This tremendous tale of samurai loyalty and honor goes by several names. It is usually referred to as the Akō jiken in Japan, translated as the Akō incident, or sometimes the Akō vendetta. It has been featured so prominently in Japanese literature and kabuki theater that it spawned its own genre – Chūshingura, or The Treasure of Loyal Retainers, that only includes fictional stories based on this historical event.
In the West, we know it as The 47 Ronin – the story of 47 early 18th-century samurai who lose their master and embark on an ambitious journey to avenge the unjust death of their lord. The tale first made its way to our parts over a hundred years after it took place courtesy of Isaac Titsingh, a Dutch merchant and scholar who did business with the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.
The event was later popularized by British writer and former diplomat A.B. Mitford who featured it prominently in his anthology book Tales of Old Japan. This has become the definitive version of the story in the West and the one we will be mostly relying on today. Modern scholars opine that, while Mitford did do plenty of research for his book and presents a lot of details and descriptions, he also had a habit of overdramatizing some of the more climactic parts to make for a more exciting story. Even so, today we bring you, as best we know it, the tale of the 47 ronin.
The Death of Asano Naganori
Our story starts at the very beginning of the 18th century. To help you understand it better, we should quickly present a few concepts about feudal Japan. At that time, the country had an emperor, but his role was mostly symbolic. The true power was held by the shogun because he had command over the military. In 1701, when the events took place, Japan was almost halfway through the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo Period, because that is where the shogunate established its seat of power while the emperor was still based in Kyoto. Edo is better known today as Tokyo.
Although Higashiyama was the Emperor of Japan back then, the man actually in charge was Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. And the shogun exerted his power throughout the land with the help of 300 feudal lords called daimyo.
One of those daimyo (and the one pertinent to us today) was Asano Naganori, the third member of the Asano clan to rule over the Akō Domain. In 1701, he and another noble named Kamei Korechika were tasked with organizing a reception for some of the emperor’s ambassadors visiting Edo Castle as part of their service known as sankin kōtai.
Sankin kōtai was a policy developed by the Tokugawa shoguns to help them keep an eye on their feudal lords and to minimize their resources so they didn’t get any funny ideas about revolting. Basically, it meant that the daimyo had to split their time between their own domains and Edo Castle. For several months at a time, every feudal lord took his family and his retainers and went to live in Edo where he served the shogun directly. His family (and, most importantly, his heir) stayed in Edo whenever the daimyo left to look after his fiefdom and they were basically hostages of the shogun to ensure that the lord behaved himself. Moreover, the Edo residence of the lord plus all the tasks he had to perform for the shogun while he was there were all paid out of his pocket which meant less money to raise an army that could be used against the shogun.
Anyway, it was Asano Naganori’s time to perform his sankin kōtai. In order for him and Kamei to organize a proper reception for the imperial ambassadors, they needed lessons in court etiquette and protocol from one of the shogun’s high officials – a man named Kira Yoshinaka who was a kōke, meaning a master of ceremonies. Of course, for his services, Kira expected gifts and monetary compensation.
Kira and the two daimyo did not get along. We are not sure exactly what the reason was. Mitford said that the Edo official “was a man greedy of money” who wasn’t happy with the “gifts” he received. Other sources said he was an arrogant man who treated the two nobles with contempt and ridicule.
Either way, his actions and attitude became too much to bear, but it was actually the other daimyo, Lord Kamei, who first decided he wanted to kill Kira. He announced his intention to his retainers during a meeting, saying that he had made up his mind and, the following day, he would strike down Kira after the first insult and then would suffer the consequences.
His servants had no choice but to accept their master’s decision, but his councilor looked for another solution. He realized that the only way to get through to the official was with a bribe so he collected all the money he could and rode off that night to Kira’s mansion. There, Kamei’s servant presented him with a thousand ounces of silver, plus another hundred for his retainers.
This bribe had a miraculous effect on Kira. The next day, he apologized to Kamei for his conduct and, from then on, treated him with respect. His behavior towards Asano, however, remained unchanged. If anything, it became even worse as Kira was now angry that the lord from Ako didn’t follow his fellow nobleman’s example.
