Thursday, May 05, 2011

The 47 Ronin: Feudal Drive-By Of Yore

Andrew Rankin’s book “Seppuku” from Kondansha Publishing reflects the growing trend among serious scholars in the West (following the lead of the work Japanese scholars have been doing for quite a few years) to strip away the veneer of legends connected with the 47 Ronin and instead concentrate on what actually happened. As he puts it, “The Ako Incident is widely believed to embody moral conundrums that are quintessentially Japanese. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the whole affair now comprises the sum of three centuries of scholarly commentary and fictional embellishment, having absorbed a plethora of nuances and complexities that were tagged on post factum”. While ‘modern sammyrai’ still continue their campaigns of obfuscation and denial in support of the idealized image of the Ako Ronin, the picture that emerges seems to be that the Ronin were little different from a street gang carrying out a feudal drive-by. Let’s look at some of the more interesting sections of Rankin’s “The Ako Incident” in “Seppuku”.

Asano Naganori, who is usually portrayed as a noble, incorruptible, and perfect samurai, is shown as being “little more than a pleasure-seeking playboy who left administrative matters firmly in the hands of his advisors”. Similar to this is the description of the leader of the 47 Ronin, Asano’s chief councilor Oishi Yoshio/Kuranosuke. “Today an untouchable hero, he was not always known for brilliance. As a young administrator he was nicknamed ‘daytime lantern’ (hiru-andon); in other words, he was useless. He was not good with money, and needed assistance from senior retainers when handling anything financial. His first talent seems to have been for heavy drinking”. And what of the hapless Kira Yoshihisa? “The fact is that no concrete evidence exists (that Kira demanded bribes from Asano or taunted him)”. Rankin describes Asano’s botched assault on Kira, deriding it as “a lame effort” and notes that “Attacking a man twice his age, from the rear, and with the advantage of total surprise, Asano inflicted nothing more than two minor flesh wounds”. Further interesting points include that fact that Asano was escorted out of Edo Castle through an ‘impure’ exit reserved for corpses and criminals and was further shown contempt by having to commit seppuku in a garden rather than in the grand chamber appropriate to his status as a daimyo.

Rankin examines the aftermath of the assault where the bickering between different factions of the Ronin took center stage, with many of the group that had pledged to avenge themselves on Kira deserting as “their passion for vengeance waned”. At one point the Ronin were close to abandoning the attack on Kira and instead proposed substituting his son as the target of their wrath. Examining their motives, it’s shown that “the Ako men were not driven by personal devotion (to Asano). Some of them had never spoken a word to Lord Asano…Their loyalty was not to Asano personally, but to the warrior code….If the incident reveals anything timelessly Japanese, it is this heavy emphasis on the need to save face, a need defined by the status of the men as samurai, rather than on their moral obligations as individuals”. In other words, the Ako Ronin did it because they didn’t like being ‘dissed’. Oishi’s celebrated debauchery before the assault is shown for what it is: “When not plotting murderous revenge, Kuranosuke would head for the pleasure quarters and drown himself in drink. His behavior has been explained as a ruse to throw Kira’s spies off the scent. But Kuranosuke had a reputation as a drinker long before the Ako Incident, and there seems no reason to doubt that he was simply making the most of his last few months on earth”. Ako ronin Fuwa Kuzuemon, who won fame for striking down five servants during the raid, comes off as little more than a psychotic killer. He was banished from Ako by Asano for practicing tsuji-giri. What was tsuji-giri? “Random nighttime attacks on pedestrians”. Yes, Kuzuemon was in the habit of thrill-killing innocent civilians. Fuwa was also noted for being a “Kabuki-mono”, elements of the samurai class that dressed up in “gaudy kimonos” and engaged in “wild antics”. He requested permission to take part in the raid not because he had a special attachment to Asano, but basically because he was looking for a fight. While the Ronin lied to Shogunate inspectors and told them they had killed Kira with a single spear strike, a letter from Fuwa stated that “all the ronin present had stabbed and hacked Kira until he was dead. They sawed off his head…”.

Perhaps more surprising than any of this was the fact that, despite what almost everyone has accepted as fact over the years, the Ronin did NOT commit seppuku. Instead, each of them (save one, Hazama Roku) was beheaded in a mock seppuku ceremony. There are unambiguous contemporary accounts from each of the four houses that were responsible for holding the imprisoned ronin that this was the case. Rankin’s account finishes up by listing accounts from several contemporaries of the Ronin who criticized their actions, with well known scholars such as Sato Naokata lambasting them with “To give themselves up and wait for the Shogun’s ruling was nothing but a scheme to escape death and bask for a while in their own glory, before finding themselves new employment”. While all of this information might seem a bit harsh, Rankin’s account is fair, balanced, and backed up by documentation. He relates the disgrace of Kira as a result of his cowardice during the attack, the efficient way in which the Ronin planned and carried out the raid, and some touching stories involving several of the Ronin wracked by doubt and conflicting loyalties. This probably ranks as the best short account of the 47 Ronin incident available to date in English.

