Categories: Japan, Travel, Writing
One of the greatest samurai stories of Japanese loyalty and revenge can be found in the legendary tale of the 47 Ronin, also known as the Ako Incident. The story of these 47 samurai and their loyalty to their master is inspirational and heart breaking. While in Tokyo last month, I visited the ashes of the legendary 47 Ronin interred at Sengakuji Temple.
The true story of the 47 is inspiring and sad. In 1701, two lords, Lord Asano and Lord Kira, were assigned to entertain the Emperor’s envoys during a visit to Edo Castle. Kira was supposed give directions to Asano, but he disliked Asano and treated him with malice and disgraced his honor as samurai. Asano drew his sword and injured Kira on the shoulder and forehead, but did not kill him. Asano was immediately arrested as samurai law states that it is illegal to draw a sword within Edo castle. Lord Kira was not punished, but Lord Asano was sentenced to death and forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). His band of samurai lost their status and became masterless samurai, or ronin. Also known as Ako Gishi, the 47 swore vengeance for the death of their master, Lord Asano. To throw others off of their scent and conceal their plan for vengeance, the 47 disbanded and went their separate ways to patiently wait for the right moment to enact their revenge on Lord Kira. After two years of wandering as ronin, the 47 reunited near Lord Kira’s mansion. The mansion was heavily guarded, but the 47 were able to startle the guards and infiltrate the compound. After much fighting, they found Kira cowered in a shed, killed him, and beheaded him. They took Kira’s head with them and washed the head in the well at the temple and placed it at Asano’s grave. Then they surrendered to the authorities for killing Kira and were allowed the honorable death of seppuku. The 47 were buried near Lord Asano at Sengakuji Temple.
Sengakuji Temple was fairly easy to find. It was a short bus ride and walk to the temple’s front gate. Enter the first gate and you are greeted by several souvenir shops and small cafes. Another short walk will get you through to the second entrance and the temple grounds proper with informational pamphlets and a guide map available in English. In the middle of the grounds facing the actual temple is an incense kettle. I paid ¥200 yen for incense, lit it, and placed it in the sand of the kettle. I placed the incense to show my respect for the 47 and the Japanese culture. I am a Christian, not Buddhist, so that is all it meant to me: respect. The scented smoke rose and I felt welcome in the temple.
Visiting their final resting place was a bit surreal. We were there in the late afternoon and the feeling that enveloped the entire temple grounds was one of dignified respect with a peaceful foreboding. The atmosphere is hard to describe. The late afternoon light cast shadows and reflections that made me look and think twice about my surroundings. As I looked at my photos from the temple that night at our hotel, I noticed more than one picture had an interesting reflection of light bent in the shape of a samurai sword! Gave me goosebumps!
I felt that these 47 ronin and Lord Asano were victims of a corrupt system and the whole incident could have been avoided. I have no respect for Lord Kira due to the way he disrespected Lord Asano and for his cowardly behavior, which ultimately led to the 47 beheading him. I have tremendous respect for the 47 ronin and their loyalty to Lord Asano. Maybe I am over romanticizing the event and I would never condone killing, but I wish that after they killed Kira they would have vanished into the four compass points and lived out their lives in anonymity knowing they had avenged their leader, Lord Asano.
Visiting the graves of the 47 ronin and learning about their story has given me a greater understanding of the samurai and the Japanese culture. Seeing first hand the respect all visitors, Japanese and foreign, held for these 47 samurai warriors was humbling. I felt honored to be in their presence. As the ages pass, I hope their story is never forgotten. I know I will never forget them or my experience at Sengakuji Temple.
Domo arigato Ako Gishi.
© 2019 Gregory Vessar