For a long time, Asano Naganori took the insults in silence, but he eventually reached his limit. At one point, Kira pointed to his foot and said that the ribbon of his sock had come untied and told the lord to bend down and tie it for him. Although burning with rage, Asano did this, but afterwards Kira continued to mock him, saying that he was a clumsy country boor who did it improperly.
That was enough. Asano took out a small sword called a wakizashi and attacked the official, but only managed a cut on Kira’s face before guards separated them.
Even though the injuries were minor, the consequences were grave. Although he deserved it, Kira was still a powerful official of the shogun, not to mention that any kind of violence was forbidden at Edo Castle. Asano Naganori was condemned to commit seppuku, a ritual suicide by disembowelment. His death also meant the death of his clan – his lands and goods were confiscated while his retainers became ronin, meaning samurai without masters.
The Revenge Plot
Revenge for Asano’s death had been expressly forbidden by the shogun, but for some men this mattered little. The Ako daimyo had hundreds of retainers, but 47 of the most loyal banded together with the intent of seeking vengeance on behalf of their former master. Led by Asano’s former principal councilor, Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, they became the 47 ronin.
Now Kira may have been a corrupt, arrogant, and reprehensible man, but he was no fool. He realized that, even with the shogun’s decree, some of Asano’s former men might feel duty-bound to seek revenge. Therefore, he surrounded himself at all times by a host of guards provided by a daimyo named Uyesugi Sama who was his father-in-law.
The ronin could have attempted to take on Kira and his men in open battle. They were all quite prepared to die for their vengeance since they realized that, even if they were successful, they would, most likely, be executed anyway. However, what they could not risk was Kira getting away during the fight as they would almost certainly get only one shot at it. Therefore, they needed the Edo official to get rid of his bodyguards and, for that, they needed to convince him that there was no threat.
To achieve their goal, the ronin all pretended to get on with their lives and go their separate ways. Like many of the other retainers who once worked for the Asano clan, they found new professions – some became merchants, others became carpenters, and some even posed as monks.
Out of them all, Ōishi went to the greatest lengths to allay Kira’s suspicion. As Asano’s most trusted servant, he was also the one the official feared the most because it was expected of him to seek revenge. Instead, Ōishi relocated to Kyoto with his family where he became a drunkard and a womanizer. He knew he had Kira’s spies on his tail, watching everything he did and reporting back to Edo so he had to dedicate himself completely to this new role, regardless of the shame it brought upon him. He would spend his days in bars and brothels, stumbling drunk through the streets and causing a scene so everyone would know what had become of Ōishi, once proud samurai of the Ako daimyo.
The most notorious incident happened with a man from Satsuma who recognized Ōishi passed out in the street. Disgusted with him, he called him “fool and craven” and “unworthy the name of a samurai.” He then kicked and spat on him.
Ōishi accepted everything, but he then went even further. His wife, although she knew of her husband’s plan, could no longer stand the shame. She begged him to show some restraint, but this only served to spur him on even further. He concluded that a man in his position would likely be abandoned by his family. Because his wife knew it was all an act, she did not want to actually leave her husband, so Ōishi left her and told her to take the children, too. Only his eldest, Ōishi Chikara, stayed by his side, as he was one of the 47 ronin.
And so Ōishi carried on. Meanwhile, all his actions were reported back to Kira and, eventually, his dedication paid off. After over a year and a half later, the official started to feel safe again, believing that Asano’s former samurai had left their past lives behind them, vengeance and all. He sent most of his guards back to their lord and, once again, was only protected by his own much smaller retinue.
While Ōishi was giving his Oscar-worthy performance, some of the other ronin did their part by getting jobs in Edo in anticipation of the attack. They observed the layout of Kira’s house, looked for places to enter and exit, studied his movements, and gathered information about his retainers. They also started smuggling and stockpiling weapons which they had to do in great secrecy. As we previously mentioned, not everyone could just walk around Edo armed to the teeth, not to mention that it would have surely raised a few eyebrows if Asano’s former retainers, who were now supposed to be craftsmen and merchants, started equipping themselves like samurai again.
