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Japan’s 47 Ronin of Ako – The Greatest Example Of Bushido

Have you ever heard of Japan’s 47 Ronin? Nope?
Ok, but do you know what a ronin (ろうにん、浪人) is?

The short version: A ronin is a former samurai.

The long version:
During the feudal period of Japan (1185-1868) a samurai who lost his master was called “ronin”. A samurai could become masterless if their lord was killed or stripped off his privileges. Sometimes a samurai could become out of favor with his master. An abandoned samurai also turns into a ronin.
Nowadays the term “ronin” is used for Japanese students who failed to get admitted to university and have to try again to get in. It’s also used for salaryman (salaried workers) who are currently “between two jobs”.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

 

The Story of the 47 Ronin of Ako

So, apparently there was a time when there were 47 of them. Needless to say that there were a lot more throughout history.
But what makes those 47 ronin (四十七士, shi-juu-shichi-shi) so special and why is their legend famous in Japan?

The story is popular because it’s a great example of Japanese spirit and loyality. It displays the code of honor of the samurai, known as bushido. It’s something Japanese people are very proud of and thus it’s a story they are fond of even nowadays.

I’m trying to keep this as short as possible. For those of you who are interested in all the details, I recommend reading 47ronins.com!

 

How Ako’s Samurai Became Ronin

In the late 17th century Lord Asano Naganori (浅野 長矩) was ruling over the Ako domain (1675-1701).

Asano as the daimyo of Ako and Kamei as the daimyo of Tsuwano were invited to Edo Castle to arrange a reception for the envoys of Emperor Higashiyama (1675-1710).

However, there was one man named Kira Yoshinaka (吉良 義央), a high-ranked official of the Tokugawa shogunate, who was giving both lords a hard time.

Although this is not confirmed, rumors say he was very arrogant, corrupt and rude. Kira complained and treated Lord Asano and Lord Kamei in a harsh way because he wasn’t happy with the presents they offered him.

Not being able to take Kira’s behavior any longer, Lord Kamei wanted to kill him. However, Kamei’s counsellors suggested to bribe him instead. As this was exactly what Kira wanted, he thereafter treated Lord Kamei nicely.

This made Lord Asano even angrier than he already was. When Kira was insulting him yet again, saying that he was a “village idiot with no manners“, he lost his temper. Asano pulled a dagger and injured Kira’s face. Others quickly separated the two of them.

Attacking a shogunate official and that within the walls of the shogun’s residence was strictly forbidden. Therefore Lord Asano was forced to commit suicide (seppuku).

After his death all his belongings were confiscated, his family lost all privileges and of course Lord Asano’s samurai became masterless. From then on they were ronin. The “key person” among them was Yoshio Oishi, the former principal counsellor of Lord Asano and one of his samurai. Right after the order, he made sure that Asano’s family was brought to a safe place.

 

The Revenge Of Lord Asano’s 47 Ronin

Oishi was the leading force in what became the legend of the 47 ronin. Lord Asano was the master of over 300 samurai, but after his death they all became ronin. Although the shogun had strictly forbidden to take revenge, some of them, Oishi being their leader, decided to kill Kira. They knew that they had to die if they tried, but they wanted to be loyal to their master even after his death.
Oishi divorced his wife to make sure she was safe. She took the two younger children with her. However, the oldest son, Chikara, decided to accompany his father and the other ronin.

It was very difficult to get close to Kira. He feared an attack all the time. He even sent out spies to make sure the ronin didn’t plan anything.
The former samurai became merchants, monks etc., leading a “normal” life, but it still took years until Kira finally was convinced that he wasn’t in danger anymore.

Finally, on the 14th day of the 12th month (which translates to January 30, 1703), they attacked Kira’s residence. One thing I find especially awesome about this story is that the ronin informed the neighbors that this was an act of vengeance and that they had nothing to fear. As all the neighbors hated Kira, they were relieved and didn’t try to stop the ronin.

They attacked in two groups, one was led by Oishi, the other one by his son, Chikara. Kira was hiding well in his residence. Eventually, some ronin found him and got Oishi to confirm that it really was him. Seeing the scar on his face that was left through their master’s attack, there was no doubt.
Considering the high rank of Kira, Oishi offered him the death of a true samurai (seppuku). However, Kira was just trembling unable to do or say anything. After trying to convince him for quite some time, Oishi gave up, had him pinned down and cut his head off.

