Snow has been the backdrop to some of Tokyo’s most colorful and epoch-making events.

When pro-emperor, anti-foreigner activists assassinated the shogun’s chief councilor, Ii Naosuke, outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo Castle (today’s Imperial Palace) on March 3, 1860, the blood that stained that day’s unseasonably heavy snow signaled the death knell of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

When some 1,500 young Imperial Japanese Army officers seeking a true Imperial restoration seized the nation’s capital in an attempted coup d’etat on Feb. 26, 1936, Tokyo was again blanketed with snow. The coup collapsed three days later, but the incident became a major turning point that eventually spurred the rise of fascism in Japan.

Three hundred years ago — on Dec. 14, 1702 — the capital was also white with snow. That night, a killing occurred that has been emblematic of “the essence of the samurai” ever since. To this day, it is embedded deep in the Japanese psyche.

The event has become Japan’s most famous vendetta. Known as Chushingura (literally, The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), after a kabuki play on which it is based, it is the story of 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who beheaded a high-ranking shogunate official they held responsible for the death of their lord two years earlier. As punishment, the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered the ronin to commit ritual seppuku, making it the most sensational incident in the Genroku Era (1688-1704), one of the most peaceful times in the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Though the story has been depicted in joruri (ballad dramas with shamisen accompaniment), kabuki and movies, and told in countless books, the allure of the values it embodies has never faded.

The Chushingura chain of events began March 14, 1701, when Asano Naganori, the young daimyo of the Ako domain in Harima (present-day western Hyogo Prefecture), drew his sword and attacked court chamberlain Kira Yoshinaka inside Edo Castle. They had been preparing for the ceremonies to receive an Imperial mission from Kyoto later that day. Although Kira suffered serious head and back injuries, he survived the attack.

Infuriated, the Fifth Tokugawa Shogun Tsunayoshi ordered Asano to disembowel himself immediately, as such assaults were strictly banned inside the castle. Lord Asano was taken into custody at the residence of his fellow Lord Tamura Ukyodayu in Shinbashi, where he dutifully committed seppuku later that day.

With its lord’s death, the Ako clan was cast to the winds, leaving all of its several hundred vassals without a livelihood. In accordance with its rules, the shogunate also took control of Ako Castle and the clan’s Edo residence (on the current site of St. Luke’s College of Nursing in Tsukiji).

To this day, however, it remains unclear what caused Lord Asano to act so violently, though one theory has it that the brash, 34-year-old daimyo from the country was unfamiliar with Edo protocol and was repeatedly humiliated by Kira, a refined, 60-year-old noble.

Whatever the cause, the result split the Ako clan’s former vassals into two factions. While one group wanted to petition the shogunate and install Lord Asano’s younger brother as head of the domain, the other comprised radicals eager to take revenge on Kira. In the eyes of both the masterless vassals and the public, however, the shogunate’s decision to order only Lord Asano to commit suicide was arbitrary and partial, since the established practice was to punish both parties in a quarrel. It is said that the decision was largely influenced by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, a close aide of the shogun who had a firm grip on power behind the scenes. Yanagisawa had cozy ties with Kira, the shogunate’s most experienced officer in charge of Imperial relations. As a result, most believed, virtually no action was taken against Kira.

In fact, the courtier’s only “punishment” was his own voluntary retirement. He relocated his residence near Edo Castle to a new one he had built on an 8,500-sq.-meter lot in Honjo-Matsuzaka near Ryogoku. It is said his move came after pressure from his neighbors in the daimyo mansion district outside the castle, as they feared Ako ronin might raid his residence and they could become involved in trouble.

When the shogunate denied the Ako clan the right to rebuild, public sentiment in Edo swung even more toward the ronin — although no one publicly supported them for fear of the authorities and their spies. In fact, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the shogun at the time, is viewed as the most fearful of all the Edo Period’s 15 rulers for the severity of the laws he introduced.

Nonetheless, the Genroku Era was a time when popular culture bloomed. It saw haiku poet Matsuo Basho spreading his art of words; joruri and kabuki scriptwriter Chikamatsu Monzaemon becoming Japan’s answer to Shakespeare; Hishikawa Moronobu creating the style of ukiyo-e; and multitalented Ogata Korin introducing original forms of art in painting, pottery and textile dyeing.

