The REAL story of the 47 rōnin

…is so much crazier than I thought

You can see why the tale of the forty-seven masterless samurai who avenge their lord appeals—righteous grudges, extreme consequences, clever & twisted revenge. It’s definitely got the makings of a killer Netflix series! But the most amazing thing is…it’s all true.

Page of manga comic 47 Ronin by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai
Page from the 47 Ronin manga by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai

But the deeper you dive, the better the story gets!

There’s a reason that nearly half of all kabuki plays, countless woodblock prints and 128 glorious minutes of all-Keanu-all-the-time are based on this single tale. Read on for the best things you never knew about the forty-seven rōnin!

Movie poster for 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves

🏯The 47 rōnin basics: After being insulted in the castle of the shōgun, Lord Asano draws his sword and wounds his tormentor, Lord Kira. Asano is sentenced to commit ritual suicide for committing this unpardonable offense. His forty-seven loyal samurai plot for two years, and finally avenge him, cutting off Lord Kira’s head and marching it to Lord Asano’s tomb, where they wash it off in a nearby well and leave it at his grave. Then they give themselves up at the castle and get the sentence they’re expecting: death by seppuku, just like their lord.

And here’s where they did it:

Main gate of Sengakuji temple
This is the Sengakuji temple in Tokyo…
Graveyard at Sengakuji temple where the 47 ronin are buried
…where the forty-seven rōnin are buried. Even though they died over three hundred years ago, the wooden sutra sticks on each of their graves are renewed faithfully each year and many people still come to offer incense and flowers at their graves
The well where the 47 ronin washed Lord Kira's head
See that little hole in the ground covered with chicken wire? That’s the well where they washed Lord Kira’s head…
The grave site of Lord Asano
…before scampering over here, to Lord Asano’s grave, to leave it as an offering to the spirit of their fallen master

But wait, there’s more!

The receipt for Lord Kira's head given to the 47 ronin
After obtaining this receipt for Lord Kira’s head BECAUSE JAPAN…
The signed confession of the 47 ronin for killing Lord Kira
…they all marched to the shōgun’s castle (yes, this is their actual signed confession) and turned themselves in

They were found guilty—as expected—and sentenced to commit ritual suicide. (You’ve seen seppuku/hari kiri in the movies, so I won’t describe it, but let’s just agree it’s an especially gruesome and tragic way to go.)

The thing I didn’t know much about is who these martyrs were as individuals, but the museum on the grounds of the Sengakuji temple has carved portraits and a little information about each of them, which makes this all a whole lot sadder.

Wooden carvings of two of the 47 ronin
The one on the left was 25 when he died, the one on the right, 64.
Wooden carving of one of the 47 ronin
This one is the saddest, because he was only 16.

If you’re like me, all this just raises more questions. Like…

What kind of wacko leader would make pulling out your sword in a hallway a death penalty crime?

Well, for one thing, swinging around the kind of sword that can cut through multiple condemned criminals’ bodies with a single stroke* is no joke, and Lord Asano actually did wound Lord Kira on the face before being stopped by the guy Kira had been chatting with in the hallway. Apparently, Kira enraged Asano by calling him some kind of rural hayseed, but Kira was Asano’s boss (and a much higher-ranking official) so it was a bit of a career-killer for him not to suck it up.

Woodblock print showing Lord Asano attacking Lord Kira
Not the smartest idea Lord Asano ever had

Asano was actually condemned for multiple reasons: he drew his sword in the castle (forbidden), used it to attack his superior (not done in polite company) at a time when Lord Kira was merely exchanging a little office gossip in the hallway (bad form), while the shōgun and the emperor’s ambassadors were meeting in rooms nearby (really, really, bad timing). When you consider the circumstances, the sentence seems a little less outrageous.

Why were Asano’s forty-seven employees pissed off so royally that they were willing to get the death penalty just to experience a moment of sweet revenge?

