he revThe revenge of the 47 Rōnin, (masterless samurai) in the Ako incident, 1703,  portrayed in woodblock prints of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Entrusted with the security of the estates of their feudal landlords (daimyo) , samurai formed the hereditary military nobility of Japan from the 12th Century to their abolition in 1870s, enjoying high prestige and special privileges. They cultivated the unwritten samurai code of conduct, known as Bushido, believing  that the true warrior must hold that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honour as important, above all else. One of the defining features of their culture was the loyalty between a lord and his vassal.   Indifferent to pain, displaying unflinching loyalty and devotion to his lord,  recklessly brave,  a  warrior looked to a glorious death in the selfless  service of his master and the Emperor.
Of all the spectacular tales of revenge, none has resonated more profoundly across the centuries and inspired more adaptations and interpretations on the stage, in print and on the small and large screens than the historical events associated with the Ako revenge (Akö jiken).  The story has been told in theatrical productions (kabuki), puppet theatre (bunraku), stage plays, films, novels, television shows and other media. Chūshingura ranks among the most familiar of all historical stories in Japan.


The act of ritual suicide by a group of 47 rōnin (masterless samurai)  in February 1703,  gave rise to ChūshinguraThe Treasury of Loyal Retainers.”, the title given to fictionalized accounts involving the forty-seven rōnin,and their mission to avenge the death of their master. Two weeks after their deaths,  a kabuki play performed in Edo was thought by the Government authorities to be a thinly disguised version of the story and was quickly shut down . Although kabuki companies did not attempt any further plays on the subject until the mid 18th Century, the story was taken up in the puppet theatre in 1748. Written by  the great playwright Chikamatsu the action was placed in the 14th century   it was an instant success, and was quickly imitated countless times. The first kabuki performance corresponded with  the publication of the first of many woodblock print illustrated books recounting the story of the Chūshingura.


In March 1701, during rehearsals for an official ceremony in the shogun’s palace, the young Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori of Akö,  driven to uncontrolled fury by the humiliating and insulting  behaviour of the shogun’s chamberlain, Kira Közuke-no-Suke, drew his dagger and struck him. Although the chamberlain  was not fatally wounded, to draw a sword in the palace grounds was so forbidden that it brought forfeiture of  life, possessions, and ruin. Lord Asano was immediately forced to commit ceremonial suicide, seppuku.


In Akö, Lord Asano’s councillor, Ōishi Kuraanosuke,  relocated the Asano family, dissolved the household and surrendered the castle to the authorities. And in great secrecy, he recruited a band of Akö samurai, now cast adrift as rōnin, and swore them to avenge their lord, in the full knowledge it could lead to seppuku.  Exercising great subterfuge they successfully deployed weapons in Edo, recruited spies and fooled the chamberlain’s household in believing they had forsaken their samurai vows.


Their attack on a snow laden night of  the 14th December 1702 was devastatingly effective.   Kira was discovered byKurahashi Zensuke Takeyuki ( Figure 1)   hiding in a shed within the grounds (figure 2).  Offered the opportunity to commit seppuku, as he should,Kira  refused and  was summarily beheaded. His  head was cut off with the same dagger Lord Asano used to commit seppuku. The head was washed, taken to the Sengakuji Temple (figure 3) where Lord Asano was buried and placed on his grave.


The rōnin gave up their arms, were arrested and awaited their punishment. Despite petitions for clemency they were required to commit seppuku and were buried individually at the Sengakugi Temple (figure 1)  beside their lord.  The shogun’s edict in February 1703 is said to have stunned the nation which had  identified with their heroism. For their commendable actions and honourable death they were immediately regarded as heroes.


Although the plan to kill Kira  was  not a proper concern in a samurai, the over-riding compulsion was for  the rōnin to show outstanding courage and determination in an all-out attack against the Kira house, thus winning everlasting honour for their dead master. To have failed and died in the attempt was irrelevant: victory or defeat had no importance. To dishonour  the name of their clan was  the worst sin a samurai could commit. In the event, the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin cleared their names, and many of the unemployed samurai found jobs soon after the rōnin had been sentenced to their honorable death.


Admired for ‘fidelity in revenge’, cool courage fierce heroism, and self-sacrifice, episodes of  the  Chūshingura story of the rōnin were  portrayed  in woodblock prints and illustrated books of the very late eighteenth  and throughout the nineteenth  centuries by artists such as Utamaro, Toyokuni, Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige.  However these were mostly illustrations of the kabuki actors in the roles of the rōnin and scenes imagined from the story. It was only in the 19th Century that warrior prints (musha-e) fully emerged and the exploits of the individual rōnin were celebrated in print form. It was  Utawaga Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861), the master of the genre of warrior prints,  who  created the most famous and ground breaking series, Seishū gishin den 誠忠義士傳) “The Faithful Samurai’. Published by  Ebi-ya Rinnosuke  between  August  1847 and January 1848,  Kuniyoshi  illustrated  each of the rōnin in dramatic poses accompanied by their individual histories and an account by writer, Ippitsu-an,  of the part they played in the killing of their wronged master.


