Book Review: The 47 Ronin Story - John Allyn

I found this story, which is little known outside of Japan to be a most impressive example of the ideals of the elite warrior class of Japan known as Samurai. In Japanese, it is entitled "Chushingura" which translates as "Vengeance" The Forty-Seven Ronin Story probably ranks as one of my favorite books about history ( and I have read many). Unlike other historical situations where men were faced with death, these men had a choice between life and death and they chose death with honor. The warriors were driven by allegiance to their code of chivalry known as "Bushido" which emphasizes a fanatical loyalty to their lord, tempered by the serenity and wisdom of Confucianism and Buddhism.

The book provides fascinating insight into the feudal system known as "bakufu" under the Tokugawa shogunate and the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism on Japanese society. While it may be fictionalized or embellished in places, the book is based on a true incident which occurred in 1701.

(A brief synopse)
Revenge and Redemption In a world where change was taking place so rapidly, the 47 ronin of Ako forced themselves to continue the tradition of honor and social control that feudal Japan had once been ruled by. Japan was a place that was in a constant state of flux and change in the beginning of the 18th century. While the Shogun, Tsunayoshi, attempted to further his central control in the country social changes began to take place. The makeup of the social classes was being redefined. A system that was once enforced by the samurai was now increasingly being centralized. Asano and his force of samurai were the exception to this rule of change. For them the most important aspect of their history was duty, honor, and sacrifice. The 47 Ronin Story is a book about honor, revenge and redemption. From the beginning of the story, the concept of honor and redemption is apparent. Lord Asano of Ako is portrayed as an honorable man who is trying to live the laws set forth by the Shogun Tsunayoshi. In obedience to his leader, Asano is readying himself for the ceremonies to take place in the palace of the Shogun. At the same time, an element of tradition and redemption of traditional ways takes place in his preparation. In order for Asano to understand the etiquette for the occasion, he must learn from the Shogun's master of ceremonies, Kira. Kira requires a bribe for his services and Asano refuses to pay the bribe because of his traditional values. In Asano's attempt to protect and redeem himself from the bribery and corruption, he ends up committing a grievous act wherein he injures Kira and seals his fate. Although Asano was allowed to commit seppuku it was, in a way, a disgrace to the honor and tradition of traditional Japanese values. Immediately after the death of the Lord of Ako, the samurai serving Asano, now ronin or masterless samurai, become fixed on revenge, after they learned that Kira had survived his wounds they determined to avenge Asano and redemption of their good names, and the name of their master, Lord Asano, following the Confucian edict that :
No man may live under the same sky with the murderer of his lord.

No longer with a master, and their lands taken over, the ronin of Ako disperse with the knowledge that some day they will hopefully return and avenge the death of their lord, and regain their titles as samurai. With Kira alive the ronin felt they could not redeem themselves without the death of their lord's effectual killer. In the first days after their master's death, almost all of the ronin vowed to someday get revenge. As time passed, however, only the most dedicated ronin were seen to be the ones to take an interest in regaining what was previously theirs. In the attempt to organize their forces, the ronin of Ako would eventually have to do exactly the opposite of what they were planning to do in order to attain revenge, and redeem themselves. The ronin had to totally degrade themselves. The ronin had to let others around them know that they were truly masterless samurai who had lost all of their will to become honorable men through revenge on Kira. One man opened up an archery school, teaching the arts of the samurai to the common people. This was a despicable and dishonorable action to take. Even Oishi, the retainer of the Ako forces had to convince the people around him that he was no longer desirous to seek revenge, and redeem his good name. In his attempt to soil his reputation he divorced his wife, began drinking heavily, spent his time in geisha houses, attended the Kabuki theater, and even started a fight in the theater allowing himself to lose showing his apparent bad sowrdsmanship. While trying to soil his reputation further by living with a mistress from one of the geisha houses, and drinking heavily, some of the ronin under his command began to question his ability in leadership. Fortunately the charade put on by the ronin of Ako was seen by outsiders as a loss in honor and reputation. Spies that once watched the ronin retreated, and the ronin were finally able to plan their final attack on their hated enemy. In the final attack, the men of Ako were a small but committed group of 47 ronin, poised and ready for a surprise attack. Like a tiger stalking its prey, the men were able to attack the residence of the now retired Kira ending the conflict. By this action not only did the men of Ako get revenge on the person who in effect killed their master, but they were able to redeem their names, and the name of the master Lord Asano. Although all 47 ronin were sentenced to death, they were allowed to die in the honorable ceremony of seppuku, or ritual disembowelment. As the men acted together in their common cause they became united in their struggle that eventually lead to their deaths. In their deaths they found peace and comfort in exacting revenge, and redemption and honor in their actions.

The loyal retainers were buried with their lord at a temple called Sengaku-ji which is located just outside of the city of Tokyo. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Japanese culture, history or sense of honor. It is one of the most impressive examples of men who refuse to compromise their honor or integrity at any cost.


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