Things Japanese/Forty-seven Rōnins
Forty-seven Rōnins. Asano, Lord of Akō, while at Yedo in attendance on the Shōgun, was entrusted with the carrying out of one of the greatest state ceremonies of those times,—nothing less than the reception and entertainment of an envoy from the Mikado. Now Asano was not so well-versed in such matters as in the duties of a warrior. Accordingly he took counsel with another nobleman, named Kira, whose vast knowledge of ceremonies and court etiquette was equalled only by the meanness of his disposition. Resenting honest Asano's neglect to fee him for the information which he had grudgingly imparted, he twitted and jeered at him for a country lout unworthy the name of Daimyō. At last, he actually went so far as to order Asano to bend down and fasten up his foot-gear for him. Asano, long-suffering though he was, could not brook such an insult. Drawing his sword, he slashed the insolent wretch in the face, and would have made an end of him, had he not sought safety in flight. The palace—for this scene took place within the precincts of the palace—was of course soon in an uproar. Thus to degrade its majesty by a private brawl, was a crime punishable with death and confiscation. Asano was condemned to perform harakiri that very evening, his castle was forfeited, his family declared extinct, and all the members of his clan disbanded: in Japanese parlance they became Rōnins, literally "wave-men," that is, wanderers, fellows without a lord and without a home. This was in the month of April, 1701.
So far the first act. Act two is the vengeance. Ōishi Kurano-suke, the senior retainer of the dead Daimyō, determines to revenge him, and consults with forty-six others of his most trusty fellow-lieges as to the ways and means. All are willing to lay down their lives in the attempt. The difficulty is to elude the vigilance of the government. For mark one curious point:—the vendetta, though imperatively prescribed by custom, was forbidden by law, somewhat as duelling now is in certain Western countries. Not to take vengeance on an enemy involved social ostracism. On the other hand, to take it involved capital punishment. But not to take it was an idea which never entered the head of any chivalrous Japanese.
After many secret consultations, it was determined among the Rōnins that they should separate and dissemble. Several of them took to plying trades. They became carpenters, smiths, and merchants in various cities, by which means some of their number gained access to Kira's mansion, and learnt many of the intricacies of its corridors and gardens. Ōishi himself, the head of the faithful band, went to Kyōto, where he plunged into a course of drunkenness and debauchery. He even discarded his wife and children, and took a harlot to live with him. Thus was their enemy, to whom full reports of all these doings were brought by spies, lulled at last into complete security. Then suddenly, on the night of the 30th January, 1703, during a violent snow storm, the attack was made. The Forty-seven Rōnins forced the gate of Kira's mansion, slew his retainers, and dragged forth the high-born, but chicken-hearted, wretch from an outhouse in which he had sought to hide himself behind a lot of firewood and charcoal. Respectfully, as befits a mere gentleman when addressing a great noble, the leader of the band requested Kira to perform harakiri, thus giving him the chance of dying by his own hand and so saving his honour. But Kira was afraid, and there was nothing for it but to kill him like the scoundrel that he was. That done, the little band formed in order, and marched (day having now dawned) to the temple of Sengakuji at the other end of the city. On their way thither, the people all flocked out to praise their doughty deed, a great Daimyō whose palace they passed sent out refreshments to them with messages of sympathy, and at the temple they were received by the abbot in person. There they laid on their lord's grave, which stood in the temple-grounds, the head of the enemy by whom he had been so grievously wronged. Then, came the official sentence, condemning them all to commit harakiri. This they did separately, in the mansions of the various Daimyōs to whose care they had been entrusted for the last few days of their lives, and they also were buried in the same temple grounds, where their tombs can be seen to this day. The enthusiastic admiration of a whole people during two centuries has been the reward of their obedience to the ethical code of their time and country.
Books recommended. The Forty-seven Rōnins, the first story in Mitford's Tales of Old Japan. Mitford gives, in his charming style, various picturesque details which want of space forces us to omit.—Dickins's Chiushingura or the Loyal League is a translation of the popular play founded on the story of the Rōnins.—There is a whole literature on the subject, both native and European. Of native books, the I-ro-ha Bunko is the one best worth reading. It is easy, graphic, and obtainable everywhere. In it and its sequel, the Yuki no Akebono, the adventures of each of the Forty-seven Rōnins are traced out separately, the result being a complete picture of Japanese life two centuries ago. It should, however, be remembered that these works belong rather to the catalogue of historical novels than to that of history proper.