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The 47 Ronin

(The shogun's messengers tell Asano Naganori to commit suicide. Utagawa Kuniyasu, c. 1815.)

One of the most famous episodes in Japanese history is honoured on the traditional date of December 14th. It happened when Japan was ruled from Edo (now Tokyo) by the Tokugawa Shoguns, with the emperors reduced to a ceremonial role.

In 1701, Lord Kira, the shogun's master of ceremonies, knowing his long-time enemy Daimyo Asano to be a man easily brought to anger, deliberately provoked Lord Asano into drawing his sword on the shogun's grounds - a capital offense. For this breach of etiquette, Lord Asano was ordered to commit "seppuku" (ritual suicide). He was buried in a temple outside Edo and his estate was confiscated.

At the time, Lord Asano had 47 samurai retainers. As was the custom of the time, many thought that at least some of Lord Asano's 47 samurai would commit "hara-kiri" and follow their master into the void. At the very least, to save "face" and guard their honor, many believed the 47 should have launched a suicidal attack against the vastly superior number of samurai guarding Lord Kira. But it appeared their fear of dying prevented any of the 47 from doing so.

For two years thereafter, wherever this 47 "ronin" (masterless samurai) went in Japan, they were reviled as the scum of the earth. Fathers pointed at the 47 out to their sons as examples of how not to be, of what happens when samurai lose their honor. Then, on the second anniversary of their master's death, all 47 ronin secretly gathered outside Lord Kira's residence and breached its walls. Caught by surprise, Lord Kira's samurai fell beneath the blades of the ronin.

The following morning the ronin placed Lord Kira's head on Lord Asano's grave and then, one by one, all 47 committed hara-kiri, finally joining their master into the void.

Their story is a major theme of Japanese theater, literature and cinema. They were buried in the same temple with their lord and their graves are a visitor attraction in the Sengakuji Temple in Tokyo.

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