The true story of the 47 Ronin (masterless samurai) is one of the most famous in Japan. It is a tale adapted into countless kabuki plays, bunraku puppet shows, woodblock prints, and later films and television shows. Fictionalized versions of the story are known as Chushingura, and continue to be very popular to this day. It is based on an incident that happened during Japan’s feudal era.
Briefly, the story is as follows: Lord Asano, a samurai and daimyo (feudal lord) was chosen to entertain members of the Imperial family. To assist him, a high ranked samurai named Kira was chosen to teach him the correct etiquette. Kira expected monetary compensation for this but Asano refused, considering it mere duty. The two fell out, with Kira deliberately embarrassing Asano at every opportunity. Finally, at the shoguns’ palace, Asano snapped, drew his sword and wounded Kira. As the baring of a weapon in the palace was strictly forbidden, Asano was obliged to commit suicide and his estate was confiscated. As a consequence, his retainers automatically became ronin.
Forty-seven of Asano’s retainers decided to give the appearance of forsaking revenge while waiting for their chance to do so. The leader of this group, a man called Oishi, called for patience and lulling Kira into complacency. The 47 split up, and gave the impression of accepting life as ronin, while indulging in drunkenness and debauchery (the kanji for Oishi’s name is in the bottom photo, in the centre. The other one is carved on Asano’s grave stone).
Eventually, on December 14, 1702, the 47 gathered, broke into Kira’s mansion, killed his guards and beheaded the lord who had caused their master’s death. They then carried the severed head to the graveyard at Sengakuji and placed it on the grave where their lord is buried (in the pictures below, one of them shows a ‘warrior’ holding a pole with a white bag tied to it. That’s a simulation of carrying the severed head).
The ronin became national heroes for their adherence to bushido and strong show of loyalty (bushido was the samurai code of conduct which revered loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honour). However, the Shogun’s authorities ordered the 47 to commit ritual suicide. The ronin are buried beside their master at the same temple.
Simulation of Carrying the Severed Head
47 Ronin Graves
Every year, on December 14, which would correspond to the anniversary of the uchiri (raid), large numbers of people visit the temple to pay homage to the masterless warriors and to watch the procession of volunteers dressed in period costume parade from central Tokyo to Asano’s grave (photo below).
The poster, below is for the Sengakuji festival, held very year without fail. Loyalty is widely admired in Japan, even today.