Honour, an overused word which in modern times has perhaps lost part of its meaning, and not entirely in a negative way. It was a “murder of honour” the killing of a spouse in case they were found cheating; also the “men of honour” were those mafioso killers who murdered hundreds of innocents during the 80’s and 90’s.
Yet honour is not just this. In Japan of the 18th century, for example, there was a more noble meaning behind such a word, closer to a sense of sacrifice than to those criminal examples far away from our modern mentality. And this story begins right in Japan, exactly in the 18th century.
Edo (Tokyo), 1701
In 1701, two daimyō, Asano Naganori, young Lord of Akō, small feud in the East side of Honshū, and Kamei Korechika from the feud of Tsuwano, received the order of setting up a meeting for the guests of the Emperor to the Edo Castle, during the sankin-kōtai period to the shōgun.
At the time the daimyō, Japanese feudal lords, had to spend a year inside their own feud and one in their capital in a succession called sankin-kōtai, while their relatives were still kept in Edo, technically hostages of the shōgun.
Asano and Kamei had to be instructed according to the right etiquette of the court by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, powerful official of the shōgun of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.
Kira was irritating towards the two men due to their offers, considered by him as insufficient or because they did not give him as many tips as he would expect. Other sources affirmed that Kira was naturally rude and arrogant or corrupted, all aspects which would offend the confucian moral of Asano.
Initially Asano handled the tyranny with calmness while Kamei was very much annoyed by it, so he started planning on how to kill Kira as a revenge. The wise counselors of Kamei though escaped the disaster for both their lord and the whole clan as in everyone would have been punished in case of a murder of such a kind. They gave a huge sum of money to Kira, and so the man started treating Kamei with respect and this calmed him down.
Kira though kept on treating Asano harshly because the man had not followed his fellow’s example. Kira called Asano “yokel” with a bad attitude and Asano lost his patience. In the great hallway called Matsu no Ōrōka, which would link Shiro-shoin to Ōhiroma of the residency of Honmaru Goten, Asano attacked Kira with a wakizashi, one of the Japanese swords, hitting him for the first time in his face and for the second time missing the target and catching a pillar. Within a few minutes the guards came by to separate the two.
Below: Ukiyo print showing the assault of Asano Naganori to Kira Yoshinaka in the Matsu no Ōrōka of the Edo Castle
Kira’s wound was not serious but attacking an officer of the shōgun inside the confines of the house was a heavy crime. Asano was arrested but in a few hours they condemned him to death. That night they allowed him to perform a private seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide.
All the Asano’s goods and properties were seized, his family lied in ruins and his servants became rōnin, i.e. disgraced samurai.
The decree was broadcasted to Yoshio Ōishi, main conseller of Asano, who took over the feud and pushed away the ex daimyō family before respecting the orders and deliver the castle to the government.
Almost 2 years of wait
All the Asano clan ended up tragically. Ōishi spent his life constantly drunk, far away from political plotting and any type of ambition. The man, during one of his drunken episode was even beaten up by a samurai from Satsuma. The warrior attacked him for the shame he would represent for the caste of samurai, and the ex counselor did not do anything about it, allowing him to be hit. The spies, sent by Kira Yoshinaka, revealed about the dissolute life that Ōishi led and one after the other, all the men and surveillance over the man increasingly loosened up.
but something underneath was still going on
Of the over 300 men of Asano, 47, one of whom being their leader Yoshio Ōishi, refused to leave their lord without revenge, even though retaliation was prohibited in this case.
Below: two of the rōnin: Horibe Yahei and his adopted son Horibe Yasubei. Yasubei holds in his hand an ōtsuchi
The samurai joined with the promise to avenge Asano by killing Kira, even though they were all aware they would have risked severe punishments for it. Ōishi divorced from his wife so that the rōnin would have not punished her when they would have completed their mission. He pushed her away with their 2 small children who went back to her parents. The counsellor gave to the older son Chikara the choice of remaining and fight or moving away; Chikara decided to remain with his father.
