (very loosely) based on is actually pretty epic. It’s a story of samurai warriors on a mission to redeem their fallen master – the kind of thing that should make for an awesome action movie! Crazy thing is, the 47 Ronin were real…
The Way of the Warrior
The Genroku Akō Vendetta has become one of the most celebrated tales in Japanese history – spawning dozens of books, plays and movies. It’s a tale that symbolizes loyalty and honor above all else, a central tenant to Japanese culture that still permeates modern society… it’s also a tale that has a lot of death, so much death. Similar to a knight’s code of chivalry, the samurai warriors of Feudal Japan were governed by the Code of Bushido, which included 8 virtues – first established by the teachings of Yamaga Soko:
It was a time of relative peace, but it was also a time of paranoia and corruption. Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world and were openly hostile to foreigners. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Japan was ruled by the Shogun, in the name of the emperor. The Daimyō (Lords) were land-owning clan-leaders, each had the loyalty of an army of samurai, who answered directly to the shogun. The Samurai were basically hired mercenaries with really cool threads, fancy swords, and a strong sense of honor.
One day, in 1701, two daimyō arrived at Edo Castle (in modern-day Tokyo) to prepare a reception for the imperial envoys. The two lords: an older and experienced diplomat, Lord Kamei (of the Tsuwano Domain), and the 34 year old …uh, less experienced, but very devout Confucian – Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori (of the Ako Domain) – to keep things simple, we’ll just call him Asano.
So this dude Asano and his buddy, Kamei, met up with Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka (Kira for short), a super up-tight high-ranking official. Kira wasn’t just an arrogant jerk, he was also pretty corrupt it turns out. No one’s exactly sure why Kira was rude to them, but we’re pretty sure he wasn’t happy with the gifts presented to him.
Kira was such a colossal douche that Kamei was considering putting a katana through his chest, but he was advised against it, since whatever he did would be reflected on all those under him. If he was convicted of murder, all of the samurai of his clan would share the blame. Plus, it was extremely illegal to pull out a weapon within the palace walls. It would be like pulling a gun in the White House. Kamei instead gave in and bribed Kira to gain favor in the court. This put all the pressure on Asano, who wasn’t having any of it.
Then one day, things got really heated in the grand corridor (the Corridor of the Pines), when Kira publicly called out Asano as a “country bumpkin without manners”!
Asano wasn’t quite as cool-headed as Kamei, so he kind of lost his shit… Immediately after the insult left Kira’s lips, Asano’s blade was in his hands. Before Kira could wipe his smug grin off his face, Asano did it for him with a lightning quick slash of his dagger. Asano’s dagger got lodged into a nearby pillar before Kira even realized he’d been cut on the cheek. A palace guard immediately stepped in like a referee breaking up a fight during a hockey match.
While I kind of don’t blame Asano for flipping out, Kira didn’t see it that way. As a result of Asano’s actions, the Shogun ordered that he commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide). It essentially involves stabbing and slicing one’s innards open. It’s a pretty intense way to go. Before doing so, Asano wrote a poem:
“More than the cherry blossoms,
Inviting a wind to blow them away,
I am wondering what to do,
With the remaining springtime.”
Following his death, Asano’s entire fiefdom in Ako was confiscated, his land and fortune seized, his family left destitute and all the samurai who served him were rendered master-less – they became Ronin…
320 of Asano’s loyal samurai were now dishonored in the eyes of the Shogunate. Most of them followed their master into the after life rather than face the ridicule of their peers… all but 47. Forty Seven hardened samurai warriors who thought this Kira guy could use a lesson in manners. Instead of just accepting their fate, they decided to avenge their master’s honor. Meanwhile, Kira became paranoid of an attack on his life. He began to beef up the security as he holed up in Edo Castle.
One night, the disgraced ronin gathered together in secret to plot revenge. A man named Ôishi Kuranosuke Yoshio stepped forward to lead the vendetta. Oishi urged his fellow ronin to be patient. They would disperse, bide their time, communicating in secret and wait for the right moment to attack. The 47 ronin hid their armor and weapons away until Oishi called on them.
The former samurai seemingly went their separate ways and blended in with the commoners, many of them taking up menial jobs. Oishi on the other hand seemed to have fallen on hard times. After leaving his family (for their own protection) and spending all his money on geisha and sake (hookers and alcohol), Oishi was a man with nothing left to live for… Well, nothing left but booze and babes.
He soon gained a reputation as a notorious drunk on a month-long bender that would make “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” look like a Meg Ryan rom-com. Rumors began to circulate of a bitter ronin drunkenly wandering from brothel to brothel and fist-fighting anyone who looked at him funny…
One day, a prominent samurai from Satsuma was passing through Kyoto and came across a hungover hobo lying in the street. People pointed and laughed at the homeless man passed out in the street, but the samurai recognized the lowly beggar as Oishi. The samurai became furious and cursed at Oishi for disgracing Asano’s memory. The samurai kicked Oishi in the face before spitting on him.
Word of Oishi’s fall from grace reached Kira who began to relax. Little did he know that it was all part of the plan. While Kira was busy spying on Asano’s former retainers, one of the ronin managed to steal the blueprints to Kira’s stronghold. After months of planning their revenge, the time had finally come.
On December 14th, 1702, just as the snow began to fall, the 47 Ronin attacked!
Armed with swords, battering rams and ladders, the ronin scaled the walls of the fortified palace. Archers were posted to stop anyone from sounding the alarm. Oishi led a contingent at the front gate, while his son led an attack force from the rear of the compound. They silently snuck through Kira’s mansion, subduing guards as they went. A drum sounded, signaling the attack.
Oishi and his son fought through a legion of armored samurai. Kira awoke to the sound of clashing swords and fled in terror, hiding behind his female servants. The ronin killed 22 of Kira’s men and wounded 16 more. When Oishi and his men sliced their way to Kira’s room, they found it abandoned, but Oishi knew that he couldn’t have gotten far. After a quick search, one of them found a secret passageway that led to the courtyard.
They soon found Kira hiding in an outhouse. Oishi approached with a lantern and identified Kira by the scar on his face that Asano had dealt him. Oishi bowed and calmly explained that they were there to avenge their fallen master, then he offered Kira a wakizashi, the very same knife that Asano had used to kill himself. When Kira didn’t respond, Oishi removed his head from his shoulders.
That’s some serious “Kill Bill” shit.
Kira’s head was placed at Asano’s grave site (in Sengaku-ji) and the townspeople praised the ronin as heroes. Unfortunately, the government didn’t quite see it that way. With their task complete, the Forty-Seven Ronin turned themselves in to face judgement. Instead of outright executing them as criminals, the Shogunate allowed the remaining ronin to commit seppuku. Which is weirdly the Japanese equivalent of “and they lived happily ever after” I guess.
The selfless sacrifice of the ronin convinced the Shogun to reinstate Asano’s family name – and all those who served under him. Long after the Forty-Seven warriors joined their master in the afterlife, their deeds live on. Word of their sacrifice spread from village to village and soon the 47 Ronin became an immortal inspiration.
The story was turned into a drama titled “Chūshingura” which translates to “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers”. It was adapted into numerous fictionalized accounts with different time periods, exotic locales and fantasy elements. It even inspired a Romeo and Juliet rip-off about two star-crossed lovers who commit suicide because they can’t be together.
Today, the final resting place of the 47 Ronin at Sengaku-ji Temple is hollowed ground and December 14th is a national holiday: The Ako Festival or Gishi-sai. A day dedicated to one moral lesson: don’t be a dick (or else an army of samurai will murder you in the middle of the night).