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”.
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).
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.
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.
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.
At Oishi Shrine not only the typical shrine gate will greet you, but also statues of the ronin (though not all 47).
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.
I highly recommend you take your time enjoying these. They are fabulous!
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.
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]
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!~