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Japan's Sengakuji and the 47 Famous Samurai (Part 4)

A Son's Courage

One figure stands out among the line of Samurai statues standing quietly behind protective glass in the Sengakuji Temple Museum. It was chilly in the stark room but the items behind the glass caught my heart and instilled a warmth of pride even though I am not Japanese and I don't really know the full story or background behind Oishi and the 47 Ronin, the numbers “16” displayed in front of a smaller, yet fierce, figure towards the front of the display spoke volumes of the courage of a very young son on a cold Winter day in Edo.

After the Ako Clan was disgraced and all the Samurai and their families were released to become Lord-less Ronin following the Seppuku of their Lord Asano, the Samurai fathers sent their families to other parts of the Ako domain to live with and be safer with relatives.

After extended abuse by his senior, Lord Asano had finally succumbed to his disgust with Tokugawa Bakufu Bureaucrat Kira and un-sheathed his dagger inside the Edo Castle. Such an act against a senior Bureaucrat and the fact that unsheathing of weapons was forbidden inside the castle forced the Shogunate to enforce a sentence of Seppuku on Lord Asano.

Of interest is the fact that Lord Asano was not tried as a criminal and actually accorded an honorable death. This respectful sentence and the meaning behind it was not missed by Lord Asano’s Samurai retainers in Ako. Many in Edo were well aware of Kira’s tricky arrogance, the condescending attitude towards Samurai of lower rank and his greedy bribery and blackmail.

After losing their leader and position, Lord Asano’s Samurai led by Oishi, gathered in utter secrecy to plot an attack on Kira to avenge their Lord. Kira seemed to expect such retribution and had spies across Ako, Edo and the surrounding areas to eke out possible moves to exact revenge. Since the 47 Ronin were indeed plotting an intricate and highly risky attack on Kira’s house in Edo, their families were much safer close to relatives in outlying areas.

One however, Oishi’s son, chose to stay and help his Father. Only 15 at the time, he joined as a fully responsible member of the Ronin group. He was tapped by his Dad to lead the assault from the rear of the house and as one of the team leaders in the attack was surely an integral part of strategy buildings and planning meetings over the two years until December 14.

Each of the 47 men participating in the attack knew exactly where it would lead. The handwritten note each of the 47 Ronin had pinned to their clothing on December 14 is testament to their understanding of why they were involved, the goal of the day and the expected outcome of their actions. They began the attack with quiet visitations to Kira’s neighbors to let them know their intent was only towards Kira to avenge their Lord and that no harm would come their way. They went so far as to jump up and announce from the rooftop that all was safe for homes in the area and they were only there to avenge Lord Asano.

I can imagine Oishi’s son leading a small group of Samurai at the back of the house. Working through Kira retainers, wondering about his dad, his destiny and thinking of home and family as he decided his future with every thrust of his sword and every spent drop of blood.

The houses at the time were complicated and offered hiding places in inner rooms, gardens, bathing room and storage closets. It would have been cold and scary to move through a dark and unknown house, hear the screams of women and calls between retainers risking their lives for Kira, their employer and Lord.
Oishi directed before the attack to try and avoid harming the innocents in the home, so tension and adrenaline must have been running high for this sixteen year old fighting with his father in the dim hours of morning.

The museum at Sengakuji Temple has some worn and broken Samurai mail laid out on a stark white shelf near the figures of the 46 Ronin. Easy to miss, these coverings only gain importance when you realize they are home made by the Ronin themselves. Not to attract attention from Kira’s spies, Oishi and his son joined other Samurai in making their own Samurai armor. Each stitch and darkened twine gains deep significance when you imagine men from age 15 to 73 huddled in secret and carefully putting together what will protect their arms, legs and bodies at their last battle.

There is no record of Oishi’s son Oishi Chikara (who was 15 on the attack day and 16 when he took his own life) causing any issue as the group performed ritual suicide approximately 3 months after their successful attack on Kira.

Although avenging their Lord was within the right of Samurai under Bushido, Such revenge on a bureaucrat within the Shogunate was against the law, so all participants were ordered to perform Seppuku. Each of them conducted their ceremonial Seppuku on Tuesday, March 20, 1703. One Ronin was sent back to Ako to report on the completion of the attack just as it finished so there are only 46 of the attack members at rest at Sengakuji. The Samurai sent back to Ako returned to Edo two years after his brothers’ Seppuku and was eventually pardoned by the Bakufu. Why would Oishi not send his son back to report on the attack and thereby possibly save him from Seppuku?

Maybe Oishi was willing to allow his son to join him in a Samurai’s most honorable departure. Father and son, two brave warriors sit side by side at Sengakuji Temple just outside Sengakuji station on the Toei Asakusa line in Tokyo. Learn about this event for a peek into how the Japanese psyche and focus on honor and devotion is founded in a rich and proud history.

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