The story of the 47 ronin has been a famous legend in Japan for more than 300 years. It is based on an actual historical event from the early 18th century. The 47 ronin were a squadron of samurai, sword-wielding knights who undertook a complex plot to avenge the death of their master. According to Japan’s rigid honor system, this task meant the samurai would forfeit their own lives, but they carried out the revenge anyway. The tale illustrates distinctively Japanese concepts of order, honor, and manners that are still respected in modern-day Japan.
During the first decade of the 1700s, two Japanese daimyo, or feudal lords, became involved in an altercation. Responding to a perceived insult, the daimyo Asano attacked the daimyo Kira with a drawn dagger. Although Kira’s injuries were minor, the incident occurred in the home of the shogun, a high-ranking official of the emperor. This was a grave offense, and Asano was forced to commit seppuku, a form of ritual suicide, as a penalty. This meant that the warriors under Asano’s command became ronin, or leaderless samurai.
These 47 ronin felt duty-bound by Japan’s honor system to avenge the death of their master. The shogun, however, had forbidden acts of revenge against Kira. The 47 ronin dispersed, biding their time as part of a plan to get Kira to relax his guard. At an appointed time, two years after Asano’s suicide, they mounted an attack on Kira’s household and killed him. The shogun ordered the ronin to commit seppuku, which they did; they were then honorably buried in Tokyo.
The tale of the 47 ronin seized the imagination of the Japanese populace almost immediately. It featured many concepts important to the nation’s culture, such as honorable behavior even in the face of disgrace and death. In modern times, the tale remains popular in Japan, because of what it reveals about Japanese history and character. A corresponding tale from Western culture is the Charge of the Light Brigade, based on an ill-fated British regiment from the 19th-century Crimean War. The British poet Tennyson turned the historical tragedy into a famous poem, celebrating military duty in the face of certain defeat.
In the centuries since the deaths of the 47 ronin, their story has been turned into stage dramas, films, and even comic books. In Japan, these stories are collectively called Chūshingura, meaning loyal retainers. The tale is so famous that no further descriptive is necessary. The most famous film version, by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, was intended to boost national morale in the early years of World War II; it was not seen in the West until the 1970s. The graves of the 47 ronin remain a popular shrine and tourist destination in modern-day Tokyo.