The ronin took Kira’s head to a nearby temple where the grave of their master was located. It was a 10-km march. A lot of people cheered them on, offered them refreshments on their way as they admired the courage of the ronin.
The warriors washed Kira’s head, put it next to their master’s grave and paid the temple money so that they all could be buried next to him.

After their successful act of revenge, they turned themselves in.
Going against the shogun’s orders usually meant to be executed as criminals. However, the shogun was impressed by their act of bushido and granted all of them to die as true samurai by committing seppuku. Oishi’s son was only 16 at that time.

 

47 Or 46 Ronin?!

Of the 47 ronin only 46 died on March 20, 1703 by killing themselves as requested. One left on the day of the attack, although it’s not 100% clear why. Some say he was sent to Ako to tell everyone that Lord Asano was avenged. Others suggest that he simply ran away. The name of this ronin was Terasaka Kichiemon. When he returned to Edo later, he was pardoned by the shogun and lived a long life. After his death, he was buried with his comrades and his master.

 

 

Following The Traces of the 47 Ronin: Ako and Tokyo

If you are fond of this story and want to track down the traces of history, it’s possible.
The main location is obviously Edo, nowadays better known as Tokyo! ;)
You can find the graves of the 47 ronin and their master at Sengakuji Temple.
Not only that, but the temple still has the original clothes and arms the ronin wore on the day of their attack!

I have yet to visit this temple – and I definitely will!

The second place you might want to check out is Ako where Lord Asano and the 47 ronin are originally from.
Ako is a small city in Hyogo Prefecture, very close to the border of Okayama Prefecture.
I’ll write some travel posts about Ako another time. I just want to introduce the sights that are related to the 47 ronin today.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

The main location is Ako Castle where Lord Asano ruled until he was forced to commit seppuku.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing much left of the castle. You’ll find a few turrets, walls and a castle moat.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

Right next to the castle is Oishi Shrine (大石神社).
Did you just cringe? Yes, it has the name for a reason! The noble and loyal samurai / ronin Oishi and his men are being worshipped there. Next to the shrine is “Ako Loyal Samurai Museum” where you can find artefacts and items left behind by the 47 ronin.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

At Oishi Shrine not only the typical shrine gate will greet you, but also statues of the ronin (though not all 47).

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

If you walk around the main hall of the shrine, you’ll find beautiful pictures telling you the story of Ako Castle, Lord Asano and his 47 ronin.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

I highly recommend you take your time enjoying these. They are fabulous!

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

Visitors can “experience” history at the shrine. Above you see Oishi and his son with a paper scroll that has the names of all 47 ronin on it. They all signed and put their bloody thumb on it to “seal the deal”. Gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it?

You can find a list of all the names of the 47 Ako Roshi (赤穂浪士) here.

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

Or you can just have a look at these cute illustrations. Click on each ronin and you’ll get a lot of information (unfortunately only in Japanese).

If you happen to visit Himeji and are interested in the 47 ronin as well, I highly recommend going to Ako. It’s just a few minutes away from Himeji. It’s also pretty close to Okayama City.

There’s a yearly festival called “Gishisai” (赤穂義士祭) in Ako on December 14th to celebrate that the 47 ronin were able to take revenge on the 14th day of the 12th month. For students in Ako, it’s a happy day. They don’t have to go to school, so they can participate in the festival.

 

47 Ronin – Movie Adaption:

A great story like that needed to be told. People wanted to see it or read about it: kabuki performances, books …. and finally there were also movie adaptions such as Chushingura (1962).
Maybe you have already seen the newest 47 Ronin movie (2013) featuring Keanu Reeves? Here’s a short trailer:

I don’t intend to write a movie review here, but let me just tell you that I was disappointed.
It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not as good as I expected it to be. After all, the story of the 47 ronin of Japan is interesting. Then, there are all these actors I adore such as Keanu Reeves or Shibasaki Kou … and yet … it just didn’t please me.