It was also a time of prosperity. Commoners enjoyed life on tatami mats and people started taking three meals a day, sometimes even eating out at outdoor stalls selling soba and snacks. Life was even better for wealthy merchants such as Kinokuniya Bunzaemon and Naraya Monaemon, who both made their fortunes in the logging business and spent their money very publicly.

For the nonproductive class of samurai, there was little to do at this time. The shogunate system was firmly in command, and there had been no major upheaval in the political capital for decades to give them a raison d’etre — until Lord Asano’s 47 former vassals exacted their revenge in 1702.

In their willingness to die for their master, the ronin exhibited the true spirit of samurai, living in accordance with the Bushido. Developed during the Edo Period as a code of ethics unique to the samurai class, the Bushido required a samurai to live with decorum and without taint, and to cultivate his fortitude and manliness. Above all, a samurai was loyal and obedient to his master.

Though most samurai, even vassals of the shogunate itself, were far from well paid, commoners accorded them high status. Wealthy merchants would even offer their daughters’ hands in marriage to those living true to the spirit of Bushido. Indeed, honorable poverty was regarded as a noble state. The contemporary saying “bushi wa kuwanedo takayoji” illustrates this: A bushi should pretend he has just finished a meal by having a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, rather than have others think he is hungry.

The 47 ronin exemplified this spirit. Led by former chief retainer Oishi Kuranosuke, they spent many months singlemindedly gathering information on Kira, especially his new mansion, which had been converted into a mazelike fort. Disguised as doctors, merchants and other professionals, they repeatedly met in Kyoto, Edo and other locations to exchange tips.

Finally, on the night of Dec. 14 (on the lunar calendar then in use; Jan. 30, 1703 on the Western calendar), as Edo was still blanketed with unthawed snow from the day before, they met at one of their hideouts in Honjo near the Kira residence.

Clad in black coats resembling those of firefighters, with white cloth bands sewn around their sleeves to avoid friendly fire in the dark, the ronin proceeded to Kira’s residence.

Once there, they sent a messenger to Tsuchiya Chikara, the master of the neighboring mansion, notifying him they were about to storm Kira’s residence and avenge their lord, and asking him not to interfere. Such was the support for the spirit of their mission that he readily agreed.

With that detail attended to, the ronin split into two groups — one entering Kira’s front gate, the other from the rear. After two hours of fighting, the ronin achieved their goal before dawn. As Kira’s retainers were caught off guard, no ronin were killed in the attack; whereas they slayed 17 of Kira’s men and wounded 28.

From Kira’s house, Oishi’s squad went to Sengakuji Temple near Shinagawa, where their master was enshrined, and offered Kira’s head. But on the way to the temple, Terasaka Kichiemon, a low-ranking foot soldier, left the company for a reason no one now knows for sure. One theory holds that he was given a secret mission to report to Lord Asano’s widow, Yozen-in, who was leading a monastic life, that her husband had been avenged. Another has it that he was merely scared after the raid and fled.

After paying homage at Sengakuji, the remaining 46 ronin turned themselves over in an orderly manner to shogunate authorities. The news immediately spread throughout Edo; the public and the samurai class alike, including Shogun Tsunayoshi, praised their prowess and their loyalty to their lord.

Only 12 days after the incident, the first play based on the story of the Ako ronin was performed in Edo under the title “Akebono Soga no Youchi (The Night Attack at Dawn of the Sogas).” Three days later, it was banned by the shogunate, for fear that subversive activities might spread. The story, however, was too potent, and it would soon be re-enacted again in joruri, kabuki and other dramatic forms — with subtle alterations of the characters’ names.

Public support for the ronin’s cause was strong and even the shogun was sympathetic, but ultimately the shogunate had to display its control over the justice system. Until a verdict was decided, the ronin were placed under house arrest at four daimyo mansions outside the castle: 14 ronin, including Oishi, with Hosokawa Tsunatoshi of the Kumamoto domain; 10 with Matsudaira Sadanao of the Matsuyama domain; 10 with Mori Tsunamoto of the Choshu domain; and nine with Mizuno Tadayuki of the Okazaki domain.

