It’s an interesting coincidence that Nickelodeon announced that it was making a TV movie based off of their game show Legends of the Hidden Temple earlier this month and that I’ve chosen to shed some light onto this legend now. For those who don’t know or can’t remember, the game show took place in a generic Mesoamerican temple set and would start off with the character of Olmec relating some sort of legend that happened somewhere in the world. He would then introduce an artifact from that legend as the goal that the various teams were striving for. It’s through that show that I first learned about this particular legend. Another interesting thing about the show upon rewatching it is that so many of the legends were based around real historical figures. That’s an interesting thing that I’ll get to later, though.
In 1701, Lord Asano of Ako Castle was appointed to serve on the reception committee at the Shogun’s castle in Edo (modern day Tokyo) for a visit from the Emperor’s messengers. This was a major event and would require Lord Asano to observe a very complex form of etiquette. The Shogun’s master of ceremonies Lord Kira was appointed as Lord Asano’s teacher in all things etiquette. Now, the story varies. Some say that Lord Kira was just naturally rude and arrogant, others say that he was not pleased with the number of presents he was given (it was traditional to present gifts to an honored teacher and man of high rank in this situation) and some say he was upset that Asano simply wouldn’t bribe him. Whichever way it was, Kira seemed to go out of his way to embarrass, insult and deride his pupil. Asano endured this stoically for a while until finally things came to a head within the Shogun’s palace and Asano drew his sword and swung it at Kira. Kira was only wounded. However, to attack a man in anger was illegal and to do so within the Shogun’s palace was practically unthinkable. Asano was tried and ultimately ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide).
Word of Asano’s death soon reached back to Ako Castle and Lord Asano’s retainers. This was dire business. The retainers were now Ronin or masterless samurai. Not only that, but the Shogun’s government would now come to claim all of Lord Asano’s lands and holdings. Some of the retainers considered resistance, holding the castle until the end. The head steward Oishi Kuranosuke instead convinced the others that the fortunes of the clan would need to be restored first and if that didn’t work, they would exact their revenge upon Lord Kira. They petitioned the Shogun to allow Lord Asano’s younger brother to take up his position. The Shogun declined and all that remained was the goal of revenge.
Of about 300 samurai, only about a quarter of them agreed to exact revenge (the number would get whittled down to 47 later on). Then, the ronin all went their separate ways and prepared for the chosen day. To throw any potential spies off the scent Oishi sent his wife and youngest children back to his mother-in-law’s house. His oldest son stayed with him and became part of the plan. He then went on to live a life of indulgence. He was seen drinking, brawling and gambling frequently and visiting houses of ill repute. All this was to convince the world he was an utterly debased man. Some legends even say that a samurai from Kyoto once came across him lying in the street and spat on him saying that he was no true samurai.
Finally, the day came. The ronin came together, put on fresh clothes and armor and put a fire brigade uniform on over the armor so they could move through the streets unimpeded. They then raided Kira’s home quickly, meeting little resistance from Kira’s personal guards. They hunted for Kira throughout the house and ultimately found him hiding in a storage shed. They offered Kira the chance to commit seppuku but he refused. They then used the same dagger that Lord Asano used to kill himself to behead Kira. They then took the head to the temple where Lord Asano’s grave was. They washed the head, placed it on Asano’s grave, said prayers and burned incense. Then, all 47 of them offered themselves up to the authorities to pay for their crimes.
46 of the ronin were sentenced to death and allowed to commit seppuku so they might have an honorable death. The youngest of the ronin was allowed to go free. Sources differ on why that is. Some say it was because of his youth. Others say it was because he didn’t take part in the actual attack but just acted as a messenger. However, the story of the Revenge of the 47 Ronin is still known today.
I wanted to include this story because of my own interest in Japanese folklore and because the title would be known because there was a movie based on it that was of questionable quality. You’d hardly know it was supposed to be the same story based on the trailer (I never saw it, I couldn’t quite get past the Keanu Reeves-iness of the lead actor). However, the story is a big deal in Japan. It still gets adapted into novels, plays and puppet shows. Interestingly, there’s also always been a little bit of controversy over it. Some people say that what the ronin did was honorable. Others say they waited too long in their preparations, risking that Lord Kira who was already over 60 at the time might die in the meantime. Others say that Lord Asano’s death should have ended everything right then and there. In truth, these events are a bit of an oddity as far as I understand it (I am by no means an expert on Japanese history or culture). The way of life of the samurai as it had been was rapidly fading by 1701 and being replaced by more government and bureaucracy. The Shogun’s order that Asano commit seppuku was a fair one by the standards of Japanese law at the time. And the whole thing essentially ends with 47 men killing an older man in a storage shed. Though some like to paint the whole thing as the epitome of samurai conduct, it may be more accurate to see it as one of the last gasps of a way of life that was on its way out.
The thing that should be noted though, is that this isn’t a completely made up story. This is an event that actually happened in 1701. The Japanese refer to it as the “Ako Incident”. I’ve mentioned in past entries that legends have some sort of basis in fact. Well, this one has a lot more fact than others. Heck, they even know where these men were buried.
There was once a time when legends and history often seemed indistinguishable. There are any number of stories we’ve learned about real historical figures that are in fact more accurately considered legends than truth. George Washington chopping down a cherry tree is a legend. Marco Polo bringing pasta from China to Italy is a legend. Christopher Columbus trying to prove the world is round is a legend. All of these have proven apocryphal at best. Yet, many of us learned these as history. With the state of the world and scholarship now though, it makes me wonder if there is a place for the historical legend in the world these days. I’ve already met people who’ve used the word legend as if it was a synonym for “lie” or “bad history” in my life. There are some legendary figures that we accept as just stories and that we seem to like better that way (take King Arthur and Robin Hood as examples). Yet, the connection between history and legend still makes things tricky. I’ve also encountered people who’ve maligned Disney for their take on Mulan who they refer to as a “historical figure”, even though the only record of her existence is a short poem. I’d argue they were within their rights as fiction-makers. Yet, there’s also the issue of their fictionalizing the life of Pocahontas, which is generally considered to be wrong even though the oral culture had fictionalized the lives of real people for centuries. Was Disney wrong or were they just “legend-building”? I’m not sure we’ll ever really have the answer in this lifetime.
The legend of the 47 Ronin is not only considered a big deal and quintessential samurai tale in Japan but also a reminder of how close legend connects with history. Whether you see them as true history or just an epic yarn, the 47 Ronin certainly are The Stuff of Legends!