The Chushingura

Kunichika, Biographies of the Loyal Retainers

Maybe cultures choose the myths that suit their times or maybe it is the myth that inexorably shapes the culture which proceeds them. Either way there can be little doubt that myth and legend underpinned the culture of the late Edo period Japan in formative, disruptive and fundamental ways. Chief amongst the persistent stories of the nineteenth century was the much embroidered but intrinsically true tale of the 47 Loyal Retainers, later dramatised, embellished and gathered into a huge body of plays, stories, novels and kabuki dramas called the Kanadehon Chushingura (The Treasury of the Loyal Retainers).

The incident is straightforward, albeit hard for westerners to comprehend. For the Japanese of the late Edo, this event is the exact representation of dignity, courage, morality and, crucially, right and proper behaviour. In 1701 Lord Asano, a powerful and important ruler of the Ako clan, is at the shogun’s palace making preparations for a formal event. Kira Kozukenosuke the official in charge of etiquette insults him and embarrasses him in front of others and Asano draws his sword, striking the official but not wounding him. The outcome is inevitable – it is an offence to draw  a sword in the palace and the penalty is death. Asano commits seppuku (ritual suicide), and the vast lands and estates of his clan are forfeit. His retainers – similar to knights in medieval Europe, and all samurai – are made Ronin, meaning leaderless samurai; and they too lose their positions and wealth. Asano’s chamberlain, Oishio Yoshio (sometimes called Oishi Yuranosuke), himself a powerful man, vows revenge. In utmost secrecy he assembles 46 other Ronin who agree to revenge their former master (according to his final wish). It takes two years for the plot to mature – the Ronin must assemble arms, uniforms, equipment and provisions. They must work out a strategy which will enable them to storm the castle of the hated Lord Kira and all in the utmost secrecy. They attack the palace in 1703 and meet little resistance, Kira attempts an ignominious escape but is captured and beheaded. His head is wrapped in his nightshirt and the 47 Ronin process to Asano’s tomb at Takanawa and lay the head upon the grave alongside a ceremonial dagger. Envoys are sent to various officials announcing their action and the Ronin hand themselves over to the government, awaiting their certain sentence of death. The Shogun and his advisers have some difficulty in deciding their fate since popular opinion is strongly behind the Ronin and there is also a great deal of sympathy from the other Daimyos. In the end, some of the Asano clan’s land is returned and the Ronin are sentenced to death but given the honourable course of seppuku. All 47 are entombed with their master, and incense and offerings have been burned there continuously until the present day. They continue to be remembered as the ideal samurai, in film and television and as recently as 2013 in the movie 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves.

Kunisada, Chushingura Meimei Den

The actions of the Ronin seem strange and alien to us today but less so perhaps when seen in context. Japanese culture, owing to a rigidly enforced isolation, remained more or less medieval in structure and belief until the mid nineteenth century.  Ideals of sacrifice and devotion that were commonplace in the first century AD became embedded in every part of Japanese society. The practice of servants following their masters to the grave was commonplace, so much so that edicts in 647 AD and as late as 1607 strictly forbade it, though the custom persisted despite even official and martial disapproval. It wasn’t until 1682 (twenty years before the Asano event) that the penal code was altered to put an end to the habit of a dozen or so retainers being buried alongside their Lord. It is hard to believe that as late as 1892 General Nogi and his wife committed suicide in order to follow Emperor Meiji to his grave.

It may feel a little patronising for us in the west to be mocking of these customs but the spirit, certainly, of the samurai is neatly summarised in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade:
“Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do or die”.
And in this commemorative year, the actions of millions of Europeans in the trenches of the First World War also share the same inevitable sense of dutiful immolation. But there is more at work here in samurai loyalty than first meets the eye. The traditions of Bushido, as it is sometimes known are not solely military, they are also religious. The social (feudal) structure of Japanese society has its roots in Buddhism, Confucianism and in the divinity of the Emperor. The phrase Yamato-Damashii, meaning “spirit of nation”, was crucial to the archaic structure of Japanese culture and is the prototype of devotional loyalty that followed the collapse of Imperial strength and the rise of the military age under the Shogunate.

