December 14, 2010

The tale of the 47 ronin

Filed under: Uncategorized — jchatoff @ 12:22 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hand-tinted photo of a real samurai, ca. 1890.

On the 14th day of the 12th month in Genroku 15,  the Forty-Seven Ronin attacked the palace of Kira Yoshinaga, an important official of the Tokugawa shogunate.  They were avenging the death of their master, Asano Naganori.

The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin is possibly the most popular samurai tale in Japan.  It has been told and retold since it happened – even as recently as the decade of 1997 to 2007 there were no fewer than ten television productions of the story.  The chief ronin was Oishi and the legend of Oishi and the others is a bit like the story of Robin Hood and his merry men, particularly in the way fact and fiction became blended.

The characters did exist, however, and the graves of the ronin can be visited today at the Sengaku temple. Ronin, btw, means a samurai without a master, a kind of soldier of fortune.

Here is the short version of the story:  Asano Naganori was a rural chieftan with a small holding – he and a neighboring lord were about to be honored with a visit from the shogun. They busied themselves preparing to receive the shogun in style, even went to the shogun’s residence to be instructed in the finer points of etiquette from Kira Yoshinaga, a high-ranking official.

Two of the ronin, woodcut by Utagawa, ca. 1850.

Some sort of conflict occurred between Asano and Kira and Asano pulled out his dagger, lunged at Kira and struck him on the forehead.  This of course was bad on many levels.  It was forbidden to carry a weapon in the residence, more forbidden to draw a weapon and worst of all to attack an official.  Asano was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), which he did.

His three hundred samurai instantly became ronin.  Most of them took off, but Oishi and several dozen others vowed to avenge Asano.

Kira was very well defended, of course, and he set spies to watch any of Asano’s ronin who stayed in Edo.  Most of them took jobs as laborers or tradesmen in order to fade into the crowd.  For two years, they bided their time and plotted.  Finally, when Kira had let down his guard slightly, they attacked and killed him.  They carried his head to the grave of their master and laid it there.

They were all captured, but in the meantime they had become popular heroes (Kira was much disliked) and the shogun and his advisors were leery of treating them as common criminals lest there be some public outcry.  So they were all ordered to commit seppuku, a more honorable death, and so they did.

Graves of the 47 ronin at Sengakuji. Photo by Fg2.

When the Meiji emperor abolished the samurai class in 1873, the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin became even more popular.  They appear in the woodcuts of Hiroshige, Hokusai and Yoshitoshi, and at least six movies have been based on their story, although their loyalty to their master has morphed into a model of loyalty to the emperor.

This was such a riveting story that I decided to overlook the fact that the 14th day of the 12th month of Genroku 15 is actually January 30 of 1703.



  1. wow! fantastic! great story and looove that samurai pic 😀


    Comment by Nina — December 14, 2010 @ 1:35 am | Reply

  2. I just love a good Samurai devotion story even if they didn’t die in battle. thank you Jean
    Fine pictures


    Comment by avery — December 14, 2010 @ 8:54 am | Reply

  3. Very excited by this Japanese story…and the pictures. I’m very much into Japanism.and your blog is a wonderful addition.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — December 14, 2010 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  4. how are you I was luck to approach your blog in wordpress
    your post is fine
    I obtain a lot in your topic really thank your very much
    btw the theme of you website is really impressive
    where can find it


    Comment by bet365 — December 15, 2010 @ 5:00 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: