(Class assignment. A writing exercise in plotting long-form articles)
In 1702, the samurai Oishi Yoshio lies face-down in the streets of Kyoto. He's drunk out of his mind, unwashed and destitute, freshly returned from another round of running up credit in the whorehouses of the pleasure district. One passer-by, outraged by his disgraceful state, kicks his face and spits on him as he lies there. Two years later, that same passer-by will commit suicide on Oishi's grave, begging the forgiveness of his spirit, and be buried next to the samurai, forever becoming part of the legend of The Fourty-Seven Ronin.
To understand the legend, however, first one must understand what, exactly, the samurai were. The word "samurai" merely means "henchman" or "servant," and was, in ancient times, applied to a leader's warriors the same as to any of his other attendants and subordinates. Simplifying the history greatly, through centuries of near-continuous warrior culture and warfare, the word came to refer exclusively to a specific class of warriors and soldiers, and through that same continuous warfare, this class of people gained complete dominance over the governance and politics of Japan. With time, it became customary for a lord to pay his samurai a regular stipend of rice to subsidize his training, equipment and lifestyle and in return the samurai - at least in theory - were expected to serve their masters with unquestioning, often suicidally protective loyalty. Insulting a samurai's honor or his master could be (and often was) grounds for violent conflict of all kinds.
What is most important to understand about samurai history, however, is that almost everything the samurai did, from the earliest days of their history, was done in service and loyalty to the divine Emperor of Japan. Of course, a samurai's most immediate loyalty was to his own lord, but it was understood that the reason for that loyalty was an understanding that his lord served the will of the Emperor, thus making anything the samurai did in service of their lord an act of service to the Emperor by proxy. The Emperor is, in Japanese history, not just a series of politicians with royal ancestry, but a divine presence whose assumed will or interests were used as pretext for almost every major military and political action in the country's history. The Emperor was so core to samurai identity, in fact, that even when presented with golden opportunities to oust sitting monarchs, samurai preferred to make themselves the Emperor's trusted general and protector - Shogun - and rule in his name, rather than daring to take the throne themselves. It is telling that the most devastating civil wars of samurai history were fought not over the throne of the Emperor, but over who would claim the title of the Emperor's most powerful servant.
This is, of course, at least partially a mythology, a story which those in power told themselves and their subjects to legitimize their regimes and justify their actions. Plenty of "samurai" were barely more than countryside bandits and common criminals, and plenty of "loyal Shogun" were, in fact, simply power-mongering usurpers seizing power by any means necessary, however underhanded and cruel. But this mythology of honor through service to the Emperor, while often more fantasy than fact, was a fantasy which most samurai seemed to genuinely believe in, and which informed their behaviour and aspirations in profound ways.
Now, skipping over about a thousand years of warfare and politics, in the 1600s one clan of samurai - the Tokugawa - took control of the office of the Shogunate. There had, at this point, been many shogunates, all of them ended by successions of wars and civil conflict. But the Tokugawa managed, through clever politics and a system of legally mandated hostage-exchanges with every warlord in the country, to take power so effectively and so absolutely that in the early 1600s, the Shogunate had been able to authoritatively declare: "there will be no more wars." And after more than a thousand years of near-continuous conflict over protectorship of the Imperial throne, that declaration would come to hold true for almost 270 years.
THE FALL OF LORD ASANO
All of this leads us back to 1702, and Oishi Yoshio, disgraced samurai, lying drunk in the streets of Kyoto. Oishi had been the right hand man of a lord named Asano Naganori, master of the minor and remote Ako domain. Lord Asano had been ordered to entertain envoys from the capital, who in turn would instruct him on the manners of the Imperial court, to prepare him to travel to the capital and pay homage to the Shogun. Asano's instructor was a high-ranking Shogunate courtier named Kira Yoshinaka, and to say that he and Asano did not hit it off is putting it mildly. Kira, for his part, was expecting gifts and bribes from Asano, as was customary for any samurai seeking favors from government officials. Asano, on the other hand, was a hard-bitten, country warrior, and expected the respect and deference that should traditionally be afforded to honorable samurai fighting hard to pacify barbarians and secure the borders in the Emperor's name. Over the course of his stay, Kira made snide and disrespectful comments about Asano's heritage and manners at every opportunity, until one day in April of 1701, the tormented Asano could take it no longer. Under a covered walkway at a mansion belonging to the Shogun himself, Asano drew his sword and struck Kira across the face.
"More than the cherry blossoms,
Inviting a wind to blow them away,
I am wondering what to do,
With the remaining springtime."