One reason is that they changed the original story of the 47 ronin so much and made a fantasy tale out of it.
In my eyes, these kind of fantasy adaptions usually work better as animation rather than with real actors. (Dragonball movie anyone? …)
Also, if you’re anything like me and watch Japanese dramas regularly you’re probably familiar with some of the actors in this movie. Hearing them speak English is just EXTREMELY weird. I would have prefered subtitles. It also seems strange that Keanu is talking much faster and more fluent than anybody else. *g*

The movie has beautiful fantasy pictures of Japan in it. But don’t be fooled! It’s a fantasy world that has never existed like that. And don’t let me get started about Ako Castle!! And since when can you see Mt. Fuji from Ako? T__T [/ feel free to ignore this rant]

Japan's 47 Ronin of Japan

 

Should you watch the movie?

Well, did you like the trailer? Do you like movies like that anyway? Are there any actors you like? Do you want to know more about the 47 ronin without having to read too much? If so, then go ahead and watch it.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, though. ;)

I’m also curious to hear from people who have already watched the movie. How did you like it? What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments below!~emoticon

27 Comments

  • I had read that story long ago and am very familiar wiht it. There was a Chushingura TV drama in 2001 with Takuya Kimura, that wasn’t bad. Takizawa Hideaki has presented scenes of the story in his Enbujou shows at Shinbashi Enbujou shows.

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the idea of Keanu Reeves in that invented part turns me off. I don’t like the distortions in the story. For historical events, I believe one should be as accurate as possible. It is ok, of course to invent some details of personal life, as long as they don’t intrude on the story itself. As far as seeing Mt Fuji from Ako, it’s grotesque. But Hollywood never had any respect for logic or geography.

    • Hollywood loves beautiful pictures, happy ends, fantasy stories and action. I’m not surprised. But seeing a castle, a pagoda, cherry blossoms, Mt. Fuji and a Buddha statue in ONE picture, just turns me off. *g*
      After reading your comment, I’m quite sure you wouldn’t like the movie. ;)
      Have you been to Ako yet?

  • Thanks for this great article. I like the story of 47 ronin and as you say it is very typical about Bushido.It’s a great japanese story. About the movie from 2013, i saw it in Japan. I don’t understand japanese but the movie is not very hard to understand…it’s a hollywood movie. One good thing in this movie is castles architecture because it is not too bad. Gates are like real gates and tenshu (even it’s a huge tenshu in the movie) are not too extraordinary. But the most incredible thing in this movie is there is always Sakura even during the winter :-). And the last picture of the movie is a ‘image d’Epinal’ in french, it’s an idealized picture : Mt Fuji, a bridge, sakura, Koyo…

    • I’ve been to Ako many times and while I don’t know how it looked a few hundred years ago, I’m sure it didn’t look like THAT. ;)
      I’m not gonna say too much about the castle (I liked certain features of it), but just like you I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry with the overdose of “Japan’s beauty” they tried to put into it all at once: Mt. Fuji, bridges, pagodas, castles, cherry blossoms etc. ;)

    • Luckily not all of the time, but far too often to be realistic.
      The last scene where all of the ronin committed seppuku had lots of cherry blossoms as well, but considering that (historically) it happend in the end of March, it could be possible.
      But like I said, sakura were present way too often. ;)

  • It is a great story and has been admired throughout Japan for a long time now. I think there have been several movie adaptations over the years with different titles with the most famous being Chushingura in 1962. I am lucky to have some connection to this famous story from my wife, who is a descendant of Lord Asano of Ako. We still have the family crest and are proud of this story and our name of Asano.

    • And here I was thinking jokingly that there might be a relation. Never thought there really is. That’s so cool and something your wife can be very proud of! :D

      • I actually enjoyed the movie for what it was. A Hollywood fantasy movie rather than a historical account of the actual events. I hope to be able to research the history of these events, and the Asano clan of Ako more in the coming years to try and piece together some family history. Yes, both my wife and I are very proud of our family connection :)

  • Being a former American Marine, I have a totally different take on the 47 Ronin story. I heard this story many years ago on Okinawa. Though I totally understand the Japanese tendencies to glorify the Samurai, I was by no means impressed with the story because it ended with valorous men committing suicide at their own hands. It just seemed like such a waste of courageous lives.

