Chushingura outtakes

By William Wetherall

First posted 15 December 2005
Last updated 15 December 2005

This is a draft of an article in progress.
Please to not quote or cite without permission.

The Japan Foundation newsletter

This just in from the The Japan Foundation. Each month the foundation posts an email magazine which invariably begins with a long-winded seasonal greeting which reads like a leaf from a guidebook for American baby boomers on a "Last Samurai" tour.

Subject: [mail-e]The Japan Foundation Email Magazine, No.30


The Japan Foundation Email Magazine, No. 30 (December 1, 2005)
(Circulation: 4,829)


Dear Readers:
December 14th marks the memorial day of one of the most famous episodes
in Japanese samurai history.

It is the day The 47 Samurai, some of whom were only teenagers, showed
their loyalty to their master by avenging his death and killing the lord
their master had attacked after having been provoked by an insult.
The Tokugawa Shogunate then ordered them to commit suicide because
they had disturbed the peace.

Their heroic but tragic story impressed the people of the Edo period
and was first re-told in the mid-18th century bunraku play "Chushingura."
It is now the most famous Samurai story in Japan and has been re-told
in everything from cinema to manga.

Even now, on December 14th, many people visit Sengakuji temple in Tokyo,
where the samurai are buried, to console their spirits and honor their
absolute loyalty to their master.

There you have it.

What in fact the hapless "heroes" of Chushingura fame were ordered to do was commit seppuku as an act of self-execution, as provided by law in cases when members of the samurai caste were convincted of a capital crime. That there is a difference between "self-execution" and "suicide" does not seem to have occurred to the "cultural understanding" promoters at The Japan Foundation.

Nor were the ronin ordered to execute themselves because they had "disturbed the peace" -- but because they had taken the law, which legalized vendattas if officially sanctioned, into their own hands, thus threatening the authority of the government. They were placed under house arrest, the question of their guilt was debated, and the view that their vendatta was justified was rejected.

Not a word is said about the vastly greater number of former Ako retainers who did not go along with the vendetta. Nor is it pointed out that "December 14" is about a month and a half short of date on which the vendetta was carried out.

But "samurai" has become a proper noun. And Chushingura is a "Samurai story". A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't have done better.

Such explanations support my contention that a major source of misinformation about Japan are Japanese organizations whose mission it is to insure that Japan is correctly understood by foreigners.

NHK "Ako roshi" feature

NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyoku, aka Japan Broadcasting Corporation), like virtually all mass media, goes along with the unseasonal celebration of the vendetta on 14-15 December. But unlike The Japan Foundation, NHK is not in the business of imprinting "Japanese culture" on the minds of foreigners.

NHK aims to inform, entertain, enlighten, and sometimes protect from truth, viewers who are perceived to be Japanese. In the process it spends huge sums of money on program conceptualization and research. This does not mean that the semi-public network always get its stories right. But it sometimes gets them better, as it did in the Chushingura feature it aired on the evening of 14 December 2005 on Channel 1, its general service channel, from 21:15 to 22:00 in the the Tokyo Area.

The full title of the feature was Ako roshi: Uchiirigumi vs uchiiri fusankagumi or "Ako ronin: The attack group versus the group that didn't join the attack". It number 241 in a weekly series called "Rekishi no sentaku" (Choices in history). Number 240, aired the previous week, was about Yamamoto Isoroku and the decision to attack Pearl Harbor.

The historical choice series is hosted by Matsudaira Sadatomo, an executive announcer with a talent for dramatic delivery. His reputably strong personality seems to partly derive from his awareness that he is a descendant of Matsudaira Sadakatsu (1560-1624), which makes him related to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) and Ieyasu's great grandson Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), usually regarded the two greatest shogun of the Tokugawa period.

Sadakatsu was a half-brother of Ieyasu (1543-1616), who was born Matsudaira Takechiyo, the son of Matsudaira Hirotada (1526-1549) and Odai no Kata (1562-1602). He was born Hisamatsu Sadakatsu, the fourth son of Hisamatsu Toshikatsu and Odai, Ieyasu's mother. Odai was a daughter of Mizuno Tadamasa, a daimyo of Kariya (Mikawa). She had married Hirotada but was returned to her family when her brother Nobumoto allied himself with Imagawa, who was on the other side in the civil war. She was later married to Toshikatsu and bore him four duaghters and three sons, including Sadakatsu. The Hisamatsu Matsudaira line was affiliated with the Iyo Matsuyama domain.

Matsudaira's co-host for this program was Ueda Sanae, a younger but also familiar face in NHK's stable of announcers who have graduated from news to features. While a personality in her right, Ueda is Matsudaira's junior and clearly plays second fiddle when teamed with him, especially on his programs.

The purpose of the Ako roshi feature was to explore the two choices which Lord Asano's ronin had -- to pursue a vendatta against Lord Kira, the man ostensibly reponsible for Asano's death and the disenfranchisement of his domain -- or to start new lives, even if as farmers. Matsudaira argued the side of nearly 50 ronin who resolved to avenge Asano's death, while Ueda represented the over 250 ronin who preferred to go on with their lives regardless of their feelings about Kira.

To be continued.