The Historical Event
During the stillness of the night of January 30, 1703, forty-six masterless
samurai (rônin) burst into the Edo mansion of a government
official, Lord Kira, killed him, and took his head to the grave of their
former master Lord Asano in proof that they had avenged his death. Lord
Kira had, nearly two years earlier, goaded their young Lord Asano into
misbehavior for which he had been condemned to die. His loyal former
retainers secretly plotted and finally successfully executed their revenge.
As a mark of respect for their loyalty, the government allowed the rônin — sentenced to death for the killing — to commit suicide
rather than submit to execution.
In the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), samurai ideals were refined and
codified even as the warriors no longer had cause to do battle. The ideal
of selfless commitment, even the glorification of dying to express ones
honor as a samurai, served as a mark of class as much as the swords that
only samurai could wear.
In a rigidly structured class society, each class (samurai, peasants,
merchants, artisans) had its own particular standards and values. For
a member of a class that defined its worth by ideals of loyalty and service,
to be masterless was to be in a kind of limbo. Rônin were samurai
who had fallen from a high social position to a place outside the social
scale entirely. Most often men became rônin because of defeat in
battle, dereliction of duty, or because their masters suffered some disgrace.
By contrast, in the American tradition of romanticizing outlaws, independence
of spirit is idealized rather than specific loyalties, and to be unconnected
to a respected position in society does not invariably imply disgrace.
The motives and actions of the rônin, however, reflect ideals
of Tokugawa society with which modern Japanese still have sympathy. Contemporary
Japanese still value loyalty highly and identify closely with the groups
to which they belong. For example, a businessman will introduce himself
by saying his company's name before his own; the ties a student forms
with his classmates in a school or university last throughout his career.
A reading of the play will provide not only its own drama (and melodrama),
but many examples of the ideal of loyalty and devotion to something outside
oneself that account for the continuing popularity of the story.
Plot Summary and Analysis of Chûshingura:
The Treasury of Loyal Retainers
The version of the story that has influenced all later retellings was
a play written in 1748 for the puppet theater: Chûshingura:
The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. Its main plot is based on the 1703
incident, but it is set in 1338 in order to avoid government censorship.
Lord Asano becomes Lord Enya, and Kira is called Kô no Moronao.
Various subplots are added, and we see the rônin in all aspects
of life — in love and in conflict as well as in conspiracy.
In one subplot, the leader of the conspiracy, Yuranosuke, pretends to
have sunk into chronic drunkenness. He flirts with Okaru, who was sold
into prostitution so that her husband, Kampei, could join the conspiracy.
Kampei proves his worthiness only as he dies, and becomes the forty-seventh
member of the conspiracy posthumously. In another subplot,Yuranosuke's
son Rikiya refuses to marry the woman he loves knowing he will soon die,
although he cannot reveal his reason. Her father, who has acted prudently
and without a true samurai disregard of death, restores his own honor
by serving the conspirators and by finally dying well. These acts reunite
his daughter with her love, if only for a night. There are more subplots
as well as additions in later versions.
Involved as the rônin were over the many months between
the death of their lord and their act of revenge with finding means to
rônin lost their livelihoods when dismissed from service),
with loves, greed and generosity, secrecy and fellowship, they were committed
to this final act that they all knew would end in their own deaths. So
while the emotions the people in the play Chûshingura feel — the
love between parents and children, or husband and wife — are universal,
they are expressed very differently, are directed toward different ends,
and expressed in different actions. The story provides many examples
of the classic tension the Japanese see existing between giri (duty)
and ninjô (human feeling), a tension that should always be resolved
in favor of giri.*
Note that the character who fails to make this commitment to duty
is dropped from the group, and only regains his honor through a very complicated
process after his death.