Many of the loyal rōnin went to Edo, working as labourers and merchants and obtained access to the house of Kira, getting familiar with the structure and its inhabitants. One of the keepers, Okano Kinemon Kanehide, married the daughter of the constructor of the house in order to get the plans of the building.
Below: part of the ex house of Kira, currently park Honjo Matsuzaka-cho. Picture by Kensin shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons 2.5
After more than a year, when Ōishi thought that Kira had lowered his guard, he left Kyoto leaving behind the spies that were following him and the whole group gathered once again, in a secret place around Edo, to renew their oath of revenge.
On the 14th of December 1702, during a strong snowstorm, Ōishi and the other rōnin attacked the house of Kira Yoshinaka in Edo. The Samurai split into two and attacked, armed of swords and bows. A group led by Yoshio Ōishi, hit the front gate while the other, guided by his son Chikara Ōishi, was supposed to attack the back gate and spare women, children and defenceless people.
Below; the rōnin attack the main door of the dwelling of Kira
Ōishi set it all up in order for the four men to climb the fence and get in the entrance, then capturing and tying the guard. After that, he sent some messengers in all the nearby houses to explain they were not thieves but servants avenging the death of their lord and that they would have not hurt any innocent. One of the rōnin climbed on the roof and screamed out loud that the matter was an act of revenge (katakiuchi).
The neighbours, unanimous in the hatred towards Kira, did not do anything to obstruct the samurai
They sent the archers to prevent the people inside the house, still asleep, to ask for help then Ōishi played the drum as a sign that the offence had begun. Ten of the Kira servants tried to avoid a frontal attack, while Chikara Ōishi and his men would attack from the rear.
Below: incision on wood by Kunisada of the attack (beginning 1800)
Kira, terrified, hid inside a wardrobe in his veranda along with his wife and servants. The remaining staff sleeping in a space outside the building tried to enter the house to his rescue. After having passed the defenders on the front side, the two groups guided by father and son joined together and fought the servants who would get in to help Kira. They were evidently outnumbered and, when they tried to ask for help, the archers killed them all.
Below: postcard of the attack, beginning of the 20’s
After the battle all Kira’s servants became prisoners. The rōnin killed a total number of 16 people and imprisoned 22 men.
no trace of Kira though
All around the building they found only women and children in tears
After several research they found access to a secret yard: this place had a storage room for coal and wood logs and inside of it they also found Kira with two servants. The two men were immediately killed while Kira was taken with them. He refused to say who he was but with a whistle the rōnin gathered around and Ōishi, thanks to his lantern, saw his face and the scars caused by the Asano’ sword.
Below: modern commemoration of an armed samurai ready to attack
Ōishi kneeled down and considering the high ranking of Kira, he referred to the man with respect, announcing them as the Asano’s keepers, come to avenge him to respect the honour oath of the samurai. The rōnin offered to Kira the opportunity to perform the suicidal seppuku practice; the counselor gave him the same sword that Asano had employed during his offence.
Kira crouched down, speechless and trembling out of fear
When they realised that there was no point in insisting, Ōishi asked to a man to hold him still and then he cut his head off. The samurai then turn off all the lights and fires in the house, so that this would not ignite and damage the neighbours, and left with the head of Kira.
One of the rōnin, Kichiemon Terasaka, was sent to Akō to report that their avenge had been fulfilled.
Below: illustration of the 47 rōnin when welcomed outside the Matsudaira-no-Kami Palace
At the dawn of the 9th December 1702, the loyal servants of Asano took Kira’s head to the tomb of their lord in the temple of Sengaku-ji, marching for approximately 10 km (6 miles) through the city and causing great shock along the road. The story of revenge spread rapidly and the men were welcomed as men of honour.
