Heroes from the past
smite the woes of today

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 131(10), 6 March 1986, pages 53-55

A somewhat longer version appeared as
"A model for Today? Chushingura story continues to fascinate Japan" in
The Japan Times Weekly, 13 December 1986, pages 1,6 (cover story)

It is, on the whole, a true story. And when well told, it is a moving story that transcends its Japanese birth. But Chushingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is now enjoying a remarkable "boom" in Japan. This may reflect certain truths about the present nature of Japanese politics.

On the snow-mantled evening of 30 January 1703, in the heart of the city that is now called Tokyo, 47 samurai assembled to kill a government official named Yoshinaka Kira. Two years earlier Kira had humiliated their lord, Naganori Asano, the daimyo of Ako domain, on a point of court etiquette. Asano lost his temper and drew his sword, wounding Kira in the Shogun's palace. For this breach of court ethics, Asano was ordered to disembowel himself, and his fiefs were confiscated.

And so Ako's nearly 300 retainers became unemployed samurai without a lord, or so-called ronin, literally wavemen, left to drift rudderless in the seas of society. Their only mission left in life was to pacify their lord's soul by an act of vengeance, to which more than 60 of the most loyal retainers had made a secret pledge.

They publicly acted in such a way as to make Kira think that they bore him no grudge. But early on the morning of 31 January, led by middle-aged Kuranosuke Oishi, 46 other Ako ronin -- including two teenagers and one septuagenarian -- attacked Kira's residence, killing 16 of his 100-odd men and wounding a score of others, while suffering only a few cuts themselves.

By breakfast time they had served Kira's head before Asano's grave at Sengakuji, a nearby Buddhist temple, and by the end of the day they had turned themselves in for "house detention" at the quarters of certain daimyo.

The authorities were at a loss what to do. It was clear that the law had been broken, but who could censure such bold samurai for their loyalty to their lord? Many officials agreed with Oishi's Confucian pretext for the vendetta, that "Enemies of one's lord or father cannot be allowed to live under the same sky." But some of the most influential Confucianists argued that because the vendetta had not been officially sanctioned, it was merely an act of private vengeance that posed an affront to the shogunate's authority.

The critics were persuasive, and on 19 March the ronin were ordered to disembowel themselves. Thus all but one of the 47 died the following day in ceremonial self-executions that permitted each ronin to cut his belly (or at least touch the point of a shori sword to it) before an assistant lopped off his head.

Self-execution by seppuku (cutting the abdomen) was a privilege of the warrior caste. It was not really suicide when ordered by the authorities, for refusal would mean decapitation as an ordinary criminal.

The ronin were buried at Sengakuji temple with Asano. Their graves continue to be visited by thousands of pilgrims (among many more tourists) every year, but not on the true anniversary dates. The night the ronin assembled to kill Kira is celebrated in a festival held at the temple on 14 December, while their own deaths are remembered on 4 February.

It seems that someone purposely forgot to compensate for calendar differences. "The 14th day of the 12th month" of the lunar year in which Kira was killed corresponds to 30 January on the solar calendar. "The 4th day of the 2nd month" of the following lunar year is 20 March on the solar calendar. But the solar calendar was not officially adopted by Japan until "the 3rd day of the 12th month of the 5th year of the reign of the Emperor Meiji" was declared to be 1 January of the 6th year of Meiji, or New Year's Day 1873.

On the traditional lunar calendar, the killing of Kira and the deaths of the Ako ronin straddled a New Year's celebration. When the Japanese shifted their Chinese New Year to the earlier solar New Year, they similarly "translated" the historical dates they had indelibly marked on their traditional calendar. Whether Tokyo is likely to have snow in mid December (it is not) was much less important than continuing the tradition of remembering the heroic deeds of the 47 ronin half a month before the year's end and mourning their deaths a month into the New Year.

Just as Japanese TV turns news events into "docudramas" within weeks of their occurrence, it took an enterprising contemporary theatre only 12 days after the deaths of the ronin to stage a play which was partly inspired by their carefully planned attack on Kira's quarters. Three days later the doors were closed by shogunate gatekeepers, who were accused of censoring cultural activities which were thought to threaten the political or social order.

When Allied Forces occupied Japan in August 1945, they similarly prohibited all plays, films, stories and lectures with "revenge" themes. In 1952, the last year of the Occupation, the producers of a movie called Ako Castle convinced the Americans that the 47 retainers had really been friends of democracy who had tried to destroy the feudal system, though only after the shogunate had refused their petitions to reenfranchise the Ako domain under Asano's son.

