Japan's Sengakuji and the 47 Famous Samurai (Part 3)

The unnamed man from the Satsuma Clan in Kagoshima

A quick read-up on the story of the 47 Ronin who avenged their Lord will give the pertinent details on how the plan was executed and how the Ronin successfully found and exacted revenge on Kira Yoshinaka one snowy morning in Tokyo. He desperately begged for mercy from the Ako Clan members and was unable to respond coherently to Oishi Kuranosuke’s (the leader of the group) offer of an honorable Seppuku death. Oishi had gone properly on his knees to Kira to report they were there officially to avenge their Lord Asano and that Kira was being offered the true way of departure as a Samurai, namely, Seppuku. Oishi himself was ready to serve as “Kaishakunin” (the one to slice of Kira’s head as he performed the ceremonial Seppuku). The miserable, groveling and incoherent Kira continued in terror to try and avoid his demise so Oishi and his men were forced to hold him down while Oishi cut off his head with the very same dagger Lord Asano used in his attack against Kira some two years earlier.

Kira’s attitude and inability to act with honor in the face of his wrong and impending demise presents a stark contrast to another player in this story who appears only briefly in most accounts. To me, though, his role in this event again portrays how a true Samurai acts and takes full responsibility for his serious mistakes.

It might have been six to twelve months after their Lord Asano Naganori of the Ako Clan was ordered to perform Seppuku by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was during the mandatory stay in Edo for regional Daimyo Lords (known as Sankin Koutai) when Lord Asano found himself in charge of organizing an important ceremony with the Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain for visiting envoys of the Emperor.

Both Lords were from regions with less significance, at least in the view of their superior, Shogunate bureaucrat Lord Kira. Kira was supposed to instruct the two Lords on proper etiquette for the ceremony, but Kira instead continuously harassed them both and would make snide remarks about their homeland. His disdainful and cruel treatment of the two Lords pushed both Lords to the edge of their ability to control their emotions. Lord Kamei had quick-thinking retainers who caught on to Kira’s true desire and offered him payment to satisfy his craving for wealth and material comforts. A strong Confucius and a strict follower of the Bushido way, Lord Asano refused to submit to Kira’s unspoken, yet clearly conveyed demands. Blackmail did not sit well with Lord Asano.

Lord Asano kept his composure in response to Kira’s taunts and rudeness until they bumped one another in passing in the Pine Corridor of the Edo Castle. Disrespectful words about Lord Asano being a brutish country bumpkin leaked from Kira’s mouth and as this final straw broke Lord Asano’s ability to maintain stoic cool, he drew his dagger and lunged. Retainers stepped in to separate the Lords and Kira left the corridor with a slight wound to the head and a much larger wound to his pride. We all know that the wounded pride of a dirty power monger is a dangerous thing.

The fact that Lord Asano had unsheathed his dagger in the Edo Castle, an act strictly forbidden by the Shogunate, soon invited the Shogunate to consider the events and pass judgment on Lord Asano’s fate.
Possibly due to widespread knowledge of the trouble being caused to Lord Asano, or that Kira was shady and unworthy of trust, Lord Asano was ordered Seppuku instead of being executed as a criminal. It was an honorable death for Lord Asano, but spelt the end for his clan, their holdings, his family honor and put his 300 plus Samurai retainers out of work immediately.

Herein begins the story of the 47 Ronin who vowed to avenge their Lord in what was considered a perfectly logical and accepted response to the disrespect shown him and his domain by Kira. I stop to ponder how these men felt as they spent the two years planning and preparing to exact the perfect act of name saving they achieved on that snowy day in Edo.

One story about the process strikes me as particularly deep and representative of the thinking at that time.

Oishi Kuranosuke (the leader of the group of 47) spent two years after Lord Asano’s death trying to convince Kira spies that all the Samurai of the Ako Clan were now harmless, lost and fully dispersed. To allay the suspicions of Kira who kept close watch on their movements in full expectation of an effort to avenge Lord Asano, Oishi “parties” hard. He visits brothels and frolics with Geisha even going so far as to select his preferred mistress. He becomes well known as a drunkard with no self-respect who frequents the red light districts in Kyoto. One afternoon, he is crumpled drunk on the street and another Samurai from the Satsuma Clan explodes with disgust at a Samurai brother showing such lack of self-control and disregard for the Bushido Way.

This man from Satsuma kicks Oishi as he lies on the ground, slaps him in the face and spits on him. In a clear and public show of abuse to a Samurai fallen off the code of honor, the Satsuma man clarifies his stance that this man Oishi no longer represents the stature and grit of a true Samurai.

Two years hence, after Oishi and his 46 Ronin brothers successfully avenge their Lord’s name, it is this same Satsuma man who makes his way to Edo, kneels in front of Oishi’s grave in Sengakuji Temple, and offers his ultimate show of remorse for his harsh treatment of Oishi. After offering incense and sincere tears of remorse to Oishi over how he had kicked and mistreated him in Kyoto, this true Samurai from Satsuma (Kagoshima) receives his rites and right there, before Oishi’s grave, performs ceremonial Seppuku.

Since one Samurai was sent back to Ako to report on the successful fulfillment of the plan against Kira, it was only 46 Ronin buried in Sengakuji until an unnamed Satsuma man with a burden of remorse over how he treated the group’s leader on a street back in Kyoto joined the group under the stones in Takanawa.

The fact this Satsuma man resisted the temptation to brush the incident right under the rug and take true responsibility for how he had treated Oishi, to the point of dying for the dishonor done, is an intense testament to how honor and the Bushido way was held with great pride by the heroic Samurai of Japan’s past. This critical eye on one’s self and a constant questioning of how to best treat others is something I feel alive and well in Japan today. Thank you to the Samurai from Satsuma for acting out the firm devotion to honor and leaving modern Japan with your clear legacy of discipline and an approach to life that starts with introspection and a focus on others.

Sengakuji Temple is the resting place for some 47 Samurai who acted upon this code and we modern-day visitors can certainly stand to gain from such strength of character and devotion to honor.


Former Deep Japan Writer

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