Thursday, January 01, 2015

The 47 Rōnin: Re-opening the Fruit Cellar Door

"Ōishi Kuranosuke" leads the pack of Akō rōnin into Sengaku-ji.
I went to the 47 Rōnin Festival at Sengaku-ji temple on December 14, commemorating the 312th anniversary of the famous 'revenge' attack by a group of masterless samurai on the residence of Kira Yoshihisa (more commonly and erroneously known as Yoshinaka), the man they felt was responsible for their lord, Asano Naganori's death. After taking Kira's head, they brought it to Asano's grave, located in Sengaku-ji's cemetery. This created quite a controversy at the time, and while most of the population may have wanted the rōnin to be pardoned for their actions, the shogunate really had no choice but to order their deaths for their violent transgression of  the law.  But instead of being executed like common criminals, the rōnin were allowed to keep their honor by being granted the right to death by ritual seppuku suicide (or so we are lead to believe-- some historians have recently started to believe that this was a ruse concocted by the shogunate to appease public opinion and none of the rōnin were allowed the privilege to slit their bellies).

Anyway, people who know me and my views on this bump in the relative peaceful history of the mid-Edo Period, know that I am not a fan of the leader of this rōnin hit squad, Ōishi Kuranosuke, and I challenge the motives of what the group really wanted to accomplish through their 'feudal drive-by'. Popular myth, as first spread by bunraku puppet and kabuki plays, say the rōnin took their revenge out of a deep sense of 忠孝 (chūkō) or  忠義 (chūgi) to justify their actions. These are two words for 'loyalty' that are often associated with the loyal 47 rōnin story, and regardless of real history, the Japanese love the fictional account of  the incident. But why?

There goes Kira's head
Is it just good drama and action?  Japanese, who know almost nothing of their history , all know this tale. Why? Why is it this way?  I have even seen a kabuki theater full of people start sniffling and crying when the Ōishi gives his emotional farewell speech to his men. I have heard the same sniffling in movie theaters, and even seen and heard it in my own household when any one of the seemingly endless supply of  47 rōnin movies or dramas airs on TV. Again, why?

It used to annoy me. It really did. I just didn't understand why people don't challenge the myth and take a look at the hard facts surrounding the incident. Was this just another, older example of Japanese white-washing their history to glorify something that really shouldn't be glorified?  I really have wondered and struggled with this. But as I stood within the precincts of Sengaku-ji, a lone non-believer adrift in a sea of Kool-Aid drinkers and listening to the cacophony of  'rōnin-talk', I think I finally understand "why".

All they wanted were new jobs and stipends- probably not
undying popularity
As Japan stumbles through the second decade of the 21st century and ties to the past and traditional values  weaken, 忠孝 (chūkō) and 忠義 (chūgi) are still to varying degrees, hardwired into the culture of Japan. This has allowed the  47 loyal rōnin story to imbed itself into the cultural DNA sequence over a 300 hundred year period, and this is why the myth and love of the 47 rōnin endures, regardless of what their true intentions were.

And, when the attack on Kira's mansion began, I can almost certainly guarantee  that the rōnin were not counting on achieving immortality and becoming the embodiment of  忠孝 (chūkō) and 忠義 (chūgi) within Japanese culture, that's for sure.