As December draws near, the streets are decorated with Christmas ornaments and in Japan, concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are held all over the nation. In addition to these Western-inspired traditions, there is a made-in-Japan December tradition that has been held since the 18th century and is still going strong today: re-tellings of the true story of “Chushingura.”
In 1701, at Edo Castle, the Emperor’s Imperial envoy in charge of receiving guests, Asano Takumi-no-kami Naganori, a lord from Ako, attacked his trainer, Kira Kozuke-no-suke. The incident was the result of a dispute during which Kira had been rude to Asano, which led to Asano cutting him with a blade. The Edo Shogunate, however, sentenced Asano to seppuku (ritual suicide) and disowned him, while Kira was found not guilty.
The shogunate’s ruling violated a law stating that regardless of the cause, both parties are to blame in an argument, and Asano’s direct subordinates, 47 former Ako samurai warriors led by Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano’s head chamberlain, avenged their master by raiding Kira’s home the following year on Dec. 14, 1702. Two months later all 47 warriors were also dead, each having committed seppuku.
This true story captured the sympathy from the common people of Edo, and it was dramatized under the title of “Chushingura.” It has since been re-told in literature, film, and stage productions up to the present day. In the kabuki world, it has always been a popular story, and from November to January, the true leader of modern kabuki, Nakamura Kichiemon II (69) plays the lead role in many different versions of “Chushingura.”
The Japan Times sat down with Kichiemon to find out more about one of Japan’s most famous historical stories.
Why do you think “Chushingura” still resonates with audiences today?
In the Edo Period and earlier, Japanese people fought many wars among themselves within this small nation. The citizens were an agricultural people dominated by warriors, and they lived knowing they could die at any time. In the 17th century, Tokugawa came to power, and the age when common people couldn’t be allowed to live without following the commands of the samurai finally ended, and they began a lifestyle of peace and celebration.
Two years ago, when the Tohoku (Great East Japan) Earthquake happened, people from other countries talked about how, “Japanese people are calm and patient even in an emergency, caring for others above themselves.” But I think this national character was cultivated in that pre-Edo environment. “Chushingura’ is based on something that happened in the early stages of a newly peaceful time, and what captured the imaginations of the common people was not the political aspect, but the unfairness of the shogunate’s ruling. Native Tokyoites love to root for the underdog, so they have a sense of, ‘If you fight, shouldn’t you be able to apologize to one another and resolve the issue peacefully?” And they love this story because they feel so sorry for Hangan-sama (Asano); they feel Ko-no-Moronao (Kira) is evil; they root for Yuranosuke (Oishi); and they cheer on the 47 samurai at the end for a job well done.
Now society has become a place where everyone picks on the weak, but this play harkens back to the original Japanese values of moderation, kindness to others and familial love.
In December, you will perform in the rarely-performed “Chushingura” side story, “Yasaku no Kamabara.” This unique tragedy features the virtuous farmer Yasaku, older brother to Senzaki Yagoro, one of the 47 samurai. It starts with Yasaku hearing from his younger brother about the plan to break into Kira’s home, and he is roped into the chain of events. This leads to him having to kill himself with the group, even though he was not a samurai. What’s your view on seppuku and ritual suicide?
Seppuku may seem like a strange and cruel act, but its original meaning is “to punish oneself.” In other words, it is an act of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Taking responsibility with one’s life seems to be a way of thinking that originated with Japan’s samurai, rather than an influence from Buddhism or Confucianism.
Why the stomach? It’s probably because it’s a slow death. It surely must hurt a lot, so in order to do it, you have to have a very strong sense of regret and a desire to communicate your need to make things right. So, this method means it will take a long time to die. It requires amazing tenacity, doesn’t it? I get shivers just thinking about it.
Yasaku isn’t a samurai he’s a farmer. He attempts to kill himself to take responsibility out of love for his brother, but he has a very hard time cutting open his own stomach. That’s something that makes this work really well written. When the father of the first Kichiemon, Karoku Nakamura the Third (1849-1919,) specialized in performing this work, it is said that he tried to make the audience laugh and then finally cry, but personally I think that the important part of this work is how it illustrates Yasaku’s familial love for his brother, which is different from the loyalty of the samurai. Yasaku lives together with his beloved wife, in a dirty, tumbledown house, and he doesn’t dress well, but the challenge is to portray their happiness as a married couple.
During the Edo Period, a time when honor and loyalty was prized, love was a concept that people weren’t subjectively conscious of; but when staging this work today, Kichiemon says it’s crucial to place emphasis on love through Yasaku’s feelings for his brother and through the way he cares for his wife. In this way, by incorporating interpretations that fit the times, kabuki has always captured the hearts of every generation. Kichiemon’s Yasaku will surely shake our souls, and we’ll gain an even deeper love for “Chushingura”.
This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka. “Chikara to Emoshichi,” “Yasaku no Kamabara” and “Chushingura Sugata no Eawase” at the National Theatre (Large Theatre) runs Dec. 3 -26. For more information call 03-3230-3000, or visit www.ntj.jac.go.jp. The Kabukiza Matinée, four plays that includes “Matsuura no Taiko,” and the Evening Show, three shows that includes “Kanadehon Chushingura Kudanme Yamashina Kankyo” at the Kabukiza truns Jan. 2-26. For more information, call 03-3545-6800, or visit www.kabuki-za.co.jp.