    Having a warrior mentality, I certainly understand the core justification behind the 47 Ronin’s actions: honor (or maybe revenge)… and I praise the Ronin for their tenacity and bravery to kill the man responsible for their Lord’s death thus restoring his honor (saving face for the way he was treated by the official that insulted him), but at the same time I can’t admire the Samurai system that was created in Japan during that era. It was a ruthless and brutal system that kept Japan from growing as a nation for many centuries. This story of the 47 Ronin just seems to put that system of brutality on a pedestal and it includes admiration for those values that aren’t so honorable, like blind devotion to a person or cause (the kamikaze spirit) and the importance of saving face over cooperation or for the good of the people.

    I also think that this history somehow still influences Japanese society, in that their business relations and attitudes towards foreigners continues to hold back Japan’s development and open relations with the rest of the world. For example: the roots of the honorifics system put in place during the development of the four caste system of Nippon, creates a wall between Japan and foreigners (gaijin) even today that will never change until the culture (IMHO) puts an end to the extensive honorifics that only complicates their interactions with other cultures and minimizes the relations between their own citizens (maybe one of the causes for the declining birth rate in Japan?)!!

    Even today descendants of the burakumin (those below the four caste system) face discrimination from other Japanese in hiring and marriage, so these prejudices still exist and Gaijin certainly fall into that same category as Eta (those in unclean professions) or Hinan (social outcasts like actors and entertainers as well as convicted criminals) to many people in Japan and face the same disdain elicited from the Japanese elite and their supporters towards others outside their culture.

    Are there any memorials in Japan to the tens of thousands of Christian Ronins that bravely fought and died during the Shimabara revolt of 1637-8?? They fought a pitched battle at the Hara Castle where some 27-37,000 were wiped out to the last person by 125,000 Tokugawa troops and then the Shogunate outlawed Christianity in Japan for the next 230 years even though the persecution by Lord Matsukura and his son forced the Christians into revolt.

    Even to this day, Japan has the lowest percentage of Christians of any developed nation in the world, including China, which has over 70-80 million Christians. Japan has even less of a percentage of Christians than North Korea, a atheist dictatorship. I’m not promoting Christianity by any means, I’m just referring to statistical numbers that would show associations or connections between cultures.

    Americans might one day soon be forced to support the Japanese who treat us all as Gaijin OR the Chinese that have 70-80 million Christians (that the millions of American Christians can relate to)!! I wonder which one they’ll choose!

    • Thank you very much for your critical comment, Bud.
      I understand what you’re saying. I’m not – and never have been – a fan of suicide. I’ll never understand what’s so noble about taking your own life.
      I wish that the 47 ronin could have lived on instead of committing seppuku.

      You know that the suicide rate in Japan is extremely high compared to other countries. One reason is for sure the low number of Christians in Japan (about 1%). Another reason could be that suicide was always seen as something noble. Maybe that idea still lives on nowadays. :(

      I don’t want to say only bad things about the “hierarchy system” in Japan because in my opinion that does exist in other countries as well. Maybe in a different form, but it does!
      And it does have it good points as well.
      On the other hand I agree that Japan needs to change … but as we know, Japan always takes very long, much longer than any other country I know, to change. ^^;

      As for Shimabara, there are memorials, but it’s not that famous. You’d have to actually visit Shimabara to see some artefacts, to learn about the Christians and their history there. :/ …

      • Now that I’m off my soap box, Gomen’nasai. My first priority should have been to consider the information presented and not my ideology. It’s just that recent events in the news seem to indicate that the Japanese might once again be leaning toward the path to militarism to resolve the threats that China presents and that has deeply saddened me. I was very interested to see the degree to which the 47 Ronin were honored and the statues were extremely impressive. The mannequin scene of Oishi and his son was actually quite spooky and surreal! The Murals and Shrine were very telling of how the Japanese people revere these men and I didn’t mean to demean their sacrifice, as they were only reacting as their culture permitted. I was just overcome with the poignancy of this site as related to my perceived grievances with the cultural differences between Japan and the US and how it might one day drive us apart as a people. Once again your presentation has evoked very strong emotions in me and was a great pleasure to view. Fantastic work on the photos, they captivated my instincts of honor and overwhelmed my sense of propriety (Makoto ni moushiwakenou gozaimsu) and your skill in relating your post to the audience was impeccable! Thanks again for all of your hard work!!