I think everyone pretty much agrees that the shōgun acted a little hastily. After the Imperial delegation was abruptly shuffled off to another wing of the castle, the shōgun sentenced Lord Asano to commit ritual suicide without any investigation at all, on the very same day the attack occurred. What’s worse, lords of the realm usually got to at least commit ritual suicide in a nice room with, say, a bonsai tree and a poetic scroll, but the shōgun made Asano do it outside (in a garden, which was hell on the plantings and not exactly the kind of thing you want to remember while strolling through the plum blossoms).

Dying outdoors was the punishment for convicted felons, not exalted samurai warlords, which was a huge disgrace for him, his family, his servants, and (important point) the faithful and otherwise honorable samurai who had been bound to his family for generations.

If you have to do it, you should at least get to do it amid decent decor (detail of woodblock print by Hirosada Utagawa)

But it gets worse. The whole Asano clan was abruptly booted from the aristocracy, their lands and income confiscated. That meant that not only was Asano’s family suddenly lining up at the soup kitchen, every samurai who served him, plus the countless retainers and servants and all their families were out of a job. I mean REALLY out of a job. No severance, no letter of recommendation, nothing. Who’s going to hire a disgraced samurai whose sworn loyalty is to another lord?

How exactly did they manage to finally cut off Lord Kira’s head?

It wasn’t easy! Old Kira didn’t get to be a 62-year-old warlord without being a tough and wily old dude. He knew Asano’s samurai had nothing left to lose, so he holed up in his castle accordingly, with all the defenses he could muster around him. But Oishi Kuranosuke (the leader of the forty-seven masterless samurai) was the craftiest of the crafty. And the most patient of the patient.

Page of manga comic 47 Ronin by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai
Page from the 47 Ronin manga by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai

For two whole years, Oishi made every one of the forty-seven rōnin pretend to be common folk, becoming carpenters and fishermen and practicing trades so far below their rank that they became invisible. Oishi himself publicly become a drunkard, a dissipated frequenter of the pleasure quarter, a sad has-been. With no sign of revenge in sight, Kira finally began to relax, believing that if they hadn’t attacked him yet, they weren’t going to.

Then one night, the forty-seven stormed Kira’s castle and battled through all the guards, but Lord Kira was nowhere to be found. Finally, they discovered a hidden courtyard where there was a shed used to store charcoal and such. When they opened the door, a barrage of rice bowls, charcoal, and all kinds of other crap began pelting them, followed by Kira’s master swordsman leaping out and slashing at anything that moved.

47 ronin storming the door of the shed where Lord Kira is hiding in a woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyasu
Not surprisingly, artists and playwrights prefer to immortalize the storming of the door, rather than the lobbing of the kitchen utensils (woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyasu)

They managed to subdue the swordmeister and searched the shed. It looked empty, but of course, it wasn’t. The suspicious rōnin rooted around and discovered an old man in pajamas armed only with a short sword. He refused to say who he was. Most of the samurai hadn’t seen Lord Kira face to face—he was too high up—so at first there was a bit of an ID problem. They finally had to rely on the forehead scar that Lord Asano had given him on the fateful day that started it all.

Discovering Lord Kira hiding in the shed, woodblock print detail
You should have upped your cosplay game, Kira

The forty-seven rōnin took Lord Kira to the main courtyard and suggested he take the honorable way out, offering him the very same dagger Lord Asano had used to commit ritual suicide. He refused. Finally, they had to hold him down and do the job themselves. (Whack, whack, could you give me a receipt for that?)

And you know the rest. They take his head to the temple where Lord Asano is buried, leave it on his grave, then sign a confession and turn themselves in. All of them were sentenced to commit ritual suicide on the same day, which they did.

And why do the Japanese love this story so much? Because their favorite heros are the ones do the right thing, and die trying.

* This is how they tested new swords in the Edo period, and yeah, they were that sharp.

Click here for more The Thing I Learned Today posts

Or get more amusing Japan stuff sent to your email every month when you subscribe!

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

2 thoughts on “The REAL story of the 47 rōnin

    1. Suzy, you made my day! Hearing that you enjoyed this one is all it takes to make me look forward to writing another one. Thank you, my friend.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: