The Chushingura: The Story of the 47 Ronin
December 14 is a memorable day for many Japanese. Fans of samurai history and drama will tell you that it’s the day of Uchiiri. Uchiiri is a general term meaning “attack” or “raid,” but in this case, it refers to the attack by the 47 Ako Gishi. Widely known in the U.S. as the tale of the forty-seven ronin, the story of the Chushingura (the Treasury of Loyal Retainers) is based on a true event that happened more than 300 years ago. We will give you an overview of this beloved samurai story along with interesting side stories and related tourist destinations you can visit today.
Political Samurai Epic Blended with Human Drama
The Chushingura’s enduring popularity comes from its samurai spirit, which includes loyalty to the lord, self-sacrifice for justice, and a mission-impossible element. It’s also a compilation of the human drama surrounding each samurai who participated in this act of avenging his master’s death, which makes the story profound.
Another reason the tale is still so popular is because it was developed into a play for kabuki, a highly stylized form of theater that was hugely popular during the Edo period (1603–1868). This adaptation for the stage is similar to today’s trend of turning a shocking real event into a Hollywood movie.
The main characters of the Chushingura are Takumi no Kami* Asano (Naganori Asano), a lord of the Asano clan in the Ako region; Kozuke no Suke Kira* (Yoshihisa Kira), who comes from a privileged family related to the shogun (a military leader and governor); and 47 retainers of the Asano clan, led by Kura no Suke* Oishi (Yoshio Oishi). The beginning of the story is rather ambiguous, but it involved Kira’s repeated harassment of Asano. on March 14 in the 14th year of the Genroku Era (April 21, 1701), Lord Asano impulsively tried to kill Kira in Edo Castle’s Matsu no Roka (Corridor of Pine Trees). Drawing a sword inside the castle was strictly prohibited, and Lord Asano was sentenced to seppuku (hara-kiri, ritual suicide) immediately and died the same day. The Asano clan was deprived of its domain under the law of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kira, however, who was seriously wounded, did not receive any punishment.
Objecting to the government’s unfair judgment, the lordless retainers of the Asano clan united under Oishi’s leadership to restore the clan’s domain, but some of the more radical retainers wanted to avenge their master’s death. The government did not accept their plea for their lost domain, prompting the clan to plot revenge. During the process of planning the perfect revenge attack on Kira, many retainers dropped out. Finally, 47 were left, and they successfully executed their revenge on December 14 in the 15th year of the Genroku Era (January 30, 1703). They were called gishi (samurai of loyalty and justice) because of this. All the gishi who participated in this act of vengeance, except one, were sentenced to seppuku. They were buried in the Asano family’s temple, Sengaku-ji, alongside their lord, Naganori Asano.
The Social Climate of Early 18th-Century Japan and
the Rise of Popular Culture
An important backdrop to this story is the state of society at this time. The Edo period’s Genroku era (1688–1704), during which Shogun Tsunayoshi Tokugawa governed, was an eventful time. Almost 70 years after Osaka Natsu no Jin, the final battle in between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi clans (which took place in 1615), most samurai had not been in any battle, and the role of the samurai was being redefined. Because of the strict governing system employed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, many clans were overthrown, creating half a million ronin (samurai without their own lord). Ronin would typically try to find a new lord, but that was quite difficult, and it was challenging to earn a living.
On the other hand, the Genroku era was also a time when non-samurai, regular people became empowered and popular culture bloomed, mainly because society was relatively peaceful, with no threat of battles. New forms of entertainment, such as kabuki and joruri (a form of traditional narrative music), developed and were used to spread the story of the Ako Gishi. Kanadehon Chushingura, which premiered in 1748, is based on the Ako Gishi story and is one of the most popular pieces of kabuki even today. Right after World War II, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers briefly prohibited (until 1947) performances of Kanadehon Chushingura because of its glorification of feudal loyalty. But soon countless TV projects, films, and theater performances were inspired by the historic event. The most recent is 47 Ronin (2013), a sci-fi/fantasy movie starring Keanu Reeves, which is roughly based on the story.
