Stephen Mansfield is an author and photojournalist who has been living on the edges of Tokyo since the late 1980s. His book, Tokyo: A Cultural History, looks at how Tokyo grew from a fishing village along a marshy estuary to one of the world’s largest and most culturally vibrant metropolises. We learn that for all its modernity and craving for the new, it is a city impregnated with the past. In the excerpt below Mansfield looks at piece of Tokyo’s history that has lived on in literature.
An extraordinary event occurred in 1701 that electrified the entire city. Because of its reverberations as both news and as a fitting subject for literature, the story is worth retelling. Assigned to perform ceremonial duties at the shogun’s court in Edo, Lord Asano, a daimyo from the western domain of Ako, was provoked into attacking and injuring Lord Kira. Though the reason for the provocation has never been satisfactorily explained, an oversight of etiquette, personal slight or grudge toward Kira – a condescending and spiteful superior by all accounts – have all been mooted. Having violated the strict rule of court banning the drawing of weapons, Asano was commanded to commit immediate seppuku (ritual disembowelment). With Asano’s death, his vassals automatically became ronin, masterless samurai stripped of crest, armour and a banner to serve under. His estates were seized by the authorities, the family castle razed to the ground and his widow driven into taken refuge in a nunnery.
Smarting from humiliation, 47 of the ronin secretly swore to avenge his death. Knowing that they would be under surveillance from the authorities, who posted spies to watch the men’s comings and goings, they took a full two years planning their revenge. To allay suspicion, they took up jobs as carpenters, labourers and peddlers, work that would have been inconceivable for a samurai. While quietly hatching a plan of action, Oishi Kuranosuke, Lord Asano’s former Elder Councillor, adopted a dissolute lifestyle, drinking and womanizing, a pretense that relaxed Kira’s guard.
During the winter of 1703, the ronin broke into Kira’s high-walled mansion at midnight. After fierce fighting, in which all the guards and retainers were slaughtered, they searched the grounds for Kira, eventually finding him hiding in a charcoal shed in white satin sleeping robes. After removing Kira’s head with the very sword that Lord Asano had used against him at court, they carried the trophy through the snow-blanketed streets of Edo, washed it in a well, which is still there today, and placed it on the grave of their master at Sengaku-ji temple.
While the public in general lauded this violent act of revenge as a heroic deed consistent with the samurai code of absolute loyalty, the shogunate was obliged by its own set of rules to punish the offenders for having assassinated a member of the court. Rather than being decapitated, the fate of the common criminal, the 47 were, after long and spirited debates and deliberations among intellectuals and officials, granted the privilege of an honourable death by seppuku.
The story of the attack by the ronin appeared as a puppet play within weeks of the actual event, and example of the speed with which reality was transmuted into art and entertainment. the story has inspired countless novels, Kabuki plays and films. The best-known theatrical version is the puppet play Chushinguru (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers), first performed in 1748. For reasons of censorship, the story was re-situated in the fourteenth century. The poet John Masefield wrote a much inferior English version of the play called The Faithful.
Climbing the steps up to the time-weathered graves today, an acrid smell hangs in the air, the tombs banked up beneath clouds of smoke from incense sticks placed there by those who continue to honour the men. Rudyand Kipling did just this in the spring of 1889, finding that “an animal of the name of V. Gay had seen fit to stratch his entirely uninteresting name” on one of the gold-leafed, lacquered panels of the tomb. “It is not the handwriting upon the wall” he added: “Presently there wll be neither gold nor lacquer-nothing but the finger marks of foreigners.”