Mankind has long been fascinated with sensational events, particularly those which prove to be relatable to both individual cultures and to humanity as a whole. Infallible loyalty, filial piety, honor unto death—such are the values which lie at the heart of traditional Japanese culture. The Ako incident exhibits these values to the extreme, and has therefore, over the centuries, given rise to much philosophical and ethical debate. This fascination with morals of a uniquely Japanese mien, coupled with the inherent ambiguity of the event itself, has allowed the story great flexibility and longevity in the form of Chushingura.
At the time of the Ako incident, Japan was in the midst of a crucial turning point. With Hideyoshi’s defeat in the early 1600s came the rise of one powerful ruling clan under Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was to last for two and a half centuries. Great restrictions on the social class system were tightened and enforced, and the mighty Daimyo were required to submit much of their control. While the samurai class had long held power over the land through force and violence, Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate deprived them of their great strength, and warriors were made to turn to the scholarly arts.
As Colin Mason notes in his Short History of Asia, the samurai had not picked up their swords to fight since the Shimabara revolt of 1637, and had therefore become a romanticized caricature of their prior selves. No longer were the fearsome samurai required to do battle, yet want for their former glory ran strong. Due to this idealization of erstwhile prestige, the romanticized heroics exhibited in the Ako incident became the stylized norm for the image of the samurai. The story of the forty-seven Ronin thus came to personify the ideal spirit of warriors past, and their story continued to be borrowed and reshaped in order to suit myriad purposes in folk tales, on stage, and later on film.
Despite the idealization of the warrior class and much moralistic debate, the Ako incident was indeed dramatic and unprecedented. The unfailing loyalty with which the Ronin had sacrificed themselves to avenge their Lord seemed to the people honorably heroic. Due to the traditionally established rules of Japanese honor, it seemed terribly inequitable that Lord Asano had been ordered to commit seppuku while Lord Kira remained unpunished. The added injustice of his having ordered suicide prior to any semblance of proper investigation was baffling to the people of Tokugawa Japan, because it conflicted with society’s view of morality.
Essential values were much the same in the Tokugawa period as those which are held in high regard today. Beneath the umbrella of traditional Confucian structure, each level of Japanese society continues to be connected through a common vein of core values, of which reciprocity and subsequent loyalty are paramount. Leaders expect those over which they rule to dutifully behave in accordance with established laws. Society then reciprocates as the moral principles of Confucius dictate, striving to observe loyalty through the act of filial piety. The image of an ideal warrior is one who exhibits utmost martial valor, and one whose devotion to his master requires absolute loyalty to the point of great personal sacrifice. These reciprocal values, perfectly illustrated by the actions of the forty-seven Ronin in their quest for vengeance, continue to permit their story incredible popularity and cause for debate.
Another strength of the Ako story is, in actuality, born of its intrinsic weakness. The primary cause of the tragedy is, to this day, clouded in mystery, and is therefore easy to exploit in order to suit one’s own purposes. One is neither privy to the nature of the initial grudge stated as the cause of the Ako event, nor to the complexities of the true motives of Lord Asano’s retainers. Had Lord Asano’s attack been provoked by a conniving Lord Kira as was, and is, popularly conveyed in various forms of Chushingura? One need only look at the most telling piece of evidence—the manifesto written by Lord Asano’s retainers themselves—to recognize that there is no answer to be found. Their proclamation, dated the twelfth month of 1702, explains that, “because of the grudge against Lord Kira Kozuke-no-suke… and being probably hard to avoid the confrontation with him in the shogunal palace at the time, shed blood with his sword.” He was thus ordered to death, and his domain was confiscated. Because only vague facts that surrounded the incident were documented, it offers the perfect platform for artists and writers to construct fictitious and imaginative details with which to fill out the plot to maximum effect.
The equivocal nature of the Ako incident consequently spurred a debate over the definition of honorable morality in Japan. As McMullen states in his study of the event’s history, “impersonal legal authority of a centralized regime conflicted with the more personal loyalty implicit in delegated feudal power” In other words, competing notions of filial piety and obedience to the state brought forth the question of whether an action could be simultaneously unlawful and morally pious. In their manifesto, Lord Asano’s retainer’s even recognized this conflicting dilemma: “Although we retainers should restrain ourselves from expressing our indignation against an officer of ceremony of such an ancient family, it is nonetheless unbearable to live under the same Heaven with the enemy of one’s Lord and father.”
In the Tokugawa period, vengeance could indeed be legitimized as both illegal and ethical, but as McMullen states, “its moral purpose could be fulfilled only at the cost of the life of its perpetrator.” Thus, it seemed that the Ronin had no choice but to uphold their duty to both master and state by fulfilling vengeance on Lord Kira, yet such a choice required them to give their lives for the law. This tragic notion of a hero’s inevitable sacrifice is an essential component of the undying flame of modern Chushingura.
The Ako story acts as a mirror with which Japanese society can portray their traditionally valued morals. It is therefore as natural now as it was in the 1700s for citizens to rally behind the forty-seven master-less samurai, who in the eyes of the people, had rightfully sought revenge for their daimyo master’s unjust execution. Their sacrifice, influenced by Neo-Confucian teachings on the Five Human Relationships, attracted enthusiastic public acclaim as an act of just and self-sacrificing retribution. Thus, just like many a great hero’s tale, the Ako story was to be told and retold for centuries as a model for virtuosity, ethics, and justice.
It is clearly evident that the Ako event is translatable across myriad styles of storytelling as fiction based in sensationalized reality, and hence is able to draw considerable public interest. Interest is so great, in fact, that the tale even inspired a kabuki performance just twelve days after the forty-seven were sentenced to commit seppuku. The story continued to evolve from its initial incarnation until late into the Tokugawa period, where it was adopted by the kodan style of oral telling. This genre shifted interest to suit the demands of ever-changing society, and began to create imaginative personalities for each of the forty-seven warriors. The altercation between Lords Asano and Kira then came to be penned in a way which could uphold the virtuous and heroic image of the Ronin, who had stated their cause for revenge as one of unbearable shame and devotion toward their disgraced master. Over the centuries to come, the Chushingura phenomenon would continue to be fine-tuned for quite a diverse set of venues, from the traditional bunraku stage to the contemporary movie theater.
Despite the ambiguity of both the cause of the incident and the motives of the Ronin, it is clear that popular opinion preferred, and continues to prefer, the image of forty-seven traditionally moral heroes who selflessly sacrificed their lives to avenge their master’s wrongful execution. The strength of traditional loyalist values in Japan not only served as a base for the support of this form of just vengeance, but acted as a vehicle with which to instill patriotism in Japanese citizens. Thus, the extremity of traditional Japanese values illustrated by the incident afforded the story of the forty-seven loyal retainers immense adaptability and longevity, able to be told and re-told across innumerable forms of media for hundreds of years.
 Mason, Colin. “The Three Makers of Japan and the Tolugawa Period.” A Short History of Asia. Third ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
 “Manifesto of the Retainers of Asano Takumi.” Ako Gishi Jiten Kankokai. Trans. Frederico Marcon. 1972.
 Eiko Ikegami. (1995). The Taming of the Samurai. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
 Smith, Henry D. (1990). Rethinking the Story of the 47 Ronin: Chushingura in the 1980s. New York City, NY: Columbia University.
© 2015 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.