The legend of the 47 Ronin (warriors without a lord) has been ingrained into Japanese folklore through books, films, and other forms of art. Known in Japan as the “Ako Roshi,” the story has even made it to Hollywood. With its tale of honor and sacrifice, it captures the essence of Bushido – the samurai code. In Tokyo, this amazing history can be relived at Shinagawa’s Sengakuji Temple.
The 1612 Sengakuji is famous for being one of the main teaching sites of the famous 20th-century Zen Buddhist, Kodo Sawaki. Kodo is credited for introducing Zen to the general public. Never attaching himself to any specific temple, he was given the name “homeless.” Yet Kodo spent a lot of his time at the Sengakuji and a statue of him recognizes his teachings here. However, most people come to the Sengakuji to see the temple’s ronin past.
The history of the 47 Ronin is a fascinating one. It started when two lords, Asano Naganori, Lord of Ako in Hyogo Prefecture, and Lord Kamei, were ordered to arrange receptions for envoys coming to Edo (Tokyo) Castle. They were taught how to perform this important role by a rather ill-mannered and pompous official, Kira Yoshinaka. Kira had a reputation for corruption and aggression, and treated both lords poorly, constantly insulting them. Kamei was ready to physically retaliate, but sense got the better of him and he paid Kira a bribe. From then on, he was treated with the respect that a lord was deserving of.
Asano Naganori, however, refused to pay a bribe. He tolerated Kira’s aggression for a long time, until one day, it got too much and inside the Edo Castle walls, he attacked Kira with a knife. This was a crime punishable by death and an insult to the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, since Kira was the Shogun’s representative. Asano was ordered to kill himself by seppuku (ritual form of suicide) and was buried at the Sengakuji. His lands were confiscated, his family ruined, and his samurai became jobless (a great shame during Edo times). No punishment was given to Kira (who survived the attack) despite his poor behavior.
Many of Asano’s warriors refused to allow the death of their master to go unchallenged. 47 of them decided to plot revenge. Knowing that Kira would think they would try to avenge their master’s death, the warriors pretended not to be interested in such things by finding jobs as tradesmen and farmers. The group’s leader, Oishi, even played the role of a drunk and a womanizer, leaving Tokyo and publicly acting in a very “un-samurai” manner. Kira sent spies to check and they reported what they saw. The elaborate ruse lasted a year and a half. By this time, Kira felt that there was no threat against him and lowered his guard. In the mean time, some of the plotters found jobs near or within Kira’s own household.
On the 14th of December 1702, after more than a year of planning and strategizing, they acted. Under the leadership of Oishi, they raided Kira’s house. Before attacking, they let Kira’s neighbors know they were not robbers but rather samurai avenging their lord’s death. Kira was not liked and many neighbors assisted the warriors to access the area. After a fight with his guards, Kira was found hiding inside a wardrobe. Orders were given by Oishi that no women or children were to be killed. Warriors of Kira could commit seppuku to retain their honor. Kira refused to take an honorable death and was killed by Oishi. His head was paraded back to the Sengakuji – the temple where Asano was buried. Along the route, people gave the warriors gifts and food, praising their honor.
On arriving at the temple, the Ronin washed and cleaned Kira’s head in a well, and laid it before Asano’s grave. Knowing their actions were punishable by death, they gave money for their own burial and waited. The Shogun, understanding their actions, allowed them to take their own lives and die as warriors instead of criminals. They did so and were buried as a group next to their lord’s tomb.
As a side note, when Oishi was pretending to be a drunk, a man, who was angered by his apparent lack of honor, called him a fool and kicked him in the face. Oishi did not react as this would have made Kira’s spies suspicious. After the Ako Incident, the same man came to the Sengakuji to beg for forgiveness. He then killed himself at Oishi’s tomb and was buried with the other Ronin.
The first thing that greets you upon entering the Sengakuji is the statue of the Ako leader, Oishi. In his right hand is the jointly signed agreement of the 47 Ronin.
The Akogishi Kinenkan, situated near the main temple hall, is a museum dedicated to the Ronin. It costs 500 yen to enter and recounts the story. Exhibited here are some of the original armor worn by the 47, as well as the tools and planning documents they used.
The Ronin are buried at the southern end of the temple. Their graves are identical, small, and undecorated, symbolizing they died for honor and not their own glory. It is sobering, especially when you see fresh flowers at the graves.
Oishi’s grave is the same as his warriors except for the small wooden housing that encloses it. The grave of their master, Asano, lies next to them. The well where Kira’s head was washed is nearby, as is the place where the warriors committed seppuku.
The philosophy of the 47 is still taught to Japanese children and is entrenched within modern Japanese psyche. The Sengakuji is an excellent place to relive this epic tale. So put on your kimono and wander through a history that exemplifies the essence of Bushido.