The Meaning of Bushido - The 47 Rōnin

Bushido is the name given by the West to the virtues the Samurai lived by.  Never formally codified, it was a system of values passed down by tradition, from master to apprentice, from father to son.  It was known, not written. The best way to know Bushido was to live it, or, lacking that, to learn of the deeds of those who did.  The following is a retelling of one of the most famous incidents in Japan that exemplifies in every way what it means to follow Bushido.  While it bears little historical resemblance to what actually happened, it is a cultural staple, and what follows is the traditional narrative.The following are excerpts from a diary composed by one of the fallen.  Some superfluous passages have been omitted, while others have been lost.

...the ramparts of Edo castle came into view as we approached.  We were almost at the end of our yearly journey, which we took for my daimyō [lord] to fulfill his duties to the shōgun [head of the military government].  While it would be another year before we could return home, for my daimyō it was his chance to reunite with his younger brother and adopted heir, for he had no children of his own…

...after one month here, I feel settled in again.  The daily tasks are routine now, and I do them without issue.  My daimyō Asano has been re-appointed as one of the two officials whose duty it is to host the emissaries from the imperial court to the Shogunate, a position he once held 18 years before.  While this would normally be an honor, if a small one, I’m concerned because of the recent tensions between him and Kira Yoshinaka, the head of ceremonial matters…

…It seems my concerns were warranted. Kira had been treating both Asano and Kamei poorly, enraging them both.  While my daimyō bore it well, giving no outward sign, Kamei took it less well and planned to kill Kira. (One of Kamei’s retainers relayed this to me in a recent dinner).  Fortunately for Kamei, his quick-thinking counselors offered Kira a large bribe, which has entreated him to favor Kamei more. However, he still treats Asano poorly, and I fear that even my noble master’s restraint cannot last forever…

...The worst has happened.  After a grave insult, my daimyō could take it no longer and attacked Kira.  While his first dagger strike hit and opened a flesh wound on Kira’s face, the second missed and guards separated them before a third could be made.  While the wound was not serious, it was made in the residence of the shōgun, where drawing any kind of weapon was forbidden, let alone using it. For this, Asano has been ordered to commit seppuku - ritual suicide by disembowelment…

...The walls of my home rose over the horizon.  Oh sad day. For, this time, it was not a triumphal return home as a loyal Samurai, but as a forlorn procession of soon-to-be-rōnin [leaderless Samurai] carrying out the orders of the shōgun to prepare the now-deceased Asano’s lands and property for seizing by government officials.  We had hurried to arrive before the government officials and inform the head chamberlain Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio of the news...

...It’s over.  I am now rōnin, and so are over 300 of my fellow Samurai.  Honor demands that we avenge our master, but the shōgun has made it clear that any such attempt is forbidden, and Kira has prepared for it by increasing the guards around his manor, making any such attempt suicide.  However, honor does not depend upon success but merely action, and there is a growing movement among some of the rōnin to make an attack anyway. Ōishi tried to get the Asano estate restored but was unsuccessful and has been quiet lately. However, he has recently called a meeting for some of the loudest discontents.  As one of them, I have been invited as well…

...The sweat continued to fall from my brow and it seemed like the dust stirred up by my broom would never settle.  It was hot in the shop, and I counted out the coins to my customers who were buying some of the pots I had recently sourced from some traders passing by.  It was humiliating work for a former Samurai, but it was for a cause. (I haven’t had much time to write much for the past few months, so I’ll give a short recap of the interim now).  In that fateful meeting, Ōishi laid down a grand plan in which over a period of years we would lull Kira’s suspicions, so he would eventually decrease his guard and we could complete our revenge.  The strategy was simple: we would all abandon our roles as Samurai and become tradesman and monks, positions well below our former status, humiliating us in the process, but giving us the greatest odds of success….

...A few more months have passed.  We have all taken to our new roles, however reluctantly.  Ōishi has fallen the farthest, as as our former leader he naturally attracts the most suspicion, so he has taken to frequenting taverns and brothels in order to cement the illusion.  A few days ago, I received word that he had been attacked by a man so infuriated with this behavior coming from a (former) Samurai, that even though it is forbidden to even touch a Samurai, the man felt justified in kicking and spitting on him…

...The first half of our plan has succeeded.  Kira has finally abandoned his suspicions and has lowered the guard on the castle.  Though it has taken a year and a half, our resolve has never wavered, though we did doubt at times.  For Ōishi, it has been even more difficult. He divorced his beloved and loyal wife shortly after he was assaulted in order to protect her from the fallout of our eventual attack.  He also sent away his two youngest children to live with her parents, though he offered the chance to join us to his eldest son, who has since accepted. Furthermore, he had us bring him a geisha [non-sexual female entertainer] in order to enhance the illusion.  It seems to have worked, though the cost is great. Of course, should we succeed, the cost will be even greater - our very lives…