The only criticism we would level at this chapter would be that the author, while correctly stating the number of personnel in the Kira mansion at the time of the raid, has incorrectly ascribed them all the status of samurai guards. In fact, of the 45-50 personnel in Kira’s mansion, only three to five (depending on which account you choose to believe) were samurai guards with the rest being unarmed household staff (whom the Ronin evidently had no qualms about killing). For example, Rankin states “Guards at the front and rear gates were easily overpowered” when letters written by the ronin during their imprisonment establish that household servants were manning the front and rear gates (and both were asleep at that), the armed samurai having retired for the evening. Surviving bakufu records establish that all but perhaps five of the dead and wounded were servants. Simple math shows that Kira’s modest stipend could not have supported more than a handful of guards-contrary to how he is popularly depicted, he was not a wealthy man. The lack of guards at the Kira estate is further established by the imbalance of casualties-the Ronin suffered only one combat casualty (one wounded, with another Ronin being wounded after taking a pratfall) while Kira’s household suffered 16 dead and 21 wounded with the reminder fleeing the scene. The Ronin were not noted for their swordsmanship (something even their own museum in Ako freely admits), so such a lopsided tally can only be explained away by the fact that they largely were facing terrified unarmed servants. Popular support for the Ronin also seems to be overestimated by Rankin, as according to research done by Henry Smith (the West’s leading authority on the Ronin) Asano’s assault on Kira went largely unnoticed among both members of the samurai class as well as commoners, and was regarded as a minor incident by those who did comment on it. It wasn’t until the plays and novels based on the Ronin’s assault began to appear that public support for the Ronin started to manifest itself.

Still, one has to be encouraged by this development. While no doubt the upcoming Hollywood remake of the 47 Ronin legend with Keanu Reeves will ignite a whole new round of Ronin worship, it’s only a matter of time before the accepted view of the Ako Incident relegates it to the status of the feudal drive-by of yore.


  1. Thanks for this in depth explanation of the whole thing. I've never been so taken by the 47 Ronin myth, and so I must admit I've only ever skimmed over the discussions in the forum.

    But now that you spell it out here, you color the whole thing very differently. Rather than upstanding, noble warriors, the Ronin now seem to have been rowdy thugs out looking for a fight. Kabukimono, essentially the bôsôzoku of their day. Truly interesting stuff. Thank you.

  2. Excellent explanation and review Tatsunoshi. Such a clear and level headed description of the events. Unfortunately you are right that the upcoming Keannu film will no doubt reignite the popularity of the legend and the myths.

  3. I knew it! I just knew that whole bit about how Oishi was just pretending to party every night in the pleasure quarters was horseshit! Thanks for this -- I just love getting the straight dope about historical legend.

  4. Ya know, Pat, up until now I never realized the true extent of Oishi's genius. I've never thought about usin' that excuse to explain away drunken shenanigans! I can tell ya it's gonna become part of my standard repertoire from here on out-"Gosh, Ko, I had to do it-I was jus' throwin' yer dad's ninja off the track".

    'Course, I think I'll leave out the part about killin' the harmless old fart...

  5. Yipeeeee !!!!!!!!!yeeeee-haaahhh the truth shall set us free ,Anyway lets tear the rest of this sorry misguided tale a new one ,like ol Oishi getting spat on by a Satsuma Samurai.
    What else ?,Oh we could go on forever ripping Oishi and his buds a new one .
    Still i shall save the savage razor sharp pencil of Justice for Doctor T's upcoming text on this subject.

  6. Never been a big Akō Rōshi fan, but I always loved telling the story to my friends when they visited Tōkyō. But the more I read about the "incident" the more things seemed to perfect, too contrived. I love the term "feudal drive by."

    Actually, I didn't know they didn't actually do seppuku. That's crazy because it's the climax of the narrative. By saying they did ritual seppuku, do you mean they used folding fans and just went through the motions and were beheaded? Or were they just beheaded outright. I'm unclear on this point.

    Also, the bad ass uniform that we all know... I wonder how much of that was real and how much was made up?

    1. The standard "folding fans", touching them to the belly, and then beheaded (although they probably did use the short sword rather than a fan). The "mock" humane version of seppuku usually carried out by the Shogun's executioner.

      As far as the stereotypical 'Shinsengumi' uniforms, hard to say. I've never seen anything contemporary that describes what they wore in detail and having them wear a 'uniform' seems unlikely. Individual samurai would be wearing outifts with their own family mon, not a generic uniform. It seems more like something a period play would do to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys for the audience, but the 'uniform' was certainly a Ronin trope by the mid-1600's.-Tatsu

  7. As film producer Darryl F Zanuck noted: "There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic."

    Although I give the Hollywood Romans a hard time for their constant misuse of history, and though I do appreciate knowing the facts to this event, in the case of the Ako Ronin I still favor the tale told in Chushingura.

    When we staged a production of the kabuki play at the University of Hawai'i, a couple of students asked the Ako Ronin (via ouija board) what they thought about our efforts -- according to the ouija board they were 'amused.' Given their actual history, that answer makes perfect sense.

    As is usual in these cases, the myth is flarger than the reality.