It’s December, time for “Chushingura,” the legendary 18th century tale of the 47 ronin, to be resurrected on TV and capture viewers’ hearts again.
Re-enacters: People dressed as samarai march from JR Tamachi Station to Sengakuji Temple in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 14 to mark the day in 1702 when 47 ronin avenged their leader’s death. They were buried at the temple after killing themselves.
SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO
On Dec. 14, 1702, 47 samurai followers of Asano took revenge on Kira and killed him. They then subsequently dispatched themselves.
Who were Asano and Kira, and what was their relationship?
Asano was a feudal lord of the Ako clan, a domain located in present-day Hyogo Prefecture. He was also a “kyo-o-yaku,” a guardian of Imperial envoys sent to Edo.
During the Edo Period, it was the custom that the shogunate sent officials to Kyoto in January. In return the Emperor’s envoys were dispatched to Edo in February.
Kira Yoshinaka was a “ko-ke,” an official in charge of advising kyo-o-yaku like Asano in taking care of the envoys.
Why did Asano assault Kira and have to commit suicide?
The common belief is that Asano assaulted Kira in the first because Kira had not properly advised him in how he should conduct himself. Bribing a ko-ke was common practice, but historical records indicate Asano did not pay enough and Kira took it as an insult.
Legend has it Asano told Kira he bore a grudge against him before slashing him, but why is not clear.
In the Edo Period, if someone died during a personal conflict, the killer was put to death. According to “Ako Roshi no Jitsuzo” (“The Real Image of the Ako Ronin”) by Shinko Taniguchi, this was to prevent samurai from drawing their swords every time they got into a dispute. It was also strictly forbidden to draw a sword in a palace.
The shogunate apparently admired Kira’s decision not to retaliate for Asano’s attack. They weren’t so impressed with Asano and ordered him to commit seppuku the following day.
Why did the 47 ronin in the Ako domain take revenge?
According to “Asano Takumi Kerai Kojo” (“Statement of Followers of Asano Takumi”), the 47 ronin decided to kill Kira to resolve Asano’s regret for not being able to do the deed himself, not as a protest targeting the shogunate.
Was the raid really carried out by 47 ronin?
The number is not certain. According to the book “Chushingura ni Hiro wa Inakatta” (“There was no Hero in Chushingura”), there were only 46 ronin. It is said that foot-soldier Kichiemon Terasaka bolted either before or after the attack.
When did the first “Chushingura” account debut?
Only 12 days after the ronin committed seppuku, the play “Akebono Sogano Youchi” was performed in Edo.
But the shogunate banned it after three days. In 1706, the Ako Incident was written as a “joruri” (narrative music) called “Goban Taiheiki” by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, a popular writer in Osaka. Since then, “Chushingura” has taken various joruri and kabuki forms.
Is it true the Occupation banned “Chushingura” after the war?
Yes. Occupation authorities banned movies and plays that upheld feudalistic ideas and personal vengeance, including “Chushingura,” according to “Kindai Nihon to Chushingura Genso” (“Modern Japan and Illusion of Chushingura”) by Seiichi Miyazawa.
When did the tale become a movie and TV drama?
The first movie, “Jitsuen Chushingura,” debuted in 1910. Kenji Mizoguchi released “Genroku Chushingura” in 1941. In 1952, another movie based on “Chushingura” — “Ako Jo” (“Ako Castle”) — was released.
According to “Modern Japan and Illusion of Chushingura,” to be able to shoot the movie the producers had to convince the Occupation authorities that the 47 ronin were actually forces for democracy who fought against the shogunate. “Chushingura” was subject to yearly movie remakes. In 1964, NHK released the TV drama “Ako Roshi,” building up the tale’s popularity even more.
Have any foreigners done an interpretation of “Chushingura”?
Yes. Maurice Bejart, a notable choreographer of modern ballet, created a ballet titled “The Kabuki,” based on “Chushingura,” in 1986.
Why is the tale still so widely popular?
Kosuke Sato, author of “Chushingura Jiken no Sinso” (“The Truth of Chushingura Incident”), wrote that the story attracts people ranging from officials to opponents to the establishment because it is about revenge and disobeying authority but also about loyalty.
Literary critic Shuichi Kato wrote that “Chushingura” is popular because it depicted solidarity and the sense of unity in a group that can also be seen in Japanese society.
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