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"What if Lord Kira had died of a cold?"—Tsunetomo Yamamoto pointing out the major flaw of the cunning plan outlined below.
The Tale of The 47 Ronin is a true story of revenge and loyalty.
On April 21, 1701, Daimyo Asano Naganori and Daimyo Kamei no Tsuwano received an envoy from the Shogun in Edo. Having no experience in courtly etiquette, they hired Kira Yoshinaka to teach them. Unfortunately, Kira was quite a Jerkass, and Asano, a devout Confucian, could barely tolerate him. Eventually, Asano had enough and attacked Kira. He managed to scar him, but he had committed a capital crime by drawing a weapon in Edo Castle.
Asano committed Seppuku, and his holdings were taken from him. His now Ronin retainers were ordered to abandon the idea of revenge. Forty-seven of them secretly refused, and they hatched a plan, a cunning plan, a plan bordering on ridiculous.
The ringleader, Oishi Yoshio, told the others to hide amongst the populace as tradesmen and merchants, while Yoshio moved to Kyoto and decided to act like a broken man, getting drunk and hanging out with prostitutes. A Satsuma man, upon seeing Yoshio drunk in a gutter, insulted his honour for not avenging his master like a true samurai, spat on him and kicked him in the face.
After a year in hiding, during which time Kira has stopped fearing assassination and dismissed most of his bodyguards, Yoshio secretly gathered his men and infiltrated Kira's home on December 14th, 1702. They attacked from front and back, sparing the noncombatants, and captured Kira. Yoshio offered him the chance to die by his own hand, with the knife that Asano had wounded him with, but he clammed up, so they held him down and used the knife to decapitate him.
They took Kira's head to Sengaku-ji and laid it and the knife on their master's grave, saying prayers at the temple and giving all their money to the abbot. They then proceeded to Edo and turned themselves in.
The Shogunate had a quandary: the ronin had violated a direct order from the Shogun by avenging their master, yet some said they had acted according to Bushido by avenging their master. This has, inevitably, been debated - others believe the truly honorable thing would have been to just charge Kira's home ASAP, deciding to get gallantly cut to pieces through honest action rather than attain vengeance through trickery, especially given the major flaw stated above, which would have left them unable to avenge their master. On the other hand, in a society where honour is most definitely more important than life itself, it could be argued that their actions were the ultimate demonstration of loyalty to their lord. By publicly dishonouring themselves to ensure their plan's success, they could be seen to be making the supreme sacrifice for Asano's sake. After receiving numerous petitions from the public, the Shogun decided to sentence them to death by seppuku instead of execution as criminals. Forty-six ronin died by their own hand on February 4, 1703; Yoshio had sent the last back to Ako to inform Asano's former retainers that their revenge had been completed. The Shogun pardoned him and he died at the age of 78, buried next to his comrades and his lord. Their weapons, armor, and clothing are still kept at Senkagu-ji. The Satsuma man who had insulted Yoshio came to Sengaku-ji to pray for forgiveness and then took his own life; he is also buried next to the ronin.
The Shogunate allowed Asano Nagahiro to reestablish the Asano clan, but only gave him a tenth of his family's former land.
Countless books, plays, TV shows, and movies have been made about the 47 ronin.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura, a bunraku puppet show first played in 1748, is the most noted among the earliest fictional portrayals of the 47 ronin. To avoid the Shogunate's censorship laws, the authors of the play changed the names and moved the dates back to the Muromachi period.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura has also been made into a kabuki play.
- The History Bites episode "Samurai Goodfellas" recreates these events, playing them out in a manner reminiscent of The Godfather. The episode's Running Gag is that the 47 ronin can't all fit into the room, so only four principal actors appear at any one time; when they refer to themselves as a group, Yoshio (Ron Pardo) mentions "The other forty-three ronin in the hall."
- The Assassin Gambit by William Forstchen has the 47 Ronin transported into the far future in order to settle a bet about military tactics between powerful but decadent humans and aliens who have access to time travel and too much free time on their hands. The staged battle soon spirals out of control and triggers a galaxy-wide conflict, but some of the Ronin survive to become characters in the sequel The Napoleon Wager.
- The novel The Hokkaido Road seems to be loosely based on this
- This incident is mentioned in Ronin, a 1998 thriller about a team of ex-Cold War spies who hire themselves out as mercenaries. The French doctor they seek help from is building a diorama of the 47 Ronin, and relates the tale to the protagonist 'Sam'. Sam approves of the methods of the 47 Ronin, but not their subsequent suicide -- but the scene is a clue to Sam's own nature. Just as the ronin were pretending to have forsaken their duty, so Sam is only pretending to have left the CIA.
- In Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, when he states that the lesson of today is the importance of holding one's tongue, he seems to take Kira's side when he describes it as a noble courtier who upset some violent country bumpkins by saying the wrong thing.
- In Ooku, the Forty Seven are almost all men, a rarity in post-Gendercide Japan. This naturally makes the fallout worse for Shogun Tsunayoshi.
- The Tokaido Road took an interesting turn on the tale and followed a fictional daughter of Lord Asano through her own plot for revenge. The book climaxes with the raid by the 47 ronin.
- Juken Sentai Gekiranger had an episode where, via time travel, the Gekirangers end up enacting the legendary raid early in order to obtain the Sou Jyu Tou from a Rinrinshi possessing Kira. By the time they "exorcise" Kira and leave, the real raid begins. As a result of the Gekirangers' raid, all of Kira's bodyguards are incapacitated, fitting in with the story as it is known.
- An episode of Lupin III, "The Name of the Operation is Chuushingura," is a Homage to the 47 Ronin, where the ghost of Kira asks for Lupin's help in regaining an earthly treasure.