This Date in History: The 47 Ronin and the Ako Vendetta
On this day in history, December 14, 1702, the 47 Ronin got their revenge in an event, the Ako Vendetta, which has become legendary in Japanese history. The incident has been the subject of movies and books and remains popular, in part because it is a story of honor and loyalty. Of course, authors and filmmakers have taken a lot of creative liberties with the story. Here’s what really happened.
One Year Before the Ako Vendetta
The story starts in 1701. Two leaders of outlying fiefdoms, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori and Lord Kamei Korechika were tasked with planning a lavish reception for the representatives of Emperor Higashiyama who were coming to strengthen military alliances. A man named Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful official in the Emperor’s court, instructed Asano and Kamei on proper etiquette for the event. Asano and Kira did not get along. Some accounts of the story say that Asano failed to offer adequate gifts to Kira to compensate him for his instructions. Other stories say that Asano, who had an upstanding moral character, was offended by the rude, arrogant, and corrupt Kira and his constant badgering. When Kira referred to Asano as a “country boor with no manners,” Asano snapped. He lunged at Kira with his dagger, wounding his face, before the guard separated them.
Seppuku, Ritual Suicide
Attacking a government official was forbidden. Even drawing one’s dagger within the castle was a big no-no. Even though Asano was driven to his actions by the cruel, bullying Kira, Asano was still guilty of drawing his weapon and attacking a superior, which violated his code of honor as a Samurai. Asano was ordered to perform the seppuku, also known as hara-kiri. This was a form of ritual suicide by self-disembowelment reserved for samurai who break their code of honor. Not only was Asano forced to kill himself, but his land and properties would be turned over to Kira upon his death, his family and his name would be forever ruined, and the soldiers he had on retainer were to become ‘ronin’.
What Is a Ronin?
“Ronin” is a Japanese word that, in feudal Japan, meant a samurai without a master who was now adrift or wandering, which was the literal meaning. A samurai became a ronin upon the death of his master if that master had lost favor, honor, or privilege. In a sense, the master’s men were punished for the master’s dishonorable deeds.
The samurai were governed by a strict code of conduct. Ronin were still samurai, but they were less respected and honored. They could not find another master to serve, nor could they take up another profession. The only way for a Ronin to make a living was to become a soldier of fortune, either working as a bodyguard, a mercenary, or a criminal.
Word of Asano’s attack against Kira and resulting seppuku reached his town. Asano’s family was dragged away from their home and his castle and surrounding land was surrendered to the government. The more than 300 samurai warriors under Asano’s command were told of their new ranking. Most of them went away hoping to figure out their next path in life, but 47 of them stayed behind. They were infuriated about Asano’s death and vowed to avenge him. They banded together and swore a secret oath to get their revenge against Kira, even though they understood the consequences.
The 47 ronin, under the leadership of a man named Oishi, met frequently to discuss how they would kill Kira. He was, after all, a powerful government official who was well-guarded. In fact, after Asano’s death, Kira increased the number of guards, fearing retaliation. He even had his spies watch some of the ronin. Oishi decided that the best course of action would be to let these fears subside and then strike when Kira wasn’t expecting it. Oishi and his men acted like inept, drunken fools so the spies reported back to Kira that he had nothing to fear from them. After a little more than a year, Kira let his guard down and dismissed many of his guards.
But the ronin were not inept fools. Many of them were amassing weapons and secretly transporting them to a hiding spot near Edo where Kira was. One of the ronin even married the daughter of the man who built Kira’s house. He was able to get ahold of the layout of the building to help Oishi and the others in their plot for revenge.
The morning of December 14, 1702 was snowy and windy. The ronin seized this opportunity to attack Kira at his home. As per their carefully thought-out plan, the well-armed ronin attacked in two groups. Oishi led the group that attacked the front gate. His eldest son, Oishi Chikara, led the group that attacked the rear gate. As the attack began, other ronin sent word to the surrounding houses that they were retainers avenging their master’s death, not robbers or bandits. If they would stay in their homes, the ronin said, they would remain unharmed. Kira was not a popular man in the neighborhood. None of his neighbors came out to help protect him.
Oishi and his men captured the guards at the front gate. The rest of Kira’s men rushed to the front gate to hold off the attack. That’s when the men at the rear gate made entry into the house. The ronin found cowering women and children, but no sign of Kira. They searched the house and discovered Kira hiding in a firewood shed. The scar on his check from Asano’s attack helped the ronin confirm that they had the right man. Oishi gave Kira the opportunity to die in the same manner as Asano, by committing seppuku, but Kira refused. Oishi and the ronin executed him by beheading.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
One ronin was assigned to go to the emperor’s palace and report the incident. The remaining 46 ronin washed themselves of the blood and took Kira’s severed head to the tomb of their deceased master, Asano. They laid the head and the sword that was used to kill Kira on the tomb. They gave all the money and valuables they had on them to the temple’s abbot, said a prayer, then all 46 of the ronin performed seppuku on themselves, a mass suicide to honor their master
The story of the 47 ronin is frequently used in Japan as an illustration of honor and loyalty. The ronin remained committed to their master, Asano, when they no longer needed to be, and they gave up their own lives to make sure his honor was avenged.