- Lord Asano's death poem, composed shortly before his suicide
Guards separated the two struggling men immediately, and Kira got away with a nasty scar across his face, but the damage was done: Asano had assaulted an officer of the Shogunate in a house belonging to the Shogun himself. Since the Shogun was the servant of the Emperor's will, and Kira was a servant of the Shogun, attacking Kira was, in the Shogunate's view, the same as rebelling against the Emperor himself. In times past, such an offense would have led to a minor state of civil war — the offending warlord would have gathered his allies to defend himself against the inevitable retribution from the capital — but in the age of No More Wars, no such thing happened. Asano was put under house arrest and ordered to commit honorable suicide — seppuku — in penance for his crime. His lands were seized and redistributed to rival warlords, and every one of his samurai were made "ronin," leaderless and disgraced. What would once have been a martial bloodbath was settled by simple decree from the capital. No-one, whether simple samurai or noble lord, dared to seriously oppose the rule of the Tokugawa.
"Bushido" — or "the way of the warrior" — is a problematic term in Japanese history. It originates sometime in the 1600s as a philosophical revision of samurai history, transforming warlords and their violent henchmen into a class of honourable warriors strictly guided by a set of moral codes prescribing proper behaviour in war and in life. As mentioned earlier, while most samurai did not nearly live up to the principles set forth in texts of Bushido, honor in samurai society DID derive primarily from a samurai's superiors (whether his lord, his Shogun or his Emperor) and whatever actions a samurai undertook to protect that honor. This is why it is so unusual that the Shogunate could settle the dispute between Asano and Kira without further bloodshed, for under the codes and culture of the samurai class, every one of Asano's warriors were honor-bound to kill Kira for his insults or die trying.
Certainly, this is what Oishi Yoshio believed. For even as he dutifully evacuated his late lord Asano's castle and handed over the keys to government officials, he was plotting honorable revenge. In 1701, soon after Asano's death, he gathered in secret fourty six others of Asano's loyal samurai, now officially dishonoured ronin, and they began to hatch a plan to make Kira pay for his insult. Some became tradesmen and merchants, renouncing their samurai status in order to create equipment and gather resources for the action, while others took to mercenary work and feigned drunkenness. One even went so far as to marry into a family of architects so he could obtain a floor plan of Kira's mansion to help plan the eventual attack. Oishi, for his part, began to drink, gamble his money away and frequent prostitutes. He made sure to be seen in public abandoning every principle of good behaviour, and even divorced his loyal wife of 20 years to ensure that his dishonorable behavior would not reflect poorly on his family.
Oishi had good reason for this deception since Kira, for all his arrogance and confidence, was not a fool. He knew that angry samurai — especially mannerless backwater oafs like Oishi, has been known to take suicidal measures to avenge slights against their lords. Kira had spies and informants monitoring Oishi and a number of Asano's most loyal samurai, and for many months he stayed hidden and fortified within his heavily guarded mansion in anticipation of vengeful stunts exactly like what Oishi was planning. Meanwhile, Oishi kept up the ruse of the harmless, drunken lout, while communicating in secret with his co-conspirators, biding their time for the perfect moment.
After some time, Kira was convinced that the samurai of Ako no longer posed a threat. Low on funds since his self-imposed isolation had left him unable to collect bribes and tributes as a Shogunate official, Kira finally began to leave the mansion and lowered his guard. Oishi called his conspirators together to ready the attack. It had taken two years of preparation, planning and play-acting to get to this point, and Oishi was determined to get everything right. In late January of 1703, covered by heavy snowfall and the darkness of an early morning, The Fourty-Seven Ronin attacked the mansion of Kira Yoshinaka. Beforehand, they had sent word to Kira's neighbors informing them that this was a matter of honourable revenge, and promising that nobody else would come to any harm if they would only stay out of the affair. In a testament to the unpleasant character of the man, none of Kira's neighbors came to his aid.
Four of the Ronin scaled the walls of the house and quietly ushered the porters and servants out of harm's way, while another group of Ronin armed with bows took position on the roofs, ready to kill any messenger attempting to call on the Shogunate for help. When Kira's guards finally caught on to the intrusion, the mansion erupted in savage close-quarters battle. Kira's men were unprepared, but their master was wealthy and had them well-trained and equipped. The Ronin, by contrast, had had to assemble their armor and weapons themselves and in secret, and had not had the rigorous training of professional soldiers in two years. Scattered, brutal skirmishes erupted in bursts across the hallways and courtyards of Kira's mansion, combatants weaving between rice-paper partitions and pillared walk-ways, the Ronin pressing ever harder towards Kira's inner sanctum. As the initial wave of defenders finally gave way to the Ronin's attack, reinforcements from Kira's barracks joined the fray, woken by the sounds of battle. Messengers sent to alert the authorities were shot in the streets by the rooftop archers, but the Ronin, desperate to avenge their master, were well aware that it'd be only a matter of time before the Shogunate finally caught wind of the action and intervened.
