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Hi, Keanu! Here's the real story of the 47 rōnin.

Chūshingura (忠臣蔵). Is there anyone in Japan – nay, the world! – who doesn't know this story? It's been told in novels, kabuki, bunraku, films and TV shows, and now Keanu Reeves has tackled it in his movie 47 Rōnin.

When I first heard about the film, I was thrilled, but now that I've seen the trailer … uh-oh. It's a fantasy-adventure-martial arts mishmash that can't decide whether it's Star Wars, The Matrix or The Last Samurai; but perhaps the full-length feature is better than the trailer.

Keanu Reeves in 47 Rōnin

The real leader of the 47 rōnin, Ōishi Yoshio,
at Sengaku-ji

Everybody will be talking about it, though, so let's look at the real story of the 47 rōninIt's based on historical facts. As briefly as possible this is what happened in 1701:

A country baron called Asano Naganori was appointed by the shōgun to receive the emperor's ambassadors. Since Asano was unfamiliar with court etiquette, a higher-ranking nobleman called Kira Yoshinaka was instructed to act as his mentor. Then disaster struck: Asano tried to assassinate Kira. He only wounded the older man, but it was such a serious violation of etiquette that the shōgun ordered Asano to commit a ritual suicide known as seppuku. His lands were confiscated and his retainers were released as rōnin, or masterless samurai without a job.

They plotted revenge, and by using a combination of patience, cunning and self-sacrifice they finally – two years after their lord's death! – broke into Kira's mansion at night and killed him. After they were arrested, they followed their master's example by committing seppuku.

These real events turned into the stuff of legend almost immediately: only three years later Chikamatsu immortalized it in a bunraku play. Various versions of the story followed, but the most famous is Kana dehon chūshingura (仮名手本忠臣蔵) written in 1748 by three authors including Takeda Izumo. It's in every child's school textbooks, it's performed every New Year, it's been filmed countless times.

Why did Asano try to kill Kira? It's not clear, but many theories have been proposed:

  • Kira flirted with Asano's young wife.
  • Kira was responsible for instructing the younger Asano in the rules of court etiquette, and deliberately taught him the wrong rules in order to humiliate him.
  • Kira was Asano's mentor, and as such, Asano had to thank Kira with symbolic gifts. Asano's gifts weren't good enough, Kira started treating him with contempt, Asano retaliated with an attempted murder.

Actually, the motive is irrelevant. What makes this story so enormously popular in Japan is the triumph of giri (義理 or social obligations) over ninjō (人情 or human feelings). That's probably the theme of 90% of Japanese stories, but the tale of the 47 rōnin illustrates it particularly well.

It also explains why the leader of the rōnin, Ōishi Yoshio (大石 良雄), is the real hero of the story.

Weird movie posters. No, I don't know why she's upside down.

Ian Buruma says in his book A Japanese Mirror – Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture:

An important element in their heroism is the directness, the unthinkingness of their actions. There is a certain type of hero who appeals greatly to the popular imagination. He is the opposite of the stereotyped image people generally have of the average Japanese – which is perhaps partly why he is a hero. One is often told, usually by Japanese themselves, that losing one's temper is tantamount to losing face. This may be so, but this type of hero is nothing if not quick-tempered. [Asano] is of course the prime example: his first reaction is to use his sword …

This emphasis on blind, emotional action points to one of the most significant paradoxes underlying Japanese culture: namely that a highly conformist people obsessed with etiquette and social propriety should ideally be swayed by their innermost emotions …

It does put giri and other social obligations in an interesting light: while giri is ostensibly part of a social system to keep the wilder emotions in check, it can just as easily be employed as an excuse to give them free reign. After all, any amount of fanaticism can he excused in the name of giri, particularly as rationality is not only not a necessity, but not even really desirable.

It is, however, private inclination restrained to bursting point that provides the real tension in Japanese drama. The consummate Japanese hero, admired even more than honest hot-heads, never breaks out wildly immediately. Heroes … are a little like hissing and puffing pressure cookers, and it is at the final breaking point that the audience applauds. It is the period of enduring the unendurable that makes the final act of revenge so cathartic. Gaman, meaning perseverance, endurance or sufferance, is as much a virtue as makoto [sincerity, truth, faith].

Asano and his 47 retainers were buried at a Sōtō Zen temple in Shinagawa called Sengaku-ji (泉岳寺).

The outer gate of Sengaku-ji

The inner gate of Sengaku-ji


It's a fairly low-key temple, but it was quite busy on the day that I went there – though most of the visitors were office workers having lunch and a group of seniors painting the temple's famous main gate. The latter is registered as a Tangible Cultural Property in Minato-ku.

It took me a few minutes and a lot of frowning, muttering and grumbling to figure out where the graves are: towards your left if you face the main temple, tucked away in a corner of the graveyard. You'll find all 47 graves there, with incense and candles burning at most of them, and friendly ojiisan guarding the gate (and following you to check that you know the story).

The path leading towards the graves of the 47 rōnin

A map indicates where each warrior is buried.

47 graves

It is a somewhat unsettling experience to stand there, surrounded by the graves of men who were willing to die for their lord. I caught myself wondering, "What would I be willing to die for?" That question remains unanswered. (I would fight to protect my books and my chocolate supply, but you're going to die, not me!)

I end with Asano's death poem:


kaze sasou / hana yori mo nao / ware wa mata / haru no nagori wo / ika ni toyasen

More than the cherry blossoms,
Inviting a wind to blow them away,
I am wondering what to do
With the remaining springtime.

Looking towards the inner gate from the main temple.
Isn't that a gorgeous pine tree?

Looking towards the main temple from the inner gate

Ru loves roofs.

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