By William Wetherall
First posted 15 December 2005
Last updated 1 January 2006
See also Seppuku.
The "Basic story" and "Popularity" sections of this article were originally written for the Japanese National Tourist Organization in 2000 and appeared on its website as "What is Chushingura?" and "Why is the Chushingura saga so popular?" The articles were commissioned and written with an article on seppuku, which has also been incorporated into a more general article on this website.
Ako's nearly 300 retainers became lordless ronin, or "wavemen" left rudderless in the seas of society.
Chushingura, "A Treasury of Loyal Retainers," is one of Japan's most popular historical sagas. It was first reenacted as a sort of "docudrama" only 12 days after the events it relates occurred, 300 years ago. Today, the older scenarios continue to be important parts of the repertoires of the traditional bunraku and kabuki theaters. They are also perennially adapted to the modern stage, film, and TV, and to novels and comic books.
On the snow-mantled evening of 30 January 1703 (14th day of 12th month of lunar calendar), in the heart of the city now called Tokyo, 47 samurai assembled to assassinate a government official named Kira Yoshinaka. Two years earlier, Kira had humiliated their lord, Asano Naganori, the daimyo of Ako domain, over a point of court etiquette. Asano lost his temper and drew his sword, wounding Kira in the Shogun's palace. For this breach of protocol, Asano was ordered to disembowel himself, and his fiefs were confiscated. Ako's nearly 300 retainers became lordless ronin, or "wavemen" left rudderless in the seas of society. Their only mission in life was to pacify Asano's soul by an act of vengeance, to which more than 60 of the most loyal retainers made a secret pledge.
They publicly acted in a way as to make Kira think they bore him no grudge. But early on the morning of 31 January, they attacked Kira's residence. By breakfast 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 another daimyo lord.
On 19 March the ronin were ordered to disembowel themselves. They died the following day in ceremonial self-executions that permitted each to cut his belly before an assistant lopped off his head. They were buried at Sengakuji with Asano, and their graves continue to be visited by thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year.
Only three days after the first play was performed in 1703, the doors were closed by officials who thought the dramatic reenactments were a threat to the political order.
On the whole, Chushingura is a true story, and when well told it is rather moving. One both laughs and cries at the ways the 47 ronin stumble about to restore honor to the name of their dead lord. But the story is not just about loyalty.
Early 18th-century authorities didn't know what to do about the ronin. They had broken the law, but who could censure them for being faithful to their lord? Many officials agreed with the Confucian pretext for the vendetta, that "Enemies of one's lord or father cannot be allowed to live under the same sky." But some 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.
One reason Chushingura remains so attractive today is because it champions the heroism of individuals who shared a tragic fate as a result of their collective cause against the authorities. Only three days after the first play was performed in 1703, the doors were closed by officials who thought the dramatic reenactments were a threat to the political 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 Chushingura movie convinced the Americans that the 47 ronin had really been friends of democracy who had tried to destroy the feudal system, but only after the shogunate had refused their petitions to reenfranchise Asano's domain under his son.
Chushingura is also seen as a parable for modern Japan. The ronin leader inspired the others to endure many hardships while endeavoring to achieve their singular goal. And he adopted a successful strategy of espionage and communications. But only one in four of Asano's retainers vowed revenge, hence a present-day parody called Fuchushingura, or "A Treasury of Disloyal Retainers".