It was a Japanese convention, and to avoid shogunate censorship,  that when comparatively recent events became the subject of plays or woodblock  prints, the names of the characters should be slightly changed and the action moved back to an earlier period. Hence in the Chūshingura,  ‘The Treasury of Loyal Retainers”  the drama on stage was set in the Muromachi period (1333–1568) and the stage names of the characters changed; for example, the villain,  Kira Ködzuke no Suke becomes Kō no Moronao, and the real person Oishi Kuranosuke was changed to Ōboshi Yuranosuke.  Kuniyoshi’s 1847 series is entitled, Sichu gishi den, or Stories of the true loyalty of the faithful samurai.  The play and the prints fuse fiction and fact.


Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861), son of  a silk-dyer, entered the studio of Toyokini I aged about 12 and was trained in the Utagawa school style of theatrical portraiture (yakusha-e). During his career he excelled in a multitude of genres, whether landscapes drawing on western perspective, portraits of beautiful women, ghosts, actors from the kabuki theatre, animal studies, comic and satirical prints, and, supremely, warriors. Dubbed ‘the warrior print master’ for his immensely popular series, Suikoden in the early 1830s, he cemented that reputation in his enormous output  devoted to the celebration of Japan’s heroic past. Perhaps, rivalling Hokusai,  Kuniyoshi was the most experimental, dynamic and imaginative ukiyo-e artist of the 19th Century.


The story of the retainers is a supreme example of the Japanese concept of loyalty —bushido.   Kuniyoshi skillfully and successfully depicted the courage and fidelity of each of the individual rōnin to samurai ideals . As with all depictions of the ronin in ukiyo-e, theywear the black  coats resembling those of firefighters, with white cloth bands sewn around their sleeves to avoid friendly fire in the dark.


The series was immensely popular and Kuniyoshi followed it up with  twenty triptychs and twelve series illustrating the story of the faithful samurai. His major students, notably Yoshitoshi and Yoshitora  also  closely imitated  his style and format and created similar series to popular acclaim. But why did these prints resonate so acutely with the Japanese people  in the mid-nineteenth century?

Despite efforts at fiscal reform, mounting opposition seriously weakened the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, when years of famine led to increased peasant uprisings.  In the mid-nineteenth century many impoverished samurai were attracted to the movement to expel Western foreigners from the country and restore the old imperial family to their rightful place as the actual rulers of JLarge numbers of these samurai left their lords and became rōnin. These rōnin heightened the revolutionary mood of the country in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 by assassinating moderate officials, pro-Western scholars, and foreigners residing in Japan.
In this general sense of crisis, the admiration of the fierce act of devotion, loyalty and heroism displayed by the rōnin in the   “Treasury of Loyal Retainers’  undoubtedly  struck a core  belief  of honour within the Japanese people.  For three centuries since the historical event, the popularity of Chushingura has never waned.


‘There is, however, another admirable aspect of the behavior of the Ako ronin: They showed isagiyosa, which can be interpreted as “grace with pride.” The attack was carefully planned, certainly no spur-of-the-moment event, and the ronin all knew they faced death. When their time to die did come, they did so gracefully with pride — as samurai. Although the world has changed, and a story like that of the Ako ronin could never occur in the 21st century, the spirit of samurai and their isagiyosa is still admired by today’s Japanese. Indeed, it seems all the more impressive to a public sickened by the cowardly ways of its country’s political, business and bureaucratic leaders. Nonetheless, as long as their sense of valor and loyalty remain in the Japanese psyche, the popularity of Chushingura will never melt like winter’s snow” Japanese Times, Community, 15 December, 2002


To this day the story remains popular in Japan, and every year, on December 14, Sengakuji Temple, at  Minato-ku, Tokyo,  where Asano Naganori and the rōnin are buried, holds a festival commemorating the event.

