The Temple of the 47 Samurai

Not far from Shinagawa, on a low bluff that overlooks the bay, is one of Edo's most famous, and most romanticized landmarks -- the grave of the forty-seven samurai. The grave site is located at Senkakuji, a small temple just a short distance from the Tokaido, as it approaches the center of Edo. Most people in Japan know the story of the forty-seven samurai almost by heart. It has become a very popular romance, and dozens of stories and plays have been written about it, each one more elaborate and dramatic. In fact, the most famous kabuki play ever written -- The Chushingura -- is also based on the story of the 47 samurai.

The story begins in Edo Castle in the year 1701, duringthe reign of the shogun Tsunayoshi. A certain samurai from northern Japan, named Asano, was assigned to serve as a guard at the Shogun's court. Asano was a very noble warrior, who had been well schooled in Bushido -- the proper conduct of a warrior. However, since he was from a rural province, he was not so familiar with the rules of high society, and the polite behavior of courtiers.

While Asano was serving in the Shogun's guard, another samurai from a province near Kyoto, named Kira, visited Edo castle. Because Kira was related to the Emperor and had spent most of his life in the imperial court in Kyoto, he was very proud and conceited. He considered people from Edo and other parts of eastern Japan to be less civilized and less refined. When he met the soft-spoken and humble Asano, his first impression was that Asano was some sort of dumb hick from the countryside. He spoke to Asano in a very rude way. But instead of getting angry, Asano was extremely polite, ignored the insult, and continued to show his visitor around the castle.

Kira thought that Asano had failed to respond to the insult because he was a coward. But actually, the reason why Asano did not show his anger was because he was such a well-trained samurai. According to the code of Bushido, a good warrior never loses his temper. He knows better than to fight with someone when it is not necessary. Asano continued to ignore the insults, and when he didnt get a response, Kira became ever more insulting , trying to provoke Asano.

However, because Asano was not very familiar with court ettiquite, he made a minor mistake in courtesy. As they were going down the steps to the castle, Asano went ahead of Kira (who was of a higher rank). This was a breach of court ettiquite, and Kira used it as an excuse to provoke Asano further. Kira deliberately tripped on the steps, and let his sandal fall to the ground. He shouted angrily that Asano was a barbarian who was so rude he went down the stairs ahead of a guest. "Its your fault I dropped my sandal", he shouted. "Pick it up and put it back on my foot."

Now, in Japanese society, touching another person's foot is a very demeaning thing. Only a servant would stoop to tying another person's sandal. It would be completely inappropriate for any person of dignity -- particularly a warrior. Asano could no longer ignore the insult, for to do so would be a sign that he had no honor. It is one thing to ignore insults. But to touch another person's feet would have ruined his reputation as a warrior. Left with no choice, Asano drew his sword and attacked Kira. Though Kira was attended by a dozen of his own retainers, they were only barely able to defend their master. Asano managed to wound Kira slightly, but his retainers intervened, and Kira managed to escape with his life. Asano was a magnificent swordsman, and Kira's retainers had to flee. They were lucky just to escape without serious injury.

Although Kira easily won the fight, it is forbidden for anyone to draw their sword inside the Shogun's castle. Kira and his retainers had all seen the fight, and so had a lot of other witnesses. Kira complained to Shogun Tsunayoshi, accusing Asano of breaking the law. The Shogun realised that Kira was the one who had provoked Asano. However, a law is a law, and he had no choice but to punish Asano. He ordered Asano to commit suicide by seppuku . Since Asano was a very noble warrior, he did exactly as he was told.

Unfortunately for Asano's 47 retainers, their master did not have an heir. This meant that they no longer had any lord to serve; they were all now unemployed, and could not work as guards for the Shogun as they had in the past. Not only was their master disgraced, but their own lives were ruined. Most people expected them to try to get revenge against Kira, but Kira also expected this, so he increased the guards around his home to ensure that he could not be attacked.

The 47 samurai knew they could never hope to overcome all the guards and take their revenge on Kira, so they hatched a plan. All of them left Edo, going to different towns around the country. Kira's spies continued to keep an eye on them, but instead of trying to find work and practicing their martial arts, the 47 samurai became drunkards and beggars, sleeping in the streets and forgetting all about protecting their honor. The leader of the group, Oishi, became an object of ridicule. Though his wife begged him to show some self-respect, he ordered her to leave and take their children with her. To complete his disgrace, Oishi moved in with a prostitute.

Everyone was convinced that the 47 samurai were nothing but bums and drunks. The people of the town treated them as fools, and made them the butt of practical jokes and ridicule. Eventually, Kira stopped worrying that they might attack him. Although they had to live a life of disgrace for over a year, this was all part of their plan. The 47 samurai ignored the people who taunted them and laughed at them, because they were intent on getting their revenge.

Finally, late the following winter, they were ready. The 47 samurai gathered together just outside the home of Kira on a snowy evening, December 15, 1702, and prepared to strike. Kira had been fooled into complacency. He believed that the 47 samurai were no longer a danger, so he no longer expected them to attack. That evening, only a few guards were on duty. The 47 samurai stormed into the manor and swiftly killed all the guards.

Kira tried to run away, but he was surrounded. After searching the entire manor, Oishi caught him hiding in a rice storehouse. Oishi offered to let Kira commit seppuku, which is the most noble way for a warrior to die. But instead of accepting his fate like a man, Kira begged for mercy. Oishi was so disgusted by the coward that he simply chopped off his head and tossed it into a bucket.

The 47 samurai then took Kira's head to the grave of their master, which was located at Senkaku-ji Temple, near Shinagawa. After they had placed their enemy's head on Asano's grave and said prayers to their departed master, all 47 of them committed suicide, so they could join their master in death. The priests at Senkakuji buried all 47 next to their master, and now the grave has become a famous site for pilgrims and sightseers. People come from all over the country to pay their respects to these loyal retainers, who were willing to suffer insults and poverty in order to revenge their master

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