The Tale of the 47 Rônin

This following is an introduction to The Tale of the 47 Rônin. You may also wish students to read or dramatize the play Chûshingura: The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, which was written in 1748 for puppet theater based on the historical event. This version of the story has influenced all later retellings. The play is available, as translated by Donald Keene, from Columbia University Press.

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.

The Significance

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 live (since 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.

The Story of the Forty-Seven Rônin according to the Hagakure

From Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson (Kodansha International, 1992), 29-30.

A certain person was brought to shame because he did not take revenge. The way of revenge lies in simply forcing ones way into a place and being cut down. There is no shame in this. By thinking that you must complete the job you will run out of time. By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up; in the end you will give up.

No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it.

Concerning the night assault of Lord Asano's rônin, the fact that they did not commit seppuku at the Sengakuji was an error, for there was a long delay between the time their lord was struck down and the time when they struck down the enemy. If Lord Kira had died of illness within that period, it would have been extremely regrettable. Because the men of the Kamigata area have a very clever sort of wisdom, they do well at praiseworthy acts but cannot do things indiscriminately, as was done in the Nagasaki fight. (1)

Although all things are not to be judged in this manner, I mention it in the investigation of the Way of the Samurai. When the time comes, there is no moment for reasoning. And if you have not done your inquiring beforehand, there is most often shame. Reading books and listening to people's talk are for the purpose of prior resolution.

Above all, the Way of the Samurai should be in being aware that you do not know what is going to happen next, and in querying every item day and night. Victory and defeat are matters of the temporary force of circumstances. The way of avoiding shame is different. It is simply in death.

Even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

(1) The Nagasaki fight resulted from a man's accidentally splashing mud on a samurai of another clan. [Yamamoto] Tsunetomo feels that the men involved acted properly, because they took revenge immediately, without pausing to consider the cause or the consequences of what they were doing.

Discussion Questions

  1. A rônin was a samurai with no master, and had something of the image of an outlaw or bandit in the American West. The word samurai itself came from a word meaning "to serve." How do you think it felt to be a samurai, but to have no master? How do you think you would be viewed by the rest of society?

  2. Today, a student who fails the entrance exam to a particular college, and takes a year off after high school to study in order to take the exam again, is called a rônin. What does such a student have in common with a rônin of premodern times?

  3. Why was it a mark of respect for the government to allow the rônin to commit suicide rather than be executed?

  4. The suicide ritual was called seppuku — what we sometimes call hara-kiri, or "stomach cutting" — and required the warrior to slit open his own belly with a knife. A second person, or assistant, would then end his pain by swiftly decapitating him with a sword. Why was ritual suicide performed in such a painful way? What does all this tell about samurai values?

  5. What values in contemporary, postindustrial Japan would account for the continued popularity of this story? What values in our own society have made figures such as Jesse James or Robin Hood popular heroes? How do the values of the two modern societies compare in these heroes?