The Road Less Traveled
Just one stop from Shinagawa on the Toei Asakusa subway line (Sengaku-ji Station), Sengaku-ji is one of Tokyo's most famous temples. Although it isn't big or particularly impressive, it is charged with history. This is where the 47 Ronin (also known as Akoroshi, the "masterless samurai from Ako") are buried. The tale of the 47 ronin in one of Japan's most celebrated samurai stories, and the story of the 47 Ronin remains one of the most popular historical stories in Japan.
Around the year, many people visit the temple to pay respect to the 47 Ronin by burning incense sticks in front of each grave. But on December 14th, the anniversary of the 47 Ronin's revenge, a festival is held at Sengaku-ji attracting thousands of visitors. During the festival, the small graveyard becomes very crowded and smoky during the festival.
The story has been told and retold in movies (Chushingura), kabuki plays and bunraku plays, and took place in Japan at the start of the eighteenth century. The tale has been described by one noted Japanese scholar as the country's "national legend." This true story has been popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, persistence, and honor that all good people should preserve in their daily lives.
The Story of the 47 Ronin
In March 1701, lord Asano Takuminokami of Ako (today's Hyogo Prefecture) attacked lord Kira Hozukenosuke at Edo castle. Asano lost patience after repeatedly being provoked and treated arrogantly by Kira, but failed to kill him in the attack. On the same day, Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), while Kira was not punished at all, despite the contemporary custom of punishing both parties in similar incidents. In addition, the whole Asano family was removed from power and Lord Asano's samurai were disbanded without positions.
They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so. For over one and a half year, the samurai planned their revenge under difficult circumstances. However, Kira was well guarded, and his residence had been fortified, to prevent just such an event. The 47 Ronin saw that they would have to Kira off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen or monks.
Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano's principal counselor and leader of the 47 Ronin, himself took up residence in Kyoto, and began to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano. One day, as Oishi returned drunk from some haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed at him. A man, passing by, was infuriated by this behavior on the part of a samurai--both by his lack of courage to avenge his master, as well as his current debauched behavior. The man abused and insulted him, and kicked him in the face (to even touch the face of a samurai was a great insult, let alone strike it), and spat on him.
Kira's agents reported all this to Kira, who became convinced that he was safe from the retainers of Asano, who must all be bad samurai indeed, without the courage to avenge their master after a year and a half. Thinking them harmless and lacking funds he then reluctantly let down his guard. The rest of the faithful Ronin now gathered in Edo, and in their roles as workmen and merchants gained access to Kira's house, becoming familiar with the layout of the house and the character of all within. One of the retainers (Kinemon Kanehide) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain plans.
On a snowy night on December 14, 1702, the 47 Ronin, under the leadership of Oishi Kuranosuke, finally succeeded to avenge their master by killing lord Kita in his mansion. Afterwards, they paraded with Kira's head through the streets before taking the head to Sengakuji, and were later sentenced to commit seppuku.