There is still controversy over the Tokugawa Shogunate’s judgment regarding the Matsu no Roka incident. If incorrect, some would claim this justifies the gishi’s unlawful vengeance, while if correct, this would undermine the ronin’s hero status. Although Japanese society does not glorify revenge, this scandalous incident that shook the country in the beginning of the eighteenth century still resonates in the hearts of Japanese people. It is said that Theodore Roosevelt, who brokered the Treaty of Portsmouth ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, admired the Chushingura story while at the same time being aware of the double-edged sword at its core: strong loyalty and a vengeful mind.*Takumi no Kami, Kozuke no Suke, and Kura no Suke are all titles (similar to Duke or Lord).
Side Stories and 47 Ronin Trivia
Gunbee Takada: The Gishi Who Could Not Take Part in the Vengeance
Gunbee Takada was a loyal retainer of the Asano clan and a master of spear fighting. He was one of the radicals who insisted on vengeance, but he suddenly dropped his support and became an adopted son of a high-ranking samurai family, the Uchidas. It is said that Uchida threatened to reveal the plot of vengeance if Takada did not accept his adoption offer. Takada dropped out of the plot in order to protect it; not knowing this, however, his previous comrades sent him away with harsh words when he visited Sengaku-ji Temple to celebrate after the ronin’s success.
Ironically, Uchida did not allow Takada to succeed him as his heir. This is presumed to be because Uchida became aware that Takada’s dropping out of the plot caused his reputation to plummet since the Asano clan’s vengeance was so well received in those days as a heroic event.
Yasubee Horibe: The Samurai Who Participated in Two Legendary Acts of Vengeance
One of the 47 gishi and a master swordsman, Yasubee Horibe was not originally from the Asano clan. He was born into the Shibata clan in Niigata Prefecture as Yasubee Nakayama. After leaving his hometown, he lived as a ronin for years and developed his sword skills. In 1694, he supported his friend’s duel, later known as the Duel of Takadanobaba, and his fame became widespread.
Yahee Horibe, retainer of the Asano clan, heard this and asked him to be an adopted son, and he accepted. After Yahee retired, Yasubee succeeded him as head of the family in 1697. Yasubee fought to avenge Lord Asano––his second legendary fight––in 1703.
The Oldest and Youngest Gishi
Yahee Horibe, mentioned before, was 77 when he and the other ronin avenged the death of their lord. He was the oldest Ako Gishi among the 47. The youngest gishi was Chikara Oishi, son of Kura no Suke Oishi (the leader of the vengeance plot). When the Matsu no Roka incident happened, he was only fourteen. He was first sent to his mother’s home because he was too young to join the plot. He insisted on participating, and was eventually accepted.
Kichiemon Terasaka: The 47th Gishi (Who Did Not Commit Seppuku)
Kichiemon Terasaka was an ashigaru-class samurai, the lowest rank. After the gishi succeeded in their revenge, all of them marched from Kira’s mansion to Sengaku-ji Temple, where Lord Asano was buried, in order to report their success. Terasaka, however, did not show up at the temple. It is still unknown if he actually participated in the attack or ran away, but he escaped the government’s seppuku sentence. Today, it is said that he was ordered to leave and survive to tell the story of the Ako Gishi’s vengeance, so he is counted as one of the 47 gishi.
Sanpei Kayano: The Gishi who Committed Seppuku before the Vengeance
When the Matsu no Roka incident and subsequent Lord Asano’s seppuku happened in Edo (current Tokyo), Kayano ran all the way from Edo to the domain of the Asano clan (about 370 miles) to bring the news in 4 days. He was a quite loyal retainer, but during the plotting of vengeance, his father suggested he serve another lord, who was remotely related to the enemy, Kira. Torn between his loyalty to Lord Asano and to that of his father, Kayano committed seppuku at the age of 28. Today, Kayano rests in the family graveyard, but his monument is lain along with the other gishi.
Ichigaku Shimizu: Farmer Turned Swordsman in the Kira Clan
Ichigaku Shimizu was born to a farming family in Miyasako Village in Aichi Prefecture, which was the territory of the Kira clan. He trained in sword fighting when he was young, and later he was discovered by Kira’s wife and hired as a samurai. He is known to have used the rare double-sword style, and he fought against the gishi. He died in the fight at the age of 25.
