“On this day in 1703, abiding by a moral code of bravery, loyalty, and honour, 47 ronin, or leaderless samurai, avenged the death of their leader in one of the most famous episodes of Japanese history, which ended in mass suicide.
At the center of this tale is the concept of bushido, a military code. Historically, Japanese warriors were expected to follow bushido, which demanded extreme loyalty to one’s master and fearlessness in death.
The story begins in 1701, when two visiting daimyo, or lords, Asano Naganori and Kamei Sama, brought gifts for Kira Yoshinaka, a high shogunate official in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) who was schooling them in etiquette. Finding the gifts too small, Kira began treating the daimyo with contempt. Asano bore the abuse patiently, but Kamei was angry and prepared to kill Kira. Luckily, Kamei’s counselors secretly paid Kira a large bribe, saving Kamei from violence. Kira began to treat Kamei well, but he continued to abuse Asano, calling him a country fool with no manners. Asano could restrain himself no longer. He attacked Kira with a dagger, wounding him on his face before being whisked away by guards. For his offense, Asano was ordered to kill himself in a ritualistic suicide known as seppuku.
When word reached Asano’s more than 300 followers, they were enraged and some 47 of them banded together and, per bushido code, vowed to avenge their leader’s death by killing Kira. Expecting just such an event, however, Kira was well guarded. To quell Kira’s suspicions, the 47 samurai, now leaderless ronin, split up and adopted new trades. The leader of the ronin, Oishi Yoshio, divorced his wife to protect her and his family and led a life of drinking, womanising, and debauchery in order to shake off Kira’s spies and completely quell his suspicions. All along, however, he was plotting revenge.
Some two years later, in 1703, the 47 ronin gathered in Edo, renewed their oaths, and pursued their plot. Early in on a cold, snowy, windy morning in December, Oishi and his group attacked Kira’s Edo mansion. Armed with swords and bows, they killed off his guards and more than 16 of his men, while sparing the women and children. When they found Kira, the ronin asked him to commit ritualistic suicide and die with honour according to Japanese code. When Kira refused, Oishi beheaded him. Leaving his body, Oishi and his men took Kira’s head to their master Asano’s grave, placed it there, offered prayers, then turned themselves in. As an honourable punishment, they were ordered to commit the same ritualistic suicide their master had committed. According to most accounts, Oishi’s young son was pardoned and 46 of the 47 ronin committed seppuku. They were buried near the Asano’s tomb.
For its drama, commitment to principle, and tragedy, this true tale has become national legend in Japan and is often retold in plays, opera, movies, and art.”
Credit: © Peter Harholdt/CORBIS
Caption: In a print by Utagawa Hiroshige, the ronin approach their adversary’s mansion on a snowy night, about to attack.