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this month in history: the tale of the 47 ronin

It was a snowy night in December, 1702 when the greatest act of revenge in history was played out. On that night, 47 ronin (masterless samurai), avenged the death of their master, Lord Asano, two years after he was ordered to commit seppuku , or ritual suicide, for taking a swipe at one Lord Kira. Kira, by all counts, deserved the slashing that Asano gave him. But it wasn't that supposed attempted murder of Kira that Asano was punished for, even though striking a man in anger was against the law; it was that he committed the act within the walls of the Shogun's castle, which was a far worse crime in itself.

Such was the ritualistic world of the samurai. They lived by the Code of Bushido - literally the way of the Samurai. The code dictated concepts such as loyalty, honor and virtue.

It was that loyalty and honor that took the 47 samurai on a two year journey to avenge the death of their master, Lord Asano. The samurai, who were now ronin, had to leave their castle, as the law permitted the Shogun to take over Asano's castle after he committed seppuku.

Several choices were available to the ronin. They could accept the law and surrender, they could fight and refuse to turn the castle over, or they could exact revenge by plotting to murder Kira, who the ronin felt was responsible for their master's demise, but received no punishment from the Shogun.

Of course, they chose revenge. It would not have made such a riveting tale if they hadn't. And the code they lived by basically bade them to avenge Asano's death.

At first there were 59 ronin plotting to kill Kira. They laid low, pretending to be street merchants and even drunken gamblers to get information on Kira. Kira and his allies remained vigilant for most of that time, always on the lookout for the ronin, knowing full well that the samurai would want Kira dead.

For nearly two years the ronin waited and watched until Kira eventually let his guard down, thinking that the ronin were not coming for him after all.

Finally, the moment had come. On December 14, 1702, 47 of the 59 ronin (the 13 other ronin were sent back to their families) stormed Kira's mansion. Account on this event vary; some say that in the ensuing fight, all of the ronin survived. Other accounts say that one ronin died in the battle.

For ninety minutes they fought and when it was over all of Kira's men were either killed or they surrendered. Kira himself was found cowering in an outhouse. The ronin gave Kira a fair chance to die honorably, to commit committed seppuku, but Kira would not do it.

The ronin beheaded Kira and deposited his severed head at Lord Asano's grave.

The Shogun Tsunayoshi - the same one who ordered Lord Assano to kill himself - was impressed with the loyalty of the ronin. But he had a samurai code to follow and could not let the ronin go without punishment for their acts. He ordered the ronin to execute themselves, which was a way to let them die with honor. They were buried next to their master, Lord Asano.

So, why do I tell you this story? I suppose there are lessons to be learned from it, but even on its own, it is a great tale. If there was a definitive moral to this, it would be that revenge is, indeed, a dish best served cold.

There's more to it than that, though. Much, much more. You'll have to wait for Part 2, though. For now, I'd like to know your thoughts on the tale of the 47 ronin.

Images and some facts fromShitoryu.org


Can't wait for part two, always found the samuri ways interesting, though the concept of ritual suicide/honour etc... has never got past my survive at all costs belief. Amazing what humans can be made to belive!

I've been training in karate for about 7 years now (the last 5 in Shotokan karate, a very traditional Japanese style). Among many in the martial arts, there is a tendency to idolize or romanticize bushido and the samurai way of life. There is much there to admire, but your story points out some of the more brutal aspects as well. It was a harsh and unforgiving system, wedded firmly to the feudal economic and social structure of the times.

I take from it what I find admirable -- the emphasis on loyalty, honor, discipline, and selflessness -- and ignore the rest. Those ancient warriors cut very dashing figures, but I would never want to live under a system that demanded such complete and utter self-sacrifice. It violates the principles of personal liberty that we cherish here in the West. I think we've found a better balance here between those two concepts: personal freedom and duty to one's people and country.

Like Curt I admire their strict sense of honor and loyalty. I'm also quite impressed with their patience (it is a virtue afterall).

I thought it was neat when I was 12. I also loved Akira Kurosawa movies.

A fascinating story of ideology taken to a logical, if rather extreme, conclusion. Admirable for loyalty, but I wouldn't want to live under such a system. Strangely, I've been meaning to read one of the English translations of this epic for a while now (it's also been done as an opera, Kabuki, pretty much anything you like).

I find it very interesting. Looking forward to reading the next installment. I am glad that I was not living in that time in Japan. It would have sucked to be a peasant.

Two things:

Love the insight into bushido - should make playing NetHack as a Samurai feel more authentic.

I never realized before how much Raymond Feist's Tsurani (of the Riftwar books) resembled the samurai.

I think Donald Keene translated Chushingura into English, one of the versions of this tale (it means The Treasury of Loyal Hearts). The story of the 47 Ronin has always been extremely popular in Japan, never so much as just before the Pacific War.

I saw a movie of Chushingura and it is a powerful story. It's out on DVD. One scene shows the resident representatives of the Dutch East India Company passing a house where two of the ronin are while the Dutch are traveling to make their annual obeisance to the Shogun. They are wearing Western clothing circa 1702, when the event happened. It is amusing to see how shockingly out of place such clothes look amidst all the Japanese.

2 things.

1 - Dec 14 is my birthday, yay for me.
2 - Didn't one of the characters in the movie Ronin (with Robert De Niro) tell this story?

Wasn't bushido the core ideology behind the Japanese militarism that ultimately led to World War II?

It's funny, I am doing a research paper on seppuko as my final English paper at college, and I told my class all about the gruesome details involved in this ritual during my oral presentation last week. This totally grossed them out. Then I told them the tale of the 47 Ronin, but I'm not really sure they were paying attention enough to value this facinating tale. Oh well. BTW, I like how you said that Kira "deserved the slashing", lol, he was being a real son of a bitch to Asano.
I'll be waiting to see what you put in part 2.