Just one stop from Shinagawa on the Toei Asakusa subway line (Sengakuji 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 (Ronin are masterless samurai) are buried. The tale of the 47 Ronin is one of Japan’s most celebrated samurai stories, and remains one of the most popular historical stories in Japan. The story of the 47 Ronin has been told and retold in numerous movies, and kabuki and bunraku plays. Today, Hollywood is currently making a movie starring Keanu Reeves retelling the story. The movie is currently scheduled for release in November 2013. 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 observe in their daily lives.
The Story of the 47 Ronin
In March 1701, Lord Asano of Ako ( in today’s Hyogo Prefecture between Himeji and Okayama) attacked Lord Kira at Edo castle. Asano had lost patience after repeatedly being provoked and treated arrogantly by Kira. On the same day, Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide – also known as harakiri), while Kira was not punished at all despite the contemporary custom of punishing both parties in similar incidents. In addition, the entire Asano family was removed from power and Lord Asano’s samurai were disbanded without positions.
These now masterless samurai (Ronin) 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 more than one and a half years, the Ronin planned their revenge. 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 catch Kira off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen, merchants, monks and other ordinary positions.
Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano’s principal counselor and leader of the 47 Ronin, 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 fell sleep. All the passers-by who saw Oishi lying in the street laughed at him. One particular man, 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. He 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 then 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. One of the retainers (Kinemon Kanehide) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house to obtain the plans of the house.
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. They were later sentenced to commit seppuku.
Around the year, even after more than 300 years, many people visit the temple every day 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.