It came to Oishi in a flash of understanding. It came whole with plans and consequences as if a decision could contain within it past, present, future and uncertainty.
He gathered the retainers around him. Forty-seven out of a possible three-hundred warriors. Not very good numbers.
“We’re going to avenge our lord,” he said.
And in the faces of those present he could tell those who already saw the possibility. He saw those who understood that seeing was the one sure way to make it happen.
The story of the 47 Ronin has captured the imagination of the public since the events took place.
It was a shock when people heard of the exploits of Oishi and his band. They didn’t realize how serious Bushido and the code of the warrior could be to some.
The 47 were retainers of Asano Naganori from Ako, whom together with Kira Yoshinaka was commissioned to entertain envoys of the emperor at the court of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi also known as the “Dog Shogun.”
Kira had the role of “master of ceremonies.” That meant protocol demanded that Asano bring him gifts to show his respect. Asano didn’t or perhaps the gifts weren’t appropriate.
The reasons for this are not really specified in the annals of history but we can guess at the motivations. Either Asano didn’t know the etiquette, or he didn’t care. Or perhaps he just didn’t like Kira.
The thing is that Kira didn’t waste any opportunity to embarrass Asano for his insult. Apparently Kira went so far on his rebuke that Asano lost his temper, took out his short sword or wakizashi and cut Kira in the shoulder and forehead.
Drawing a sword alone was a great offence in the presence of the Shogun, let alone attacking one of his vassals.
Asano was banished and prompted to commit hara-kiri or seppuku, which was the samurai practice of killing yourself when honor demanded it.
Hara-kiri is a peculiar practice of the Japanese warrior tradition. A warrior would commit suicide rather than see his honor tarnished. Opponents were sometimes allowed the privilege rather than living with the humiliation of defeat.
It was a gruesome affair and very ritualized. The man would disembowel himself cutting the lower belly from side to side with a short sword or a knife, spilling his guts.
Often there was a second man who would decapitate the other the instant this was done so the subject wouldn’t suffer too much. So much for courtesy.
In any case, Asano was forced to kill himself and his lands were confiscated. At that moment his retainers became ronin or masterless samurai.
Oishi Yoshio was the leader of these retainers. He gathered forty-six other warriors (out of Asano’s three hundred) and they swore a secret oath to avenge their lord.
Kira was suspicious of such a plot. He reinforced the security around his house and deployed spies to watch over the movements of Oishi.
But Oishi was a master of deception. For almost two years he pretended to be a drunk and a man addicted to pleasure. He frequented geisha houses and was often seen well into drinks.
On one occasion, leaving a geisha house, a man from Satsuma, saw Oishi fall down a flight of stairs and fall asleep on the street. The man accused the ronin of not having enough courage to avenge his lord and spat on him.
Oishi went as far as divorcing his devoted wife of 20 years in order to keep her and the children out of danger.
Some of the other ronin became carpenters and merchant, all biding their time.
When the Kira spies reported these developments to their lord he relaxed and let down his guard.
Then on the 14th day of the 12th month of Genroku 15, (January 30th, 1703) the same day and month their lord had been forced to commit seppuku, the 47 Ronin attacked.
Using secretly manufactured armor the 47 stormed the residence of Lord Kira in Edo. They were divided into two groups, one led by Oishi and the other by his son, Oishi Chikara.
They had obtained the plans for the house because one of the ronin had gone as far as marrying the daughter of the man who designed the stronghold.
Sixteen of Kira’s retainers were killed and twenty-two wounded. The lord himself was found hiding in a secret room and dragged out.
Oishi made sure it was Kira by verifying the scar on his forehead Asano had produced.
Oishi gave Kira the option to commit hara-kiri with the same knife Asano had used. He even offered to act as second. Kira refused. Some accounts say he was so frightened he didn’t speak.
Eventually, using his master’s knife, Oishi cut off Kira’s head.
The ronin took the head to their lord’s grave as an offering then gave themselves up to the authorities.
Only forty-six went in front of the shogun since one had died in the raid.
They were asked to commit hara-kiri which is exactly what they had been prepared to do.
Their bodies were buried next to their lord in the Sengakuji Temple.
Another account tells that they were only forty-six because Terasaka Kishiemon was ordered to go back to Ako to report on the success of their revenge. Upon his return he was pardoned by the shogun because of his youth. He died in 1747 and was then buried with his comrades.
Another interesting note is that the man from Satsuma, the one who had spat on Oishi when he saw him drunk, went to the graves to atone for his lack of faith. He committed suicide. The priests, taking pity on him, buried him with the ronin making the graves forty-eight.
The graves and the temple are visited by pilgrims and martial artists to this day. The legend has become a symbol of the spirit of Bushido.
Countless poems and stories have been written about it. There’s been at least six movie adaptations including the current incarnation starring Keanu Reeves, a fantasy driven version of the tale due to premiere this Christmas.