Today, at a time when Japanese feel that they are facing more "bashing" and "misunderstanding" from the outside world, historical figures like Oishi are being upheld as models of leadership. In 1982, the February issue of President, Japan's adaptation of Fortune, featured Oishi on its cover and devoted a third of its 300 glossy pages to the Ako vendetta, but especially his role in it.

Oishi is credited with inspiring the other ronin to endure many hardships while endeavouring to achieve their singular goal. He based his strategy on espionage and communications, all carried out behind a facade that had ronin posing as rice vendors at the gates of Kira's home.

The moral justification for this deceitful assassination is simply that the ronin were being dutifully righteous in avenging their lord's mistreatment. Although admired for their loyalty, only one in four of the Ako's ex-retainers had vowed revenge.

The popular novelist and essayist Hisashi Inoue was recently prompted to write a collection of parodies of 19 Ako ronin who could not or would not join the lynching party, entitled Fuchushingura (A Treasury of Disloyal Retainers). Like other authors of the new Chushingura titles that appear every year, Inoue challenges his readers to wonder what causes they would be willing to die for.

Shukan Asahi, a major weekly magazine, is currently serialising a novelistic account of Chushingura by prolific mystery writer Seiichi Morimura. The serial began in 1984, and shows no signs of ending in 1986.

Also reflecting the Chushingura boom are the TV ratings of a two-part dramatisation that was telecast at the end of 1985. The 30 December first-half was seen by 24 percent of Japan's viewing audience, while 15 percent caught the following night's finale.

These ratings were records for any New Year's Eve programme, rivalling the annual New Year song festival, which, thanks to Chushingura, was seen by only 66 percent of the Tokyo-area audience and 55 percent of the Osaka area viewership. This festival, called the Kohaku Uta Gassen, features Japan's "most popular" 20 male and 20 female singers in a three-hour extravaganza that all "pure" Japanese are supposed to witness as a kind of ethnic rite.

The festival is the pride of NHK, Japan's would-be BBC, and until last year it had always captured at least 70 percent (and sometimes more than 80 percent) of the nationwide viewing audience. In deciding to show Chushingura at the very end of the year, rather than nearer 14 or 15 December when it is usually featured, NTV(Nippon Television Network Corp.) may have banked on the appeal the story would have for the ethnic bedrock of Japan's population, which needs heroes from the past to give meaning to the present.

Chushingura may also be attracting more attention for reasons related to why the Japanese Government in the 18th century, and the US Government in this one, were sufficiently afraid of the subliminal messages in the story to prohibit its public telling. While "feudal" content worried the American Occupation authorities after 1945, the Japanese Government two centuries before wished to avoid romantic notions of taking the law into one's own hands. However, neither Tokyo nor Washington seem worried that Oishi's vigilantism will inspire modem clones.

The story may appeal to different Japanese in different ways. But for those who have a penchant for identifying themselves with losers, victims and underdogs, a vendetta theme is an ideal vehicle for fortifying their spirits against real or imagined foes. The self-pity that is currently so evident in Japan's responses to pressure from rival countries concerning its trade, industrial and defence policies suggests that some Japanese would welcome an Oishi-type leader who would plot them out of the untenable corner into which they may feel that the rest of world is pushing them.

The spirit of Chushingura has even been linked to such seemingly unrelated events as Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour. According to this metaphor, Japan secretly planned a virtually unannounced vendetta against the US for humiliating its national sovereignty in the world's court and then unfairly punishing it.

The US demanded Japan's withdrawal from China, and imposed economic sanctions when Japan refused to comply. Salvaging Japan's self-respect, even at the risk of defeat, became more important than abiding by international conventions that were not of its making.

While such ruminations may shed little light on the real causes of the war, they show how some people are looking at world history with an eye to revising it more in Japan's favour. If the Ako ronin were following a virtuous path, then so were the militarists that attempted to "liberate" Asia from Euro-American interests.

Equally subject to change are theories of how entertainment and art affect the collective behaviour of those who make history, as well as those who allow it to be made through their willingness to fight in wars for which both victors and vanquished provide ideological rationalisations. If this includes the tens of millions of Japanese who view TV, then perhaps their choice of swords over songs bears watching.