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47 Ronin

47 Ronin

Ronin by Kawanabe Kyosai (c.1886)
The ronin were masterless samurai in feudal Japan. Having lost both their occupation and honour they were left to roam the land in order to survive, hence the meaning for their title being “wandering man”. During the Edo period, former samurai were not allowed to change occupation or find a new master, which forced most ronin to use their existing skills and become either mercenaries, or in many cases, criminals. As a result they were viewed as threatening, disgraceful thugs.

 Lord Asano assaults Kira, Utagawa Kuniteru (19th century)

 However, the ronin have also found a place in history as heroes and legends. There were several cases in which disgraced samurai decided to avenge the unjust loss of their leader, the most famous one being the tale of the 47 ronin, also known as the “Ako incident”. In the year 1701, lord Asano Naganori was ordered to perform seppuku (ritual suicide) after attacking the corrupt court official Kira Yoshinaka. Having lost their master, Asano’s men became ronin, 47 of which chose to ignore the shogun’s ruling forbidding them to retaliate, and sought vengeance against the arrogant Kira. Two years later the ronin gathered and commenced the attack. Led by Oishi Yoshio, the ronin charged Kira’s mansion in two groups, swiftly defeating the defenders. The terrified Kira was found hidden in a secret courtyard, and killed by the ronin. Their revenge now complete, the 47 ronin turned themselves in for defying the shogun’s order, who in turn honoured their sacrifice by granting them death by ceremonial seppuku rather than a criminal’s hanging.

The 47 ronin attack Kira's mansion, Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1806)
The story became famous throughout Japan, and adaptations of it are known as chushingura, meaning “Treasury of loyal retainers”. As the shogunate had placed a ban on covering current events, early chushingura changed the dates and names of the people involved in the incident, cementing it as a prominent legend in 18th century Japan. Originally preformed as kabuki play, the legend later spread through art, literature and even modern day television and film.
Graves of the ronin at Sengaku-ji temple
The 47 ronin are buried in the Sengaku-ji temple in Takanwa, Tokyo, where a festival is held in their name every December.

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