  • Gah! I love all your posts. Every time you post something about Japan, you provide these tiny little details which make the posts all the more intriguing! and every time I read them, I just get more curious about the place and my desire to settle there simply shoots up. I must say you are great at research work! Such enlightening posts :peace: :D

  • I’ve also seen the movie and I can’t disagree with you, even though I’m not a fan of the ’47 ronin’ story itself. The only difference is that voices didn’t bother me (since I watched it in Russian), but I couldn’t help thinking that the ‘fantasy world’ looks like any other fantasy world in american movies I’ve seen so far, and even japanese-styled costumes couldn’t save the situation for me. It was beautiful but far-fetched and boring for me.
    Anyway, thanks for the interesting article, since at the time of watching the movie I didn’t know as much about the original 47 ronins.

      • oh believe me nothing special! recent Russian voicing only disappoints me. you know, when a voicing actor merges with the character it sometimes becomes hard to understand the real voice of the actor is different, and that’s what happened, for example, to BBC’s Sherlock, or Captain Sparrow, but some movies shown on the widescreen recently are not as good, and sometimes I regret we do not have that practice of watching movies in the original with subtitles like they do in Japan or China

  • hi, i watched the 47 ronin movie and the one who set free is chikara son of oishi, thats why when I read your article I got confused which is true?

    thank you!

    • What happened in the movie in the end is not the truth. I guess they chose Chikara to be the one because it’s like a little happy end.
      I was also disappointed to read that reality was quite different. ^^;

  • I disliked the movie, too. It’s on HBO and all the mythological components just detract from the story. The feud would have had more bite than a “witch” coming down from the ceiling…

    My husband is from a samurai family – Fukui prefecture on the west coast. Emori translates to “Guardian of the Bay” and refers to Wakasa Bay. His family defended the lord from China and Korea as well as other lords.

    It’s funny – I have more interest in traditional Japan, it’s history, and it’s culture than my hubby who grew up in Tokyo. He hasn’t a clue about differing festivals or has even attended one. I hope to change that fact.

    Thank you for the true story of the 47 Ronin. Next time we go, not only will we get to the Fukui temples for his geneology research, but to visit the temple in Kyoto, too.

    • I agree, but I guess most people just want some action on TV and don’t care very much about historical facts at all.

      I don’t think it’s strange. I’m from Germany and (unfortunately) I’m not very interested in the history or culture of my own country. However, I’m quite into Japanese culture and history – always been, even before I moved to Japan.
      Guess we always like what seems different and thus exotic to us. ^__^;

  • I loved the movie. ..which means d real story was much more awesome…the best thing about the ronin is that standing up against treachery and being loyal.

  • Hi..
    I get to read your link here because I felt great interest of the 47 Ronin after I have watched the Keanu Reeves fantasy 47 Ronin movie.. I like that movie very much eventhough I know the story has been changed to fantasy. .
    Well I guess it’s wasn’t a bad movie after all.. coz it does lead me to read and want to know more about the 47 Ronin..
    Thanks for the explanation of the 47 Ronin.. I have a better picture now and I am going to search more of the 47 Ronin and samurai story from the website and books..
    Btw.. I even get to know in the world, there are only 47 Ronin motorcycle limited edition.. Each of the motorcycle will have the individual Ronin number and name engraved on the motorcycle .. Soo Cool…
    Thanks again and you have a blessed day..

  • Watching the movie is what led me to check out the hitorical details and to this site, so it did it’s job in that respect. Having learned more about the history however I feel it did not do the true story credit as the real hero was not the fictitious Keanu character but Oishi and I’d have preferred to know more about him and his personal journey and basically for the story to have been more historically accurate. You can’t take a massively important story like this and butcher it which is what they did with the fantasy elements and making it all about Keanu’s character. I suspect there is much more satisfactory Japanese version somewhere which I shall seek out and watch instead. Thanks for your article btw!! :)
    LeahG

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