01/30 – 47 Rōnin

Ōishi Yoshio, leader of the 47 rōnin, leads his men on their raid of Kira’s mansion. (Public Domain)

On this day in 1701, 47 rōnin (leaderless samurai) killed Kira Yoshinaka, an Edo government official, in revenge for the death of their leader Asano Naganori. Asano had met with Kira at Edo castle in 1700 and become upset with the latter’s rudeness. Shortly after, Asano attacked Kira; for his offence, Asano was compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). Asano’s 47 samurai were left leaderless, and, according to their values, sought revenge. After a year of planning and training, the 47 rōnin stormed Kira’s mansion in Edo: Kira was cornered and offered a dignified death with Asano’s dagger, but, paralyzed with fear, was unable to act. The samurai leader Ōishi Yoshio did the deed himself. As soon as Kira’s head was cleaned and laid at Asano’s grave, 46 out of the 47 rōnin killed themselves (Terasaka Kichiemon, the one surviving rōnin, was exonerated in court).

A 1920s postcard depicting the heroic assault on Kira’s mansion. The legacy of the 47 rōnin lived on well into the Meiji period, and beyond. (Public Domain)

The assassination of Kira – and ensuing mass seppuku by Asano’s surviving rōnin – cleared Asano’s name, and his clan retained its legitimacy. The legend went on to have greater historical significance, however (beyond the 2013 Keanu Reeves film). As Japan transitioned from an old-fashioned feudal state to a modern regional power during the Meiji Restoration, the legend of the 47 rōnin lived on as a reminder of the discipline and moral righteousness of the previous Genroku generation. Going forward, Japan retained this legacy of self-sacrifice and subservience to a higher power as evidenced by the formidable nature of its near-suicidal military forces in the first decades of the 20th century.

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