Kenbishi: The Sake the 47 Ronin Drank
As mentioned earlier, Kanadehon Chushingura is a kabuki piece based on the Asano clan’s vengeance against Kozuke no Suke Kira. In the performance, the leader of this plot (modeled after Kura no Suke Oishi) used to say, “Bring Kenbishi,” instead of “Bring sake,” and every gishi drank the Kenbishi brand of sake before they attacked Kira. This line is not included in current performances of Kanadehon Chushingura, but it must have been said earlier because Kenbishi sake was so popular among people in Edo. Today, we can drink Kenbishi sake in New York.
www.kenbishi.co.jp (Japanese only)
Hara Ryokaku: Spices from the Descendants of a Gishi
Established in 1703, Hara Ryokaku is a time-honored spice and herb specialty store in the Gion district of Kyoto. The founder, Gizaemon Hara, was a son of one of the 47 gishi, Soemon Hara, who died at the age of 56.
www.hararyoukaku.co.jp (Japanese only)
Places Where You Can Appreciate the Chushingura Spirit
If you would like to learn more about the Chushingura and feel the spirits of the gishi, you might want to visit the following destinations.
First and foremost, you should visit the gishi’s final resting place, Sengaku-ji. As described previously, this is the family temple of the Asanos. After taking revenge, the gishi brought Kira’s head to the temple and offered it in front of the grave of Lord Asano. The forty-six gishi who committed seppuku were buried in the temple alongside Lord Asano. Later, the family of Shinroku Hazama took his corpse back to their family grave, so 45 gishi are currently resting at Sengaku-ji. There are, however, 48 monuments there, including those honoring Hazama, Kichiemon Terasaka (who escaped seppuku), and Sanpei Kayano (who committed seppuku before the act of vengeance took place). Visitors can get a map of each grave and also can purchase senko (incense sticks) as an offering.
There are many monuments on the temple grounds, including a bronze statue of Kura no Suke Oishi, a well that the gishi used to wash Kira’s head, and a plum tree and a stone that were splashed with Lord Asano’s blood. The temple also offers visitors opportunities to learn more about the Chushingura at Ako Gishi Memorial Hall. The temple also hosts Gishi-sai, an annual festival commemorating the day of vengeance on December 14.
Another important location is Kira’s Residence, where the revenge killing took place, which is located inside Honjo Matsuzaka Park. Although no remnant of the building is left, you still can see a monument dedicated to 21 retainers of the Kira clan and the well where Kira’s head was washed.
The 47 gishi marched from Kira’s residence to Sengaku-ji after the vengeful attack, encompassing 8 miles.
Raigo-in Temple in Kyoto offers a different angle from which to view the Chushingura. After Lord Asano died and his territory was lost, Kura no Suke Oishi, the leader of the revenge plot, lived in Kyoto and spent much time at this temple, which was founded by the monk Kukai 1,200 years ago. Oishi particularly loved the natural spring water at the site, and he built the Gansuiken tearoom for two reasons: to enjoy tea and to conduct secret meetings with the gishi. The temple contains artifacts of the 47 gishi, including the plate hung over the entrance, which was created by Oishi himself.
Instead of focusing on the vengeance in Edo, it is also interesting to go back to the roots of the gishi. Take a trip to the Ako region, home of the Asano clan. Known for producing high-quality sea salt, Ako City offers a beautiful view of the ocean. This serene environment was home to the gishi. You can visit the Ako City Museum of History, Ako Castle, and Oishi Shrine––all located within walking distance of one another––in one day. At the Ako City Museum of History, visitors have a chance to learn about the 47 gishi through exhibitions of archival documents and artifacts, as well as through cultural resources, such as bunraku (puppetry) and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints). The museum also displays the history of the region, which thrived as a result of the sea salt industry. Ako Castle, partially restored and with restoration still underway, is registered as one of the 100 great castles in Japan. Built in 1912, Oishi Shrine commemorates the spirits of the 47 gishi with 47 stone statues and historical records and other collections at its resource center.
Wherever you choose to visit, you can touch on the spirit of these loyal samurai. Finally, if you want to be immersed in the feeling of the Genroku era, visit the Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo. If you are lucky, you will be able to watch Kanadehon Chushingura.
Originally built in 1612 by Ieyasu Tokugawa, Sengaku-ji was the family temple of the Asano clan. It’s a resting place of Lord Asano and gishi, it’s one of the favorite places of Chushingura fans.