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47 Rōnin

On December 14 each year, Japan celebrates one of the most legendary moments in its history: the revenge of the 47 Rōnin. On that fateful day, 47 warriors stealthily crept up to a castle and scaled the walls. A drum sounded in the night, "boom, boom-boom." The Rōnin launched their attack.

The tale of the 47 is one of the most famous in Japanese history, and what makes it even more amazing is that it is a true story. During the Tokugawa era in Japan's history, the country was ruled by the "Shogun," or highest military official, who served under the name of the Emperor.

Under him were a number of regional lords, the "Daimyo,"each of whom employed a military contingent of Samurai warriors. They and their masters, followed the code of bushido—the "way of the warrior." Among the demands of bushido were loyalty to one's master, honorable existence and fearlessness in the face of death. Unfortunately, even a country with such a strict code of expected behavior, was no stranger to political intrigue.

In 1701, the emperor Higashiyama sent imperial envoys from his seat at Kyoto to the shogun's court at Edo (Tokyo). A high shogunate official, Kira Yoshinaka, served as master of ceremonies for the visit. Two young Daimyos, Asano Naganori of Ako and Kamei Sama of Tsumano, were in the capital performing their alternate attendance duties, so the shogunate gave them the task of looking after the emperor's envoys.

Kira was assigned to train the Daimyo in court etiquette. Asano and Kamei offered gifts to Kira, but the official considered them totally inadequate and was furious. He began to treat the two daimyos with contempt. Kamei was so angry about the humiliating treatment he wanted to kill Kira, but Asano preached patience.

Fearful for their lord, Kamei's retainers secretly paid Kira a large sum of money, and the official began to treat Kamei better. He continued to torment Asano, however, until the young daimyo could not endure it.

When Kira called Asano a "country bumpkin without manners" in the main hall, Asano drew his sword and attacked the official. Kira suffered only a shallow wound to his head, but shogunate law strictly forbade anyone from drawing a sword within Edo castle. Given his offense, Asano could have been hanged as a common criminal or worse. But his rank, could not be ignored and the 34-year-old Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide. In order to preserve his family's honor, Asano fulfilled his duty and disemboweled himself.

After Asano's death, the shogunate confiscated his domain, leaving his family impoverished and his Samurai reduced to the status of Rōnin, or masterless Samurai. Ordinarily, Samurai were expected to follow their master into death rather than face the dishonor of being a masterless. Forty-seven of Asano's 320 warriors, however, decided to remain alive and seek revenge.

Led by Oishi Yoshio, the 47 Rōnin swore a secret oath to kill Kira at any cost. Fearful of just such an event, Kira fortified his home and tripled his guards. The Ako Rōnin bided their time, waiting for Kira's vigilance to relax. To help put Kira off his guard, the Rōnin scattered to different domains, taking menial jobs as merchants or laborers. One of them married into the family that had built Kira's mansion so that he could have access to the blueprints.

Oishi himself, divorced his wife and sent her and their younger children away, to protect them, and began to drink and spend heavily on prostitutes, doing a very convincing imitation of an utterly debased man. When a Samurai from Satsuma recognized the drunk Oishi laying in the street, he mocked him and kicked him in the face, a mark of complete and utter contempt.

A year passed and the time was now appropriate for the masterless warriors. As snow sifted down on the evening of December 14, 1702, the forty-seven Rōnin met once more at Honjo, near Edo, and prepared for their attack. One young Rōnin was assigned to go to Ako and tell their tale. The other forty-six first warned Kira's neighbors of their intentions, then surrounded the official's castle armed with ladders, battering rams, and swords.

Silently, some of them scaled the walls of Kira's mansion, then overpowered and tied up the startled night watchmen. At the drummer's signal, the ronin attacked from the front and rear. Kira's samurai were caught asleep and rushed out to fight shoeless in the snow. Kira himself, wearing only undergarments, ran to hide in a storage shed. The Rōnin searched the house for an hour, finally discovering the official cowering in the shed amongst heaps of coal.

Recognizing him by the scar on his head left by Asano's blow, Oishi dropped to his knees and offered Kira the same wakizashi (short sword) that Asano had used to commit seppuku. He soon realized that Kira did not have the courage to kill himself honorably, however, the official showed no inclination to take the sword and was instead shaking in terror. Oishi full of contempt beheaded the coward.

The Rōnin reassembled in the mansion's courtyard. All forty-six were alive. They had killed as many of Kira's bravest Samurai, who died themselves with honor defending their coward of a master, at the cost of only four walking wounded. At daybreak, the Rōnin silently walked through town to the Sengakuji Temple, where their lord was buried. The story of their revenge spread through town quickly, and crowds gathered to cheer them along the way. Oishi rinsed the blood from Kira's head and presented it at Asano's grave. The forty-six Rōnin then sat and waited to be arrested.

While the Bakufu, or military body, decided their fate, the Rōnin were divided into four groups and housed by Daimyo families—the Hosokawa, Mari, Mizuno, and Matsudaira families. The Rōnin had become national heroes because of their adherence to the strict bushido code with their brave show of loyalty; many people hoped that they would be granted a pardon for killing Kira.

Although the Shogun himself respected the devotion of these masterless Samurai and was tempted to grant them clemency, his position and his councilors could not condone such a criminal action. On February 4, 1703, the Rōnin were ordered to commit seppuku—a more honorable sentence instead of an ordinary public execution.

Hoping for a last-minute reprieve, the four Daimyos, who had custody of the Rōnin, waited until nightfall for a reprieve but there would be no pardon. The forty-six ronin, including Oishi's 16-year-old son, who had also taken part in the storming of Kira's castle, one by one committed seppuku. Oishi, as their leader waited until all had fulfilled their duty, then he himself fulfilled his.

The ronin were buried near their master at the Sengkuji Temple in Tokyo. Their graves instantly became a site of pilgrimage for admiring Japanese. One of the first people to visit was the samurai from Satsuma, who had kicked Oishi in the street. He apologized and then killed himself as well.

The fate of the forty-seventh Rōnin is not entirely clear. Most sources say that when he returned from telling the tale at the Rōnins' home domain of Ako, the Shogun moved by their cunning, devotion and bravery, pardoned him due to his youth. He lived to a ripe old age and then was buried alongside the others. Not even Japan makes men like them anymore.

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