No Japanese story is more celebrated than that of the revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin. Based on a historical incident that happened in the winter of 1703, it has become the subject of innumerable plays, novels and films. Although long liberated from feudalism, it still seems to strike something deep in the soul of certain Japanese...
The act of revenge occurred in the early morning hours of January 31, when a band of the former retainers or Ronin of Asano Naganori (1665-1701), the late lord of Ako, attacked the residence of Kira Yoshinaka and hacked of his head. They thought him responsible for the death through suicide of their own lord Asano.
[Graves of the 47 Ronin]
The cruel story started with a minor occurrence. Kira was chief of protocol in the shogun's castle and (on purpose or not) had failed to inform Asano, who had the task to receive a group of envoys sent by the emperor in Kyoto, of the finer points of protocol. Asano, apparently a hotheaded man, at one point during the reception ceremony grew so exasperated with Kira, that he threateningly drew his sword from its sheath.
Had he given Kira a slap in the face, nothing terrible might have happened; but merely baring one's sword in the shogun's palace - even without using it - was a capital offense. Asano was ordered to commit suicide and his fief of Ako was confiscated.
Forty-seven of Asano's warriors (now out of a job) vowed to avenge their lord's death. Two years later, when nobody expected any action of this type anymore, they executed their plan on a winter night. After attacking Kira's mansion in the early morning hours, they cut off his head and marched to the grave of Asano in Sengakuji temple and presented the enemy head to the grave of their lord.
Their action posed a serious dilemma to the government. Absolute loyalty was a virtue in feudal society, and therefore it was laudable that these ronin had avenged their lord even after two years. But more importantly (and practically) this action by a large group of warriors in the shogun's capital, threatened public order; it also went against the official verdict on Asano.
Therefore severe punishment was judged necessary, and just like their lord, the ronin were ordered to commit suicide. They did so in March 1703, all forty-six (one had dropped out before the actual attack), ranging in age from 15 to 77. Afterwards their ashes were buried in the small graveyard of Sengakuji, next to those of their lord.
[Gate of Sengakuji]
If this story wets your appetite so much that you decide to visit Sengakuji, you may be in for some disappointment. Sengakuji nowadays is hemmed in by the rather tasteless houses and apartments characteristic of Tokyo's Shinagawa ward and there is little left to remind one of feudal glory (if ever there was such a thing).
Their is a nineteenth century wooden gate, but the grounds are tiny and the temple hall is postwar and can not be entered. The only thing to admire in the precincts is a modern statue of Oishi, the leader of the Ronin. He holds a scroll in his hands upon which presumably the oath of avenge has been inscribed.
But there is a building that can be entered, the museum, so I buy a ticket and enter the Hall of Loyal Retainers, as it is called. The narrow and high-ceilinged building reminds one of a prewar school. In large, wooden-framed glass cases some items connected with the Forty-seven Ronin are on display. I strongly suspect that the exposition has been setup in prewar years to impress on schoolchildren the virtues of duty and loyalty to the country. The hall stinks of patriotism and obedience.
But Japan has changed since then, and it seems significant that for scores of years the contents of those glass cases have not even been cleaned. As a result the clothes have turned to rags, the statues of the Ronin are ravaged by insects and moldering to decay, the pikes and drums are covered with a thick layer of dust. It is sad to see a cultural heritage decaying before your very eyes, but on the other hand it is a symbolic treatment of the virtues of a bygone epoch. For once, I don't mind that these statues rot.
[Graves of the 47 Ronin]
Graves in Incense Clouds
After the moldering museum exhibits, the graveyard comes as a shock. Not only because there are grisly things, such as the well where the Ronin washed the head of Kira before putting it respectfully in front of their lord's grave. No, the shock is that now one realizes it is not just a fictional story. I am used to seeing the Forty-seven Ronin enacted in Kabuki plays such as Chushingura, or on the white screen, but here are very real graves before my eyes.
These forty-odd people really did kill a man for a silly reason - because what else is loyalty with blinders on? As a result they had to die themselves. It seems a waste, even after all those centuries.
After passing the larger graves of Asano and his wife, I go up a few steps and stand among the rows of graves of the Ronin. The stones have been placed closely together. The grave of the leader, Oishi, is soon recognizable because it has a small roof. Even in death, feudal ranks were important.
[Grave of Oishi]
Thick smoke billows up from the incense burners in front of the graves. A gray-blue cloud holds the cemetery in its grip and pushes against the walls of the neighboring apartment buildings. Incense is still being burnt here, because people continue to honor these men and their ideals, I read in the guidebook I am carrying.
Nonsense. I have discovered the real reason for this smoky extravagance in the person of a rather ferocious old lady, who stands at the entrance to the graveyard and forces every visitor to buy a bundle of incense, as a kind of entrance fee to the cemetery. It is one way to keep a tradition forcefully intact.
[Shops in front of the temple gate]
When I leave the temple and come out of the gate, I am accosted by the sales pitch of four neighboring shops selling the same souvenirs for the same inflated prices. One item is a colorful hand drum, available in various sizes, that is based on the instrument used to give signals during the night attack by the Ronin on Kira's mansion. One of the salesmen demonstrates it, laughing. Pock, pock.
I smile back, relieved at this transformation of gruesome reality into harmless commercialism.
Since I wrote this, a new museum has been built before the gate and the once dusty statues are now displayed again in pristine state...
Address: 2-11-1 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Access: 2 min. on foot from Sengaku-ji Station on the Toei Asakusa Subway Line (A2 exit).
Festivals: Dec. 14: Gishi-Sai, Memorial rites for the 47 Ronin on the anniversary of their revenge.
April 1-7: also memorial rites for the Ronin, though less famous than the December festival. In the afternoon from 12:00-16:00 the temple displays its treasures, ranging from paintings and calligraphy to a Marishiten statue, the personal protector of Oishi.
References: The 1748 puppet play based on the Ronin's revenge, Chushingura, has been translated by Donald Keene (Columbia University Press, 1997).
Chushingura was filmed many times over, both for the cinema and TV. One of the best versions is Inagaki Hiroshi's 1963 version (Chushingura, Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki)
Interesting pages about Chushingura and the samurai tradition on the Columbia University website