“Ako incident ” This incident is one of the most famous stories in Japan. It has been featured in many books, movies and plays, including the popular Kabuki play “Kana Dehon Chushingura”. Commonly called “Chushingura” it depicts the loyalty and revenge of the Ako Gishi (the 47 ronin who are praised for their loyalty to their murdered master). As the story goes, the lord of Ako, Asano Takuminokami, drew his sword on the notoriously Kira Kouzukenosuke at Matsu no Oroka (the Great Pine Corridor) in the Edo Castle. After the incident, Asano was ordered to commit unreasonable seppuku, so the 47 ronin of the Asano family, in a display of admirable loyalty, took revenge for their master. However, this popular version of the event is heavily influenced by the Kabuki play. From a historical point of view, the story may look very different. Here’s another version of events:
The 14th of March, 1701, was the last day of a ceremony held in honour of the representatives from the Imperial court of the Emperor. They had come to return the curtesy of the yearly visit that the Shogun paid to the Emperor. Kira Kouzukenosuke, in charge of the ceremony, came to blows with Asano Takuminokami in the “Great Pine Corridor” inside of the castle walls. The Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, became enraged when he found out someone had spilt blood in his castle during such an important ceremony. As punishment, he stripped the Asano family of their samurai status and all of their territories. Most fatefully of all, he ordered Asano Takuminokami to commit seppuku on the very same day of the incident. At the same time, despite rules of the era saying that, in a fight, both parties were to be discplined, Kira – who survived with only light wounds – went unpunished. This is perhaps due to the fact that his sword was undrawn, but the Ako clan wholeheartedly disagreed and unsuccessfully petitioned against Tokugawa’s decision. Instead, they decided to avenge their lord’s death in a more bloody manner. Asano’s 47 loyal bodyguards, included Ooishi Kuranosuke, began their secret plans for killing Kira. On the 14th – the same day as Asano’s death – of December, 1702, in the early hours of the morning, the 47 ronin stormed into Kira’s household. They discovered him two hours later, killing him and cutting off his head. They took the severed head to Sengakuji, the family temple of the Asano family, and laid it on their master’s grave. The 47 ronin were judged as “conspiring together to commit violent revenge” and they all were ordered to commit seppuku. On February 4th, 1703, they ended their lives.
1. What kind of people were Kira Kouzukenosuke and Asano Takuminokami?
Kira Kouzukenosuke held a position that put him in charge of rituals and liturgies in the Edo shogunate, as well as teaching etiquette and ritual practises. He also served as a liason between the Shogunate and Imperial court. Asano Takumi no Kami was a lord of Ako (now Ako city, Hyogo prefecture). Although he was not such a high level lord, he was known to manage his territories very well.
2. Why did Asano Takuminokami attack Kira Kouzukenosuke?
There are various opinions on this. One of them is Kira was very mean. It’s suggested that Kira disliked Asano because Asano refused to pay as much in bribes to him as others. When Asano was in his mid thirties, he was appointed to Edo Castle, but he was young and he did not know the traditions or etiquette so he asked for teaching from Kira who was over 60 years old at the time. Even though the Kira clan had guaranteed status and employment in reality his salary was very small and there was not much to spare. The expensive cost of clothes and equipment made the gifts and rewards of money from his clients indispensable. Whilst it may have looked like he was receiving bribes, it might have been simply that his customers wanted to encourage and support him in his good teaching work. This appearance of bribery may have added to the friction between the two men.
3. What drove Asano to such a serious action?
Although it’s not clear, there is a theory that there were some psychological issues that Asano was dealing with. Records remain that he was incredibly stubborn in nature and was unable to control his temper. Even when dealing with his own servants, any who made a mistake could expect their master to punish them with a beating. There is also evidence that his anger affected his heart and so was taking medicine to calm his mood, perhaps indicating some kind of psychological disorder.
4. Was there any legitimacy to the 47 ronin’s revenge?
As romantic as the story is, the Shogunate’s decision to charge Asano was pretty right actually. He was guilty of attempted murder and broke the law that made it illegal to draw a sword in Edo castle. If we look at this coupled with the fact that Kira was a nonresistant elderly man at the time, we might see the incident in a different light.
5. Why was Kira never blamed?
Even according to modern day law, Kira could be seen as a victim. He didn’t fight back and he was in a place that essentially outlawed the use of weapons. Maybe some of the 47 ronin thought “I don’t understand well, but my lord got killed, so I’ll be I will avenge him,” or, “I don’t know the details, but the samurai rule is supposed to call for equal punishment in a fight, why wasn’t Kira also charged?” It’s easy to see how they might have found the decision unfair.
Regardless of whether 47 ronin really understood the circumstances surrounding their master’s death, they made the decision to seek vengeance. Their leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, had negotiated with the shogunate, asking that Asano’s brother, Nagahiro, succeed. But, whether he wanted to or not, Tokugawa couldn’t be seen to be weak in the eyes of the Imperial court. If he could not lead the samurai, how could he continue to be general?
Recently it’s widely known that the reasons behind this incident are unclear. The 47 ronin went against the rule of the Shogun, and carried out a sneak attack on Kira’s house in the middle of the night. No one knows the truth but if you read this article and are interested in Japanese history, I encourage you to visit some of the places where these people lived and worked, fought and died, and helped build what we know as modern Japan.