Hisashi Otsuka: THE LEGEND OF THE 47 RONIN

Hisashi Otsuka: At the heart of Japan is the samurai code of "bushido." Its canons encompass the range of honor that a warrior lived by: courtesy and courage, sincerity and self-control, honor and loyalty. In the Legend of the 47 Ronin, these virtues were etched forever into the very soul of the Japanese people.

The story begins at the dawn of the 18th century. Asano, a samurai lord, was summoned to the Shogun’s palace in the great city of Edo, known today as Tokyo. Under the watchful eye of his tutor, Lord Kira, master of palace protocol, Asano was given court responsibilities. Friction between the two men, however, was constant. Asano refused to pay the bribes that Kira demanded for his services. Kira used every opportunity to publicly humiliate Asano. After months of abuse, Asano’s tolerance was gone. He drew his sword against Kira within the palace walls - a grievous offense - and attempted but failed to kill him. The punishment for this was inflexible. Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku, a ritual act of suicide.

Upon his death, Asano’s estates were confiscated, his family was disinherited, and his 300 samurai retainers were ordered to disband, thus becoming ronin or masterless warriors. Scores of them, however, in a secret blood oath, swore to avenge their Lord’s disgrace and restore his rightful honor. Headed by their general, Oishi, they undertook nearly two years of great self-denial and carefully conceived ruses to disguise their real purpose. Oishi himself moved to Kyoto, where he became an infamous drunk and gambler, all to deceive the Shogun’s police and Kira’s many spies.

The ruses worked. Kira and his allies finally relaxed their suspicions of Oishi and his men. On a winter night, January 31, 1703, the 47 Ronin reconvened in Edo. They marched to Kira’s mansion, announcing themselves to those inside with the beating of a war drum. In the great battle that followed, the 47 stormed the grounds, killing all of Kira’s guards without a single loss of their own. Finding Kira, they brought him to a courtyard and offered him the chance to honorably commit seppuku. When he refused, Oishi swiftly beheaded him with the same sword that Asano had used to end his own life. Then, to symbolize the completion of their mission, the 47 returned to Asano’s grave and set the head of Kira before it, declaring their Lord’s honor redeemed.

Prepared to die for this deed, the ronin proclaimed what they had done to the Shogun’s court authorities. The Shogun himself, though sympathetic to their heroic act, was nonetheless on the horns of a dilemma. To pardon them would be to condone a vendetta. After months of controversy the decision was made that each of the 47 would execute himself, not as a criminal but as an honored warrior. One at a time they dignified themselves in carrying out the sentence and were buried alongside their Lord. Their resting place at Sengaku-ji Temple located in the heart of Tokyo, remains today a shrine to the sacred values of samurai virtue.

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