David Forrest, Director, Gallery East, July 2020


I am particularly  indebted to B,W.Robinson (Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints; Phaidon) and to David R Weinberg (Kuniyoshi: The faithful samurai; Hotei Publishing) for the account of the rōnins revenge.

enge of the 47 Rōnin, (masterless samurai) in the Ako incident, 1703,  portrayed in woodblock prints of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Entrusted with the security of the estates of their feudal landlords (daimyo) , samurai formed the hereditary military nobility of Japan from the 12th Century to their abolition in 1870s, enjoying high prestige and special privileges. They cultivated the unwritten samurai code of conduct, known as Bushido, believing  that the true warrior must hold that loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honour as important, above all else. One of the defining features of their culture was the loyalty between a lord and his vassal.   Indifferent to pain, displaying unflinching loyalty and devotion to his lord,  recklessly brave,  a  warrior looked to a glorious death in the selfless  service of his master and the Emperor.
Of all the spectacular tales of revenge, none has resonated more profoundly across the centuries and inspired more adaptations and interpretations on the stage, in print and on the small and large screens than the historical events associated with the Ako revenge (Akö jiken).  The story has been told in theatrical productions  (kabuki), puppet theatre, (bunraku), stage plays, films, novels, television shows and other media. Chūshingura ranks among the most familiar of all historical stories in Japan.
The act of ritual suicide by a group of 47 rōnin (masterless samurai)  in February 1703,  gave rise to ChūshinguraThe Treasury of Loyal Retainers.”, the title given to fictionalized accounts involving the forty-seven rōnin and their mission to avenge the death of their master. Two weeks after their deaths,  a kabuki play performed in Edo was thought by the Government authorities to be a thinly disguised version of the story and was quickly shut down . Although kabuki companies did not attempt any further plays on the subject until the mid 18th Century, the story was taken up in the puppet theatre in 1706. Written by  the great playwright Chikamatsu the action was placed in the 14th century. Premiered in 1706  it was an instant success, and was quickly imitated countless times, with variants coming out annually between 1706 and 1748. The first kabuki performance in 1748 corresponded with  the publication of the first of many woodblock print illustrated books recounting the story of the Chūshingura.
In March 1701, during rehearsals for an official ceremony in the shogun’s palace, the young Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori of Akö,  driven to uncontrolled fury by the humiliating and insulting  behaviour of the shogun’s chamberlain, Kira Közuke-no-Suke, drew his dagger and struck him. Although the chamberlain  was not fatally wounded, to draw a sword in the palace grounds was so forbidden that it brought forfeiture of  life, possessions, and ruin. Lord Asano was immediately forced to commit ceremonial suicide, seppuku.
In Akö, Lord Asano’s councillor, Ōishi Kuraanosuke,  relocated the Asano family, dissolved the household and surrendered the castle to the authorities. And in great secrecy, he recruited a band of Akö samurai, now cast adrift as rōnin, and swore them to avenge their lord, in the full knowledge it could lead to seppuku.  Exercising great subterfuge they successfully deployed weapons in Edo, recruited spies and fooled the chamberlain’s household in believing they had forsaken their samurai vows.
Their attack on a snow laden night of  the 14th December 1702 was devastatingly effective.   Kira was discovered byKurahashi Zensuke Takeyuki ( Figure 1)   hiding in a shed within the grounds (figure 2).  Offered the opportunity to commit seppuku, as he should,Kira  refused and  was summarily beheaded. His  head was cut off with the same dagger Lord Asano used to commit seppuku. The head was washed, taken to the Sengakuji Temple (figure 3) where Lord Asano was buried and placed on his grave.
The rōnin gave up their arms, were arrested and awaited their punishment. Despite petitions for clemency they were required to commit seppuku and were buried individually at the Sengakugi Temple (figure 1)  beside their lord.  The shogun’s edict in February 1703 is said to have stunned the nation which had  identified with their heroism. For their commendable actions and honourable death they were immediately regarded as heroes.
Although the plan to kill Kira  was  not a proper concern in a samurai, the over-riding compulsion was for  the rōnin to show outstanding courage and determination in an all-out attack against the Kira house, thus winning everlasting honour for their dead master. To have failed and died in the attempt was irrelevant: victory or defeat had no importance. To dishonour  the name of their clan was  the worst sin a samurai could commit. In the event, the revenge of the forty-seven rōnin cleared their names, and many of the unemployed samurai found jobs soon after the rōnin had been sentenced to their honorable death.