At their arrival to the temple, all the 46 rōnin apart from Kichiemon Terasaka cleaned up the head of Kira in a well and then laid it with the sword in front of the tomb of their beloved Asano. They offered prayers to the temple and gave to the abbot all the money left they had asking to be buried with the most solemn prayers.
At the end of the operation the group split up in 4 and were assigned to 4 different new daimyō.
Two of Kira’s servants went to the temple to claim the head back; the documentation left to the monks is still in the temple to this day. The officials of the Edo shōgun were in the middle of a dilemma though: the samurai had followed the rules by avenging the death of their master, yet they had also challenged the authority of the shōgun by expecting a revenge that it had been denied to them.
Furthermore the shōgun received a series of petitions from the population who would laud the actions of the rōnin, asking them to spare their life. As expected all the rōnin were sentenced to death for the murder of Kira, but the shōgun saved its reputation by forcing them to commit honourable seppuku instead of being killed like criminals.
Each and one of them decided to commit the ritual suicide
Below: painting representing Ōishi Yoshio committing seppuku
Oishi Chikara, the youngest one, was only 15 years old on the day when the raid occurred and 16 when he practiced seppuku.
Every one of the 46 rōnin killed oneself on the 4th of February 1703
The confusion about the exact number of rōnin became since then matter of debate. The 47th, identified as Kichiemon Terasaka, eventually came back from his mission and was spared by the shōgun (some rumours say due to his young age). He lived until 87 years old in 1747 and then buried with his fellow samurai. The assailants who died through seppuku were later on buried at the temple of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their old master.
Below: the incense burns in front of the tombs of the 47 rōnin in Sengaku-ji
The clothes and weapons worn on that day are still in the temple along with the drum and whistle.
The tombs of Sengaku-ji became place of veneration were many would gather to pray. One of those was the man of Satsuma who had hit and spitted on Ōishi while roaming on the street, drunk, years before. Turned to the tomb, the man asked for mercy for having believed that Ōishi was not a real samurai.
The man killed himself and was buried next to the rōnin
The Asano clan was restored
Even though the revenge was seen as act of loyalty there was another goal hidden behind, which was re-establish the Asano clan and find a place where the fellow samurai could serve. Hundreds of samurai who had served Asano were unemployed and most of them did not have the right to find any new job since they had been part of a family which was disgraced. Many lived as farmer or artisans to make due. The revenge of the 47 rōnin deleted the disgrace from their name and so they started working again once the 47 men were condemned to their honourable end.
Asano Daigaku Nagahiro, younger brother and heir of the Naganori family, was authorised by the Tokugawa shōgun to restore the feud even when the territory was reduced to a tenth of the original one.
Critics to the Rōnin
The rōnin waited beyond 14 months for the right moment to unfold their attack. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, author of the “Hagakure” asked:
what if, nine months after Asano’s death, Kira had died from a disease?
The conclusion was that the 47 men would have lost their only chance to pay homage to their lord. Even if they said that their dissolute behaviour was just a facade and that they were ready for revenge, who would have believed their words?
Below: sepulcre of the 47 rōnin. Picture by Raquelquinto shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
They would have always been remembered as the coward drunken ones, bringing immortal shame to the Asano clan. The best thing for the rōnin to do, according to Yamamoto, was to attack Kira right after the death of Asano. The rōnin would have most likely underwent a defeat but this was not important.
In Yamamoto’s opinion, Ōishi was way too focused on the success of the mission. He set up a plan to kill Kira which was not supposed to be a samurai’s priority: what he had to make sure was instead the demonstration of bravery and determination of the samurai in a total attack to Kira’s house, which would have led to eternal honour for the death of their master. Even if they had not killed Kira, even if all of them had died in the attempt, that would have been a trivial detail as the victory was not supposed to be the final objective. By waiting beyond a year their chances of victory raised up but they risked to dishonour the name of their clan for good, the heaviest of the sin a samurai could carry out.
It’s easy to say honour but, afterall, it’s all a matter of perspectives.