The Legend of the 47 Ronin

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The video clip above is from the historical & fantasy fiction film 47 Ronin where the masterless warriors commit a suicide ritual called seppuku - otherwise known as harakiri, except for Oishi's son Chikara pardoned by Shogun Tsunayoshi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) so he can preserve their bloodline and serve his country. Kai (Keanu Reeves), Mizuki (Rinko Kikuchi), and Mika (Ko Shibasaki) were fictional characters and not included with the real story of the ronins. Although, the Tengu Lord (Sōjōbō) is based on the myth & legends of Japan where they inhabit their mountains & forests. It may have changed and this was not the only film adapted for western audiences, it was also been featured first from stage plays (kabuki), an opera, to various Japanese films & television series under the category 忠臣蔵 (Chushingura - Treasury of Loyal Retainers) where they preserve the historical accounts of the incident.

On this day (February 4), all but one of the 47 Ronin commit their ritual suicide to honor & recompense their master's death. Before doing their capital punishment, how did this all happen? It was called 四十七士 (Shijūshichishi) another one is called the 赤穂事件 (Akō jiken - Ako Incident). It was a legendary incident for the Japanese. A story of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice when the ronins avenge their daimyo (Lord) Asano Naganori.

Lord Asano Naganori of Ako

The year was 1701, Feudal Japan. Daimyo's Asano Naganori of Ako & Kamei Korechika of Tsuwano were ordered to entertain Emperor Higashiyama's envoys who were sent from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). Both lords were given necessary instructions for court etiquette by Kira Yoshinaka, a powerful figure of the Tokugawa Shogunate and also the master of ceremonies for the envoys. Both of them offered gifts to Kira, but he rudely refused the offer and it was inadequate.

Depiction of Asano's assault on Kira in the Matsu no Oroka of Edo Castle

Kamei became enraged as he about to kill Kira, but Asano preached patience. However, Asano was insulted by Kira calling him a country boor with no manners, the young daimyo can no longer hold his temper at the official. As he confronts Kira at the Matsu no Oroka, drew his tanto (dagger), and attacks the official injuring Kira's face, the second slash missed and hit a pillar as guards quickly separated them. It is forbidden to use a sword inside the castle, and attacking a shogunate official within the boundaries of the shogun's residence is considered a grave offense. So with this, the Daimyo of Ako removes his tanto and was sentenced to death by committing seppuku - to cut off their abdomen and by ritual as part of their code of honor.

Asano's assets were seized by the Shogun leaving his family impoverished and his samurai reduced from 320 to 47. According to their code, samurai were expected to follow the same path for their master instead of dishonoring their clan. The 47 of them became ronin - a samurai without a lord or master. Now, the term is used to describe the unemployed or finished their secondary education who hasn't yet admitted to their university of choice. Oishi Yoshio and the rest of his men chose to live and swore a secret oath to kill Kira for revenge.

Oishi Yoshio, the head chamberlain of Ako. Leader of the 47 Ronin.

It took them a year to plan everything out since Kira's place is heavily guarded. Following the death of their master, most of Oishi's men dispersed from other domains and worked common jobs being merchants, laborers, and monks. Oishi resides in Kyoto as he began to drink and spend heavily on prostitutes. One time when Oishi was so drunk as he was about to return home, he fell and went to sleep. All the people passing by laughed at him. A samurai from Satsuma noticed Oishi laying in the street, he abused and insulted the drunken ronin, kicking him in the face and spats on him. Oishi divorced his loyal wife after 20 years as he sent them away with two of their younger children to live with her wife's parents so no one can harm them. Their eldest son, Chikara, was given three choices: stay, fight, or leave? He remained with Oishi.

December 14, 1702. Oishi, Chikara, and the rest of the ronin met once more at Honjo, near Edo as they prepare for the attack equipped with swords, bows & arrows, ladders & battering rams. One young ronin - an ashigaru (light infantry samurai) named Terasaka Kichiemon was sent back to Ako to tell their story. With their plan, they will split into 2 groups: Oishi will attack the front gate, while Chikara will attack from the rear via the back gate. A drum will serve as their signal for simultaneous attacks, and a whistle telling that Kira was dead.

Oishi's group attack the front gate

As they scaled the walls of Kira's mansion and tied up the watchmen. The rest of Oishi's men posed as Kira's archers to prevent those who send help. With the drum's signal, they attacked both front and back gates. Kira's samurai were caught asleep and rushed out to fight shoeless in the snow. Kira is now terrified as he ran to hide in a closet with his wife and female servants. The ronin searched everywhere for an hour, as Oishi & Chikara re-grouped and fought the rest of Kira's men. After searching when the whistle was heard by the group, they discovered a man cowering in the shed amongst heaps of coal. As final proof, his head bore the scar from Lord Asano.

Oishi kneels in front of Kira as a sign of respect, addressed him telling him they are Lord Asano's men as he offers the same tanto that their master used to commit suicide, and inviting Kira to die as a true samurai should. Kira was shaking in terror, Oishi orders his men to pin him down and beheads him with the same tanto used by his master to commit his ritual suicide. They wrapped Kira's head with a loincloth, placed it in a bucket as the men reassembled in the courtyard. All 46 are alive but 4 of them were wounded, as they marched to Sengaku-ji Temple where their master is buried. After arriving at the temple, they washed Kira's bloody head at the temple's well, then presented it at their lord's grave including the tanto fulfilling their oath to their fallen master. The story of their revenge spread quickly through every domain, they were cheered by the townspeople when they're on their way to the temple. The 46 ronin turned themselves in and prepared for the ritual suicide for their crimes.

February 4, 1703. The ronins met their fate. They had followed what was under their code of honor but defied the official's authority by revenge. As the people seek a petition on behalf of the ronins. They were sentenced to death by committing seppuku instead of executing them as criminals. Oishi Chikara, the youngest of the ronins and originally was not pardoned by the Shogun. He also met the same fate with his father and the rest of his comrades. Terasaka was the one who was pardoned by Shogun Tsunayoshi, and lived a normal life until the age of 87 (died around 1747), then buried with their master at Sengaku-ji Temple on March 4, 1703. Their clothing and equipment are still preserved to this day. The temple became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The man from Satsuma who mocked Oishi begged for forgiveness of his actions. He then died honorably like a true samurai and was buried next to the ronin.

Tombs of the 47 Ronin at Sengaku-ji Temple

It's been 3 centuries (318 years) since they cut their bellies in honor and recompense their master's death. It tells the story of loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that people should display in their daily lives. Their tale gained popularity for centuries until to this day, and the legend became entrenched within discourses of national heritage and identity.

Sources:

Lead Image/Screengrab from https://youtu.be/EEaUjfxQQFI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6_kbydqEuE

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-47-ronin-story-195577

https://seetheworld.travelforkids.com/story-of-the-47-ronin/

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