After some hours of fighting, sixteen of Kira's men laid dead and another twenty-two wounded, while the Ronin survived to a man. Oishi himself burst into the inner chambers and found Kira's bed still warm, but man himself had fled by a secret passage as the fighting broke out. Renewing their search of the mansion while mopping up the last of Kira's bodyguard, they found a hidden passageway behind a large wall-scroll, leading to a secret garden. Oishi killed two guards in the darkness of a small shed, and by the light of a solitary lantern the Ronin dragged Kira Yoshinaki into the light. And it was here, faced with the hated enemy of his dead lord and master, after two years of dishonor, deception and bitter planning, that Oishi fell to his knees and bowed his head.
Displaying flawless courtesy and respect for Kira's rank and position, Oishi told him, business-like, that he and his men had come to avenge their lord as a matter of honor, and, still bowing, he offered Kira the knife with which lord Asano had committed suicide, and begged him to take his own life in defeat as an honourable samurai should. Kira was a capital city courtier. Theoretically, he was samurai by birth, but his life had been one of luxury, poems and politics. And so he simply sat there, terrified, shivering and silent, as Oishi and his men begged him, again and again, to take his own life with honor.
As it finally became clear that Kira was not, in fact, going to die in a manner that would satisfy samurai honor codes, the Ronin dragged him up by his hair and severed his head with Asano's dagger. Then, taking great care to extinguish any lamps and fires in the house and properly shutting the gate behind them, they set off for Asano's grave, carrying Kira's head with them. At this point, the sun had finally come up and word had started to spread of what had happened, and as the Ronin made their way to the temple grounds that held Asano's grave, the streets of Kyoto erupted into something approaching a carnival atmosphere. Strangers and merchants flocked to give the Ronin food and souvenirs, people gave them gifts and cheered them on and offered them hospitality.
Unlike the quiet contempt of his neighbors, this impromptu festival was not born out of dislike for Kira himself, but out of admiration for the way the Ronin had extracted their revenge. In the eyes of the people, at least, the Ronin had stayed painstakingly true to the ideals of samurai honor, fighting and winning a brave battle to avenge their fallen lord with their lives on the line. That their revenge constituted a major breach against the edicts of the authoritarian and often repressive Tokugawa Shogunate may also have helped to secure the Ronin the sympathies of the common man. As the Ronin cleaned and washed Kira's head, and offered it to the grave of their dead lord along with the dagger that had severed it from Kira's body, the Tokugawa authorities debated furiously among themselves how to handle the Ronin's betrayal in the face of overwhelming public support for their actions.
The Ronin further complicated matters by peacefully turning themselves in once their business was concluded, content to await the judgment of the Emperor through the Shogunate, in perfect accordance with samurai codes. The law demanded they be sentenced to death, but in a clever political maneuver, the authorities offered them the chance to be executed by ritual suicide, thus obeying the spirit of the law while also satisfying the public's desire to see the Ronin's honor recognized. Despite the horror and contempt of government officials who had had to watch a party break out in celebration of the killing of another government official, the Ronin's vendetta had the desired effect: to quell the public outcry of support for the Ronin, the Tokugawa shogunate restored the Asano clan's lordship over Ako, and hundreds of previously dispossessed samurai came flocking back to their banner. The Asano clan was weakened, but alive, all thanks to the action and planning of its bravest samurai.
LEGACY OF THE RONIN
The story of the Fourty Seven Ronin became and has remained one of the most popular samurai stories in Japanse culture, told and retold and reimagined by countless storytellers and chroniclers in the years since it occurred; some of the details of the story are therefore specious. Was Kira truly such an underhanded, irredeemable coward as the story makes him out to be? Were there exactly 47 ronin, or was that an invention of popular puppet theatres who used 47 puppets, each adorned with one of the 47 characters of Japanese kana-writing to identify each character? Was Oishi truly just pretending to be a wastrel drunk while preparing his daring attack on Kira's mansion, or was that a convenient excuse thought up later to make him seem more heroic than he really was?
Whatever the real truth, the lasting legacy of the Ronin is more than just an action-packed revenge story. Stories and plays about the Ronin are, due to their staggering ubiquity, collectively known as "chushingura", and it was over fourty years before the first one was publicly performed during the Tokugawa reign. To get past government censors, playwrights had to re-frame the story to set it in the distant past under past regimes, so as not to openly reminding the people of such a flagrant rebellion against Tokugawa authority. Stories of the Ronin became vehicles of contemporary reportage through allegory, sometimes voicing dissent, sometimes support for authority, the story being altered and reinterpreted by successions of authors as part of the ever-ongoing Japanese cultural conversation of Duty versus Emotion (giri-ninjo). To know the story of the Fourty-Seven Ronin is to know something about the samurai culture, about its peculiarities and self-contradictions, and thus, in turn, to know something about the ancient soul of Japan which it helped shape.