...It has been another six months, but we are almost ready.   We have managed to use our newfound trades to gain access to Kira’s house, and have not only learned the layout of the place, but have managed to smuggle weapons into Edo.  One of us even married the daughter of the house’s builder in order to obtain the plans. Ōishi should be joining us soon to coordinate the final assault, but first he has to lose his spies in Kyoto…

...The night of the attack has arrived. We have armed ourselves with swords and bows.  We will split into two groups. One, led by Ōishi will attack the front gate, while the other, led by his eldest son will attack the back.  When we succeed in killing Kira, a whistle will sound. We begin at the sound of a drum…

...It’s over, and we’re alive, for now.  The fight was swift but deadly. Ōishi had prepared us well.  First, we sent a small group of four men to silence the guard and other men to warn the neighbors of the impending attack.  Once they learned they were in no danger themselves and that we were only there for Kira, whom most of them hated, they allowed us to continue without hindrance.   Ōishi put some archers on the roof to prevent requests for reinforcements from getting out. Then the drum sounded and we began the final assault.

We managed to swarm the guards inside the house from both directions, though the attack at the front gate was held off for a short while by a large group of retainers.  Coming together, we presented a united front to the remaining retainers rushing in from the barracks on the grounds outside the mansion. After a short skirmish, when they saw that we were too strong, they tried to call for reinforcements, but our archers made swift work of their messengers.  Once the fighting was over, we searched the house. Ōishi had reminded us to only kill combatants and Kira, not innocents. We found many women and children, though Kira remained missing. We determined he was nearby, however, when Ōishi discovered his bed was still warm.  After a thorough search, one of us discovered a secret courtyard behind a concealed entrance, where he was attacked by a lone man with a dagger. Sure this must be Kira, he sounded the whistle and we all gathered. Ōishi positively identified the man as Kira, as his face still bore the scar from Asano’s attack two years before.

Ōishi respectfully addressed Kira as he should to one of higher rank and informed him that we were there to perform our duty to our fallen daimyō . Ōishi offered him an honorable death of suicide by the same dagger Asano had used himself to commit seppuku , and even offered to be his second - the one to behead him afterward - to prevent a painful and lingering death.  Kira refused to answer, so Ōishi, realizing that time was short, had us hold Kira down and performed the beheading himself. We left with the head, extinguishing all fires in the house in order to prevent an out of control blaze that might spread and harm the neighbors….

...Tomorrow, I turn myself in.  Our mission has been completed and our honor restored.  We carried the head we had washed and cleaned to Asano’s tomb, and laid it with the dagger used.  We then went to the temple, and gave the abbot of the temple money for our burial, and asked that he pray for us. This will be my last entry…

The aftermath: With their mission completed, 46 of the 47 rōnin turned themselves in (the 47th was sent to Ako, their home, to report their success to Asano’s widow).  The shōgun faced a quandary: by defying his orders, they deserved death, yet they were well-loved by the populace for acting as true samurai should and avenging their master.  He resolved it by offering to allow each of the rōnin to commit ritual suicide rather than be dishonorably executed, which they all accepted. Ōishi Chikara, the eldest son was only 16 when he died.

They were all buried at Sengaku-ji, in front of their master’s tomb.  The man who assaulted Ōishi went to their graves, begged for forgiveness, committed seppuku, and was buried next to them  The 47th rōnin who served as messenger was pardoned by the shōgun and lived to a ripe-old age of 87 years before being interred with his comrades.  Their graves remain to this day and can be visited, The temple preserves their clothes and arms, which they handmade to prevent discovery.

If one wants to describe Bushido, a story can have much more impact and meaning then a lifeless list of rules.  This tale has remained popular in Japan because it tells of undying loyalty, honor, and long-suffering in pursuit of a just cause - principles that make up the core of Busihdo.   

Historical Note - Seppuko

Seppuko was practiced by Samurai as an honorable way of dying  They used a Japanese dagger - a Tanto - to pierce the abdomen and perform a rapid slash from left to right.  If done deep enough, this could cause a quick death from massive internal bleeding. If not, the death could be long and painful.  Thus, many Samurai would have a “second” standing by, whose job it was cut into the spinal column, thus ensuring a quick death for the performer.

Tantos are ancient, with over a thousand years of history.  Because the swords the Samurai carried represented their identity, and the Samurai were members of the highest social class, their daggers were quite ornate.  

Check out our Tantos for some examples here