Things were going pretty smoothly and, once Kira sent his army away and Ōishi was no longer being spied on, it was all a matter of waiting for the opportune time…
The Attack on Kira’s Mansion
Almost two years had passed since the death of Asano Naganori, but on December 14, 1702, the 47 ronin were ready to avenge their former master. It was a cold, snowy day and the wind howled with fury. The ronin lurked patiently in the shadows, waiting for midnight to launch their assault. The night before, they held one final feast together as the plan was to turn themselves in and accept the death sentence that was sure to come. Of course, this would be after they chopped off Kira’s head and delivered it as an offering to their master’s tomb.
The signal for the attack was the beating of a drum. All the ronin also carried a shrill whistle with them which they would blow if they found and slain their target. The samurai had split into two groups. One was led by Ōishi and would charge through the front gate while a smaller group led by his son would cover the side entrance to ensure that Kira would not slip through their grasp.
They knew that there would be collateral damage. Killing Kira’s retainers was unavoidable as they would surely try to protect their master. However, Ōishi urged his brethren to avoid hurting any women, children, old men, and any other helpless persons they might run into. On the night in question, the ronin leader even sent one of his companions to Kira’s neighbors to inform them of who they were and what they intended to do. The messenger assured the neighbors that they were neither thieves, nor ruffians, and that no harm would come to them as long as they did not try to interfere. Indeed, the neighbors found these terms perfectly agreeable and none of them tried to come to the official’s aid because none of them liked Kira, in the first place. At least, that is how he is portrayed in every retelling of this story. Some historians indicated that the master of ceremonies may have been more popular in real life in his hometown because he helped develop farmland and build dikes.
With that matter settled, it was finally time to strike. Ōishi began beating his drum and the ronin stormed the house of Kira Yoshinaka. Ten of the samurai climbed the rooftops, took out their bows and kept a watch on the courtyard to make sure nobody escaped to call for reinforcements. Meanwhile, the frontal assault team led by Ōishi broke into the main hall where it was greeted by ten of Kira’s soldiers. A fight ensued, but the ronin were more prepared and determined compared to the retainers who had just been disturbed from their slumber. Ōishi’s group managed to take down their opponents without losing a single man. Meanwhile, Ōishi Chikara and the other ronin made their way through the garden and were fighting other guards in the back of the house. Eventually, the two groups reunited and headed towards Kira’s private chambers together.
As Ōishi predicted, some of Kira’s men tried to make a getaway and bring word to their master’s father-in-law, Uyesugi Sama, who would have sent a small army to eradicate the intruders. However, they were all struck down by the archers prowling the rooftops. There would be no help for Kira on that day.
The fight went on until there were only three of Kira’s retainers left standing, but these were his best samurai. They were Kobayashi Hehachi, Waku Handaiyu, and Shimidzu Ikkaku. They were all that stood between the ronin and Kira’s private room, but they proved to be quite a lot to handle. The three expert swordsmen defended their point with fierce intensity and even managed to drive the ronin back.
Seeing that his men were tired and starting to lose heart, Ōishi shouted at them with rage. They had already forfeited their lives, so why were they shrinking in their resolution now? They should go in there and either kill their opponents or die trying as fulfilling their master’s cause was the “noblest ambition of a retainer.” He then commanded his son, Chikara, to go engage the three samurai in combat.
The young man obeyed his father, picked up a spear and locked weapons with Waku Handaiyu. Their brawl was too intense to be contained in just one room and, soon enough, the two were fighting in the garden. All seemed lost for the younger Ōishi when he tripped and fell in the pond. As Waku was getting ready to deliver a killing blow, Chikara drew his sword and cut his opponent’s leg, causing him to fall. The ronin then managed to get up and kill Handaiyu before he could retaliate. When he went inside, Chikara discovered that the rest of the ronin finally dispatched the other two swordsmen, as well. There was nobody left to protect Kira.
The Search for Kira
The ronin opened Kira’s private chambers, but all they found was young Kira Sahioye, the kōke’s son. He wielded a halberd and tried in vain to defend his position, but he was too weak and inexperienced to pose a real threat to one ronin, let alone dozens of them. He attacked and was wounded, but the samurai allowed him to flee. There was only one target they had on their collective minds so the search started for Kira Yoshinaka.
The ronin split into several small parties and completely ransacked the mansion, but there was no trace of the imperial official. All they could find were weeping women and children who, in accordance with Ōishi’s request, were left alone. The ronin felt despondent and, at one point, even contemplated committing suicide then and there as they feared they had failed their mission. However, while going through Kira’s bedroom, Ōishi felt that his bed was still warm which meant that he was sleeping in it when the attack began. Kira had to be somewhere near, so they started a new search.