After cautious deliberations by senior shogunal officials, they concluded that the raid could be interpreted as “an act of righteousness” — but, fatally, one that stemmed from “a private cause,” because the ronin took revenge without having the necessary shogunal approval to do so. Thus, they ruled that the ronin would be ordered to commit seppuku — the utmost courtesy for a samurai’s last hurrah.

On Feb. 4, 1703, the 46 ronin simultaneously ended their lives at the mansions where they had been accommodated. Oishi was 45, while his son, Chikara, was the youngest among them at 16. The oldest ronin was Horibe Yahei, a retired former Edo-assigned vassal, at 77. Their bodies were soon enshrined next to Lord Asano’s grave at Sengakuji.

For three centuries since, the popularity of Chushingura has never waned. Right after the incident, Tsuchiya, Kira’s neighbor, testified to shogunate officials that he had been impressed by the ronin, whom he described as orderly and perfectly organized.

There is, however, another admirable aspect of the behavior of the Ako ronin: They showed isagiyosa, which can be interpreted as “grace with pride.” The attack was carefully planned, certainly no spur-of-the-moment event, and the ronin all knew they faced death. When their time to die did come, they did so gracefully with pride — as samurai.

Although the world has changed, and a story like that of the Ako ronin could never occur in the 21st century, the spirit of samurai and their isagiyosa is still admired by today’s Japanese. Indeed, it seems all the more impressive to a public sickened by the cowardly ways of its country’s political, business and bureaucratic leaders. Nonetheless, as long as their sense of valor and loyalty remain in the Japanese psyche, the popularity of Chushingura will never melt like winter’s snow.

Condemned but ‘free from taint’

The final verdict on the 46 Ako ronin was largely influenced by Ogyu Sorai, the most respected philosopher of the time, even though many shogunal officials and Confucianists were rather sympathetic to them. Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi ordered the ronin to commit ritual seppuku based on Sorai’s logic. The following are excerpts from Sorai’s opinion, translated by Donald Keene in his book, “Chushingura” (Charles E. Tuttle Co.):

By righteousness we mean the path of keeping oneself free from any taint, and by law we mean the measuring rod for the entire country.

A man controls his heart with decorum and his actions with righteousness.

For the 46 samurai to have avenged their master on this occasion shows that they are aware of shame, as becomes men who are samurai; and since they have followed the path of keeping themselves free from taint, their deed is righteous.

However, this deed is ap propriate only to their particular group; it amounts therefore to a special exception to the rules.

The persons connected with the vendetta considered Kira to be their enemy because Asano Naganori was punished for his disorderly behavior in [Edo Castle], and they deliberately planned an act of violence without official permission. This is not to be tolerated under the law.

If the 46 samurai are pronounced guilty and con demned to commit seppuku, in keeping with the traditions of the samurai, the claim of the Uesugi family [Kira’s wife’s family, which was one of the most powerful clans at the time] will be satisfied, and the loyalty of the men will not have been disparaged.

This must therefore be considered as a general principle. If general principles are impaired by special exceptions, there will no longer be any respect for the law in this country.

TV Tokyo and its network stations nationwide will air a 10-hour drama on Chushingura, starting at 2 p.m. on Jan. 2, as its new year showcase program. Featuring one of the leading kabuki actors, Nakamura Kichiemon, as Oishi Kuranosuke, “Chushingura: Ketsudan no Toki (Time for Decision)” adopts the framework of “Kanadehon Chushingura,” which was first performed in 1748 and is still a popular kabuki production. The drama will also feature veteran actress Hitomi Kuroki as Oishi’s wife, Riku; Takaya Kamikawa as Asano Naganori; and Ko Hashizume as Kira Yoshinaka. Events to commemorate the 47 ronin are held annually at Sengakuji Temple, Dec. 14-15. For more information, see The Japan Times’ festival listings at www.japantimes.co.jp/festivals.htm

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