Kunisada, Stories of the Faithful Samurai

The other motivation in the actions of the ronin was vengeance. Japanese vengeance is different to mere revenge as we might see it in the west. Kataki-uchi is the phrase that describes vengeance upon those that wrong the parent or Lord. The idea is underpinned by Confucian ethics, introduced to Japan in the seventh century which commanded that a man could, “not live under the same sky as the slayer of his father”. The great seventeenth century Shogun, Iyeyasu, acknowledged that “you and the injurer cannot live together,  under the same heaven. A person harbouring such vengeance must give notice in writing to the district court and carry out his design within the period stated in the notice”. Thus vengeance was codified in law and remained so until the overhaul of the penal code in the nineteenth century. The actions of the ronin were thus inevitable and the outcomes a forgone conclusion. In the period 1609 – 1703 there were 33 ‘legal’ vendettas carried out by samurai; and interestingly, 35 between 1804 – 1865, of which 19 were carried out by commoners – perhaps showing not only the changing face of Japanese society but the sympathy with which these acts were held.

Kuniyoshi, True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai

So much for heroism and loyalty. The fact remains that the ronin did not abide by the law, for fear of being frustrated and despite the numerous hagiographies, the assault on Kira’s compound was more or less unopposed and none of the Ronin were killed or injured. The first of the great ronin art is really that of Kuniyoshi’s 1847 series Stories of True Loyalty of the Faithful Samurai – single sheet portraits of each protagonist. Whilst these portraits are often used to illustrate the “way of the samurai”, Kuniyoshi does not represent any fighting; rather, each Ronin is pictured tackling nothing more dangerous than a curtain, a brazier, a small dog or a lantern. It is hard to resist the idea that Kuniyoshi is playing with something more complex and humane than mere hero worship. In these prints, the Ronin seem clumsy, diffident or polite – thoughtfully extinguishing fires with buckets of water and so on. These incongruous pictures of conflict are so very different from his series of prints of the Heroes of the Suikoden twenty years earlier. In these prints, the energy and muscularity of the subjects are barely contained by the margins of the paper and the grappling hooks, struggling horses and opponents, writhing serpents and so on are all vividly realised and very present in the picture.

Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden

Whilst the writers of Edo Japan were keen to make heroic epics out of the story of the Loyal Retainers, the artists were more equivocal. Print artists such as Kunisada and Kunichika were prolific in their depictions of the Asano rebels but only as a vehicle to represent the great kabuki acting stars of the day. Kuniyoshi was obliged by law to use the theatrical pseudonyms for the protagonists (eg Lord Asano becomes Enya Hangen and Kira Kozukenosuke becomes Moronao); however later in the nineteenth century, prohibition had come full circle so that confusingly, Kunisada presents us with portraits of kabuki actors in role but titled with the real name of the historical character.

The great narrative of the 47 Loyal Retainers occupies (and has done for centuries) a kind of atavistic longing in the people for a ‘better’ time. Just as today, cultures wish for a simpler, moral certainty by which to live, so did the failing culture of the late Edo. It found it in this story of honour and revenge, just as we do in westerns and other stories. The reality is inevitably more complex. The dramas of the chushingura can be seen as potentially critical of the establishment and certainly later as emblematic of a national spirit at odds with a failing and immoral government. Perhaps though the 47 Ronin are more significant as religious martyrs – confucian exemplars whose moral stance is essentially faithful to the founding tenets of the Japanese spirit. In the art of woodblock printing their significance is essentially diminished as vehicles for actor portraits, where the struggle for freedom and belief was less religious and more to do with the restless desire for enjoyment.

Kunisada, Chushingura Act XI – The Night Attack

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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