Travel is one way to discover stories that touch the heart, ignite adventure, and carry us along for a riveting tale. One such tale, the Forty-seven Ronin, I discovered in Japan. The story touches on the universal concepts of warriors’ honor, righting a wrong, and promising to protect even if it cost their life. It’s a true story from 1701, has had more than seven movies from 1941 to a Keanu Reeves fantasy version of it made it 2013, and a slew of books written on the event. What is it about this tale that makes it legendary to the Japanese and resounds relatively well around the world?
|Samurai armor at Tokyo National Museum|
First, there is a tragic event that deals with a strong, honored daimyo (lord) and his samurai, the famous warriors known to protect their lord, and who were trained military men. Samurai are famous for being deadly proficient with swords, but also for tending to their gentler side and writing poetry or gardening. They had a code of ethics known in all Japan and lived by it at all times. The samurai in this tale were protectors and soldiers for Lord Asano, who had been called away to Edo (Tokyo) to assist with duties at the Shogun’s palace. While there, Asano had difficulties with a supposedly arrogant official, Kira, who detested him. After numerous occasions of being insulted by Kira, Asano drew his sword and attacked. Kira lived, but it was against the law to strike another in anger, particularly in the Shogun’s palace. Judges ordered Asano to commit suicide for the dishonor. What makes the tale particularly poignant, is Asano is claimed to have said to the judges that he did do the deed and only wished he had killed Kira. That is the classic strength of heroes readers love.
The rest of the story encompasses the samurai for Asano that were unable to prevent his death, which is later rumored to have been a plan initiated by Kira in the first place. Such a wrongful lord’s death is supposed to be revenged by his samurai, who are no longer considered samurai without a lord, but lowly ronin. However, Kira fully expected Asano’s samurai might try to assassinate him and protected himself with extra men. All seems lost for the ronin, but great heroes find a way to fight back, even when the odds are against them.
The samurai created a plan to make it appear they had no interest in revenge, so played the role of ronin and dispersed. Tales claim some left their families, made a display of public drunkenness, and other things to show they were no longer a formidable enemy. In nearby towns over the next two years, though, they secretly plotted and maintained their skills. As time passed, Kira lowered his guard and that’s when the ronin struck. Of course, there was a fight as Kira had protective samurai who valiantly died. He fled the scene, to be discovered hiding in the outhouse (toilet). A rather fitting end for a man who caused so much grief. The ronin took Kira’s head and placed it at their lord’s grave.
Wow. What a story. Now you can see why so many movies were made and books written about this tale. However, here is where cultural differences might make the story less palatable for some, and completely heroic to others. The ronin knew that the attack on Kira would also be perceived as an attack against the ruling shogun, and to go against their ruler as a samurai was against their code. If they were successful in killing Kira, they would likely be forced to commit suicide. The authorities of the time supposedly deliberated on the situation after his death, because these men were sworn by their code to avenge Asano. Yet, because they had intruded on the shogun’s authority, they had to die. They were buried with Asano and today the cemetery is a popular place to visit. In the years following this event, numerous scholars have debated whether the ronin could have been pardoned or whether by the nature of their code they had to commit suicide.
*Sandy Parks writes adventure thrillers with strong heroes and heroines. Stop by her website at sandyparksauthor.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.