This time around, the samurai were more fortunate. One of them made the inspired choice to take down a large picture which was hanging on the wall. Behind it, they discovered a secret tunnel which led outside to a small courtyard where there was a storage room for firewood and charcoal. At the other end of the tunnel, there were two more guards lying in wait, but they were no match and were quickly struck down by the ronin. Inside the outhouse, the samurai found an elderly man in his 60s, dressed as a noble. The man refused to give his name, but the ronin were convinced they had found Kira Yoshinaka.
Ōishi was able to confirm the identity of the elderly stranger when he recognized the scar that his master left him during his attack that started this whole chain of events.
Despite the ronin’s hatred for this man, it was trumped by Ōishi’s sense of honor and respect for the traditions of a samurai. He actually kneeled down and bowed his head in deference to Kira, and informed him that they were the former retainers of Asano Naganori, there to seek justice for their master. He then gave the official the chance of a nobleman’s death by committing seppuku. According to some versions, Ōishi even produced the same wakizashi that his master used, but this may be one of Mitford’s added elements for dramatic effect. Either way, Kira had no interest in any kind of death so he kept begging for mercy.
Unsurprisingly, given all they went through, this had no effect on the ronin. Eventually tiring of the old man’s pleas, Ōishi forced him on his knees and cut off his head.The ronin collected Kira’s head in a bucket and prepared to leave, but made sure to put out all of the lights so as not to start a fire that might damage the neighbors’ houses.
The Final Road
With their mission accomplished, the 47 ronin embarked on a new journey to Sengaku-ji in Takanawa where their master’s grave was located with the intent of presenting Kira’s head as an offering and fulfillment of their duty before turning themselves in.
They had to hurry. Word of their deed had spread quickly throughout the town and, when it reached Lord Uyesugi Sama, he would have surely sent his men to cut them down. But they soon discovered that, apart from him, everyone else was very impressed with their actions. It was, after all, what was expected of a true samurai. Word even reached a chief daimyo named Matsudaira Aki, a former superior of the Asano clan, who was greatly pleased with the ronin and sent his own guards to ensure their protection on the road to Takanawa. When the men reached the palace of the Prince of Sendai, he, too, was satisfied with their actions, and invited them to eat, drink and rest, before continuing on their journey.
And so the 47 ronin reached their destination safely, performed the offering and said prayers at their master’s tomb. Except that the 47 were actually 46. One of the ronin named Terasaka Kichiemon had been absent from the procession to the temple, although what exactly had happened to him remains somewhat of a mystery. He didn’t die in the fight. He also didn’t commit seppuku alongside the rest of the ronin as he lived to the ripe old age of 83. Mitford makes no mention of him in his version of the events, although subsequent stories suggest that Terasaka, because he was the lowest in rank, was dispatched as a messenger to travel to the Ako domain and tell Asano’s family of what had happened. However, some historical documents indicate that the ronin may have simply fled before the attack and abandoned the raid altogether, which is why he wasn’t sentenced to death like all the others. This goes against the triumphant, heroic tale of the 47 ronin, though, and because there is nothing conclusive to support it, this part of the story usually gets “forgotten” in retellings.
As far as the other 46 ronin were concerned, what they expected to happen, happened. They were arrested and sentenced to death. However, because many saw their actions as righteous and justified, they were not executed as criminals but were allowed to commit seppuku. Afterward, they were all buried at Sengaku-ji next to their lord. The 47th ronin joined them upon his death.
Their graves had become a popular place of pilgrimage and one of the many people who came to pay their respects was the same Satsuma man who once kicked and spat on Ōishi in the street when he thought the ronin had become a drunkard unworthy of the name “samurai.” He apologized for his insult and offered atonement by taking out a dagger and stabbing himself in the stomach, dying in front of Ōishi’s grave. This wasn’t a unique case. Mitford also mentions a samurai who, almost 170 years later, committed seppuku before the grave of Ōishi Chikara because he was refused entry into a clan.
In modern times, there is a festival at Sengaku Temple every December 14. Not as many cases of seppuku nowadays, but people still turn up to help commemorate the tale of the 47 ronin.