this month in history: the tale of the 47 ronin
It was a snowy night in December, 1702 when the greatest act of revenge in history was played out. On that night, 47 ronin (masterless samurai), avenged the death of their master, Lord Asano, two years after he was ordered to commit seppuku , or ritual suicide, for taking a swipe at one Lord Kira. Kira, by all counts, deserved the slashing that Asano gave him. But it wasn't that supposed attempted murder of Kira that Asano was punished for, even though striking a man in anger was against the law; it was that he committed the act within the walls of the Shogun's castle, which was a far worse crime in itself.
Such was the ritualistic world of the samurai. They lived by the Code of Bushido - literally the way of the Samurai. The code dictated concepts such as loyalty, honor and virtue.
It was that loyalty and honor that took the 47 samurai on a two year journey to avenge the death of their master, Lord Asano. The samurai, who were now ronin, had to leave their castle, as the law permitted the Shogun to take over Asano's castle after he committed seppuku.
Several choices were available to the ronin. They could accept the law and surrender, they could fight and refuse to turn the castle over, or they could exact revenge by plotting to murder Kira, who the ronin felt was responsible for their master's demise, but received no punishment from the Shogun.
Of course, they chose revenge. It would not have made such a riveting tale if they hadn't. And the code they lived by basically bade them to avenge Asano's death.
At first there were 59 ronin plotting to kill Kira. They laid low, pretending to be street merchants and even drunken gamblers to get information on Kira. Kira and his allies remained vigilant for most of that time, always on the lookout for the ronin, knowing full well that the samurai would want Kira dead.
For nearly two years the ronin waited and watched until Kira eventually let his guard down, thinking that the ronin were not coming for him after all.
Finally, the moment had come. On December 14, 1702, 47 of the 59 ronin (the 13 other ronin were sent back to their families) stormed Kira's mansion. Account on this event vary; some say that in the ensuing fight, all of the ronin survived. Other accounts say that one ronin died in the battle.
For ninety minutes they fought and when it was over all of Kira's men were either killed or they surrendered. Kira himself was found cowering in an outhouse. The ronin gave Kira a fair chance to die honorably, to commit committed seppuku, but Kira would not do it.
The ronin beheaded Kira and deposited his severed head at Lord Asano's grave.
The Shogun Tsunayoshi - the same one who ordered Lord Assano to kill himself - was impressed with the loyalty of the ronin. But he had a samurai code to follow and could not let the ronin go without punishment for their acts. He ordered the ronin to execute themselves, which was a way to let them die with honor. They were buried next to their master, Lord Asano.
So, why do I tell you this story? I suppose there are lessons to be learned from it, but even on its own, it is a great tale. If there was a definitive moral to this, it would be that revenge is, indeed, a dish best served cold.
There's more to it than that, though. Much, much more. You'll have to wait for Part 2, though. For now, I'd like to know your thoughts on the tale of the 47 ronin.
Images and some facts fromShitoryu.org