Admired for ‘fidelity in revenge’, cool courage fierce heroism, and self-sacrifice, episodes of  the  Chūshingura story of the rōnin were  portrayed  in woodblock prints and illustrated books of the very late eighteenth  and throughout the nineteenth  centuries by artists such as Utamaro, Toyokuni, Hokusai, Kunisada and Hiroshige.  However these were mostly illustrations of the kabuki actors in the roles of the rōnin and scenes imagined from the story. It was only in the 19th Century that warrior prints (musha-e) fully emerged and the exploits of the individual rōnin were celebrated in print form. It was  Utawaga Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861), the master of the genre of warrior prints,  who  created the most famous and ground breaking series, Seishū gishin den 誠忠義士傳) “The Faithful Samurai’. Published by  Ebi-ya Rinnosuke  between  August  1847 and January 1848,  Kuniyoshi  illustrated  each of the rōnin in dramatic poses accompanied by their individual histories and an account by writer, Ippitsu-an,  of the part they played in the killing of their wronged master.
It was a Japanese convention, and to avoid shogunate censorship,  that when comparatively recent events became the subject of plays or woodblock  prints, the names of the characters should be slightly changed and the action moved back to an earlier period. Hence in the Chūshingura,  ‘The Treasury of Loyal Retainers”  the drama on stage was set in the Muromachi period (1333–1568) and the stage names of the characters changed; for example, the villain,  Kira Ködzuke no Suke becomes Kō no Moronao, and the real person Ōishi Kuranosuke was changed to Ōboshi Yuranosuke.  Kuniyoshi’s 1847 series is entitled, Sichu gishi den, or Stories of the true loyalty of the faithful samurai.  The play and the prints fuse fiction and fact.
Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 – 1861), son of  a silk-dyer, entered the studio of Toyokini I aged about 12 and was trained in the Utagawa school style of theatrical portraiture (yakusha-e). During his career he excelled in a multitude of genres, whether landscapes drawing on western perspective, portraits of beautiful women, ghosts, actors from the kabuki theatre, animal studies, comic and satirical prints, and, supremely, warriors. Dubbed ‘the warrior print master’ for his immensely popular series, Suikoden in the early 1830s, he cemented that reputation in his enormous output  devoted to the celebration of Japan’s heroic past. Perhaps, rivalling Hokusai,  Kuniyoshi was the most experimental, dynamic and imaginative ukiyo-e artist of the 19th Century.
The story of the retainers is a supreme example of the Japanese concept of loyalty —bushido.   Kuniyoshi skillfully and successfully depicted the courage and fidelity of each of the individual rōnin to samurai ideals . As with all depictions of the ronin in ukiyo-e, theywear the black  coats resembling those of firefighters, with white cloth bands sewn around their sleeves to avoid friendly fire in the dark,
The series was immensely popular and Kuniyoshi followed it up with  twenty triptychs and twelve series illustrating the story of the faithful samurai. His major students, notably Yoshitoshi and Yoshitora  also  closely imitated  his style and format and created similar series to popular acclaim. But why did these prints resonate so acutely with the Japanese people  in the mid-nineteenth century?
Despite efforts at fiscal reform, mounting opposition seriously weakened the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, when years of famine led to increased peasant uprisings.  In the mid-nineteenth century many impoverished samurai were attracted to the movement to expel Western foreigners from the country and restore the old imperial family to their rightful place as the actual rulers of Japan. Large numbers of these samurai left their lords and became rōnin. These rōnin heightened the revolutionary mood of the country in the years prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1868 by assassinating moderate officials, pro-Western scholars, and foreigners residing in Japan.
In this general sense of crisis, the admiration of the fierce act of devotion, loyalty and heroism displayed by the rōnin in the   “Treasury of Loyal Retainers’  undoubtedly  struck a core  belief  of honour within the Japanese people.  For three centuries since the historical event, the popularity of Chushingura has never waned.
‘There is, however, another admirable aspect of the behavior of the Ako ronin: They showed isagiyosa, which can be interpreted as “grace with pride.” The attack was carefully planned, certainly no spur-of-the-moment event, and the ronin all knew they faced death. When their time to die did come, they did so gracefully with pride — as samurai. Although the world has changed, and a story like that of the Ako ronin could never occur in the 21st century, the spirit of samurai and their isagiyosa is still admired by today’s Japanese. Indeed, it seems all the more impressive to a public sickened by the cowardly ways of its country’s political, business and bureaucratic leaders. Nonetheless, as long as their sense of valor and loyalty remain in the Japanese psyche, the popularity of Chushingura will never melt like winter’s snow” Japanese Times, Community, 15 December, 2002
To this day the story remains popular in Japan, and every year, on December 14, Sengakuji Temple, at  Minato-ku, Tokyo,  where Asano Naganori and the rōnin are buried, holds a festival commemorating the event.
I am particularly  indebted to B,W.Robinson (Kuniyoshi: The Warrior Prints; Phaidon) and to David R Weinberg (Kuniyoshi: The faithful samurai; Hotei Publishing) for the account of the rōnins revenge.

 
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