In case you don’t live in Japan or were raised by wolves in rural Aomori, the story of the 47 rōnin goes like this: After being insulted in the castle of the shōgun, Lord Asano draws his sword and wounds his tormentor, Lord Kira. Asano is sentenced to commit ritual suicide for committing this unpardonable offense. His 47 loyal samurai plot for two years, and finally avenge him, cutting off Lord Kira’s head and marching it to Sengakuji Temple, where they offer it at Lord Asano’s tomb. Then they give themselves up at the castle and are given the sentence they know they will receive: death by seppuku, just like their lord.
But whoa, there’s a lot more to the story, and I learned it when I went to Sengakuji temple this week to visit their graves and prowl around the museum! For example:
What kind of wacko leader would make pulling out your sword indoors a death penalty crime?
Well, first of all, swinging around the kind of sword that can cut through multiple condemned criminals’ bodies with a single stroke* is no joke, and Lord Asano actually wounded Lord Kira on the face before being stopped by the guy Kira had been chatting with in the hallway. Apparently, Kira enraged Asano by calling him some kind of bridge and tunnel wannabe, but Asano should have sucked it up because Kira was Asano’s boss, a much higher-ranking official who was in charge of making sure protocol was followed by the imperial delegation from Kyoto that was in town for a summit meeting with the shōgun. So it wasn’t just that Asano drew his sword in the castle (forbidden), he also used it to attack his superior (not done in polite company) at a time when Lord Kira was just having a little natter in the hallway (bad form) while not only the shōgun, but also the emperor’s ambassadors were nearby, about to have a summit meeting in the rooms beyond (really, really, bad timing). When you consider the circumstances, the sentence seems a little less outrageous.
So what was it that pissed off Asano’s 47 employees so thoroughly that they were willing to get the death penalty themselves just to experience that “ah, sweet revenge!” moment?
Well, first of all, everyone agrees the shōgun acted a little hastily. After the Imperial summit meeting was abruptly shuffled off to another wing of the castle, without any investigation, the shōgun sentenced Lord Asano to commit ritual suicide on the very same day the attack occurred. What’s worse, he was so T-ed off, he made Asano to do it outside (in a garden, which was hell on the plantings and not exactly the kind of thing you want to remember while strolling through the plum blossoms every year). Being killed outside was the punishment for convicted felons, not lords of the realm, a huge disgrace for him and everyone associated with him.
But serious life-threatening embarrassment aside, there were other wretched consequences for those still in the land of the living. Lord Asano’s family was abruptly booted from the aristocracy, their lands and income confiscated. That meant that not only was everyone in Asano’s family suddenly in the breadline, the samurai who served him (along with the countless retainers and servants and all their families) were all out of a job. And I mean REALLY out of a job: no severance, no accrued vacation days, no letter of recommendation, nothing. Who’s going to hire a disgraced samurai whose sworn loyalty is to another lord?
How exactly did they manage to cut off Lord Kira’s head?
It wasn’t easy! You didn’t get to be a 62-year-old warlord in medieval Japan without being a tough and wily old dude. Kira knew Asano’s samurai had nothing left to lose, so he holed up in his castle accordingly, with all the defenses he could muster around him. But Oishi Kuranosuke (the leader of the 47 rōnin) was gifted with uber-craftiness.
It’s well known that Oishi made every one of the 47 melt into the hoi polloi, becoming carpenters and fishermen and practicing trades so far below their rank that they became invisible. Oishi himself appeared to become a public drunkard and frequenter of the pleasure quarters. So by two years later, with no sign of revenge in sight, Kira began to relax, believing that if they hadn’t attacked him yet, they weren’t going to.
The 47 stormed the castle one night and battled through all the guards, but Kira was nowhere to be found. Finally, they discovered a hidden courtyard where there was a closet used to store firewood and such. When they opened the door, a rain of rice bowls, charcoal, and all kinds of other crap began pelting them as Kira’s master swordsman leapt out and started slashing away. They managed to subdue him and the guy who was lobbing the kitchenware. The closet looked empty, but of course, that was an illusion. The suspicious rōnin rooted around and discovered an old man in white pajamas with a short sword. He refused to say who he was. (Most of the samurai hadn’t seen Lord Kira face to face – he was too high up – so at first there was an ID problem and they had to rely on the forehead scar that Lord Asano had given him on the fateful day.) They marched him over to the main courtyard and suggested he take the honorable way out, offering him the very same dagger Asano had used to commit ritual suicide, but he refused. Finally, they had to hold him down and whack, whack, Bob’s your uncle.
Stranger than fiction, right? But if you have any doubt at all that this story is true, check out the evidence at the Senkajuji temple museum!
* I discovered this grisly way of rating the sharpness of swords while researching Fallen Angel.
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“Without question, the best book I have read all year.” —Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori mysteries and CLIMB
Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!