Participants march in a parade in the Ako Gishi Festival. (Jiji)

Loyalty that Never Goes Out of Style
February 7, 2003

Every culture has its beloved stories, and a favorite among the Japanese is "Chushingura," a tale of revenge based on actual events that took place in the early eighteenth century in Edo (now Tokyo). In terms of fame and longstanding popularity, "Chushingura" is on a par with Arthurian legend and Shakespearean plays.

A Historic Tale of Loyalty and Vengeance
"Chushingura" is based on a sequence of events that began in March 1701 at Edo Castle, the shogunal headquarters. Asano Takuminokami, the lord of Ako (now part of Hyogo Prefecture), was publicly humiliated in the line of duty by Kira Kozukenosuke, the shogun's chief of protocol. He drew his sword against Kira in the castle, a grave breach of etiquette. The shogun immediately ordered Asano to commit suicide by disembowelment and dissolved Asano's domain. With that, about 300 retainers suddenly found themselves out of a job. But this did not mean the end of their loyalty to Asano. In December of the following year, 47 of the masterless samurai, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, avenged the death of their lord by slaying Kira. The men then gave themselves up to the shogunate, and a few weeks later were ordered to commit suicide by disembowelment.

The ronin (masterless samurai) carried out their difficult act of revenge with the full understanding that they would face death afterward. While the people of the time, accustomed to the peace and order maintained by the feudal government, were shocked by this act, they were also deeply moved by the samurai's unity, perseverance, bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

The incident became a popular theme in the dramatic arts, with a succession of kabuki plays and bunraku puppet theater presentations hitting stages. It was most famously dramatized onstage in 1748 as "Chushingura," with Kira as the villain, Asano as tragic hero, and the masterless samurai of Ako as the valiant retainers. These clearly defined roles made "Chushingura" a favorite theme of the theater that served as entertainment for the masses.

Ever since the incident that inspired "Chushingura" took place, scholars have debated the question of whether the act of vengeance was a crime, and modern-day researchers have endeavored to separate historic fact from fiction. These scholarly quibbles notwithstanding, everyday people have always felt an unreserved sympathy for the masterless samurai of Ako.

A Story with Timeless Appeal
But why, exactly, is "Chushingura" so popular? Many say it is because the Japanese admire the samurai code, with its emphasis on loyalty, and identify with the conflict between sense of duty and human feelings - giri and ninjo, two central themes in Japanese literature over the centuries - as portrayed in the story. But according to the critic Tadao Sato, the appeal of "Chushingura" goes beyond this. In his book Chushingura: Iji no keifu (Chushingura: The lineage of dedication), Sato analyzes the tale in terms of a single keyword, "dedication," which he defines as "displaying the willingness to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to prove the righteousness of one's beliefs."

Sato writes, "Beyond the just causes of righteous vengeance and loyalty, the tale of the 47 masterless samurai embodies dedication, a virtue that holds strong appeal for the Japanese. Despite the shifts in values that have taken place since the end of World War II, this story will probably continue to be told and retold."

Another reason cited for the story's undying popularity is that, like a Shakespearean play, it lends itself to a variety of interpretations. For example, one novel written in the 1920s portrayed the ronin as launching an act of resistance against government that ruled through intimidation. In the 1970s, when money-based politics was coming under fire, a TV series presenting the tale through that critical lens became a hit. And today, Japanese workers who have lost their jobs in the economic bust can be likened to the masterless samurai, while Oishi can be viewed as the ideal leader of a society in crisis.

Tricentennial Celebrated with Special Events
In 2002, the three-hundredth anniversary of the masterless samurai's vengeful attack, a commemorative production of "Chushingura" was performed at the Kabuki-za theater and the National Theater in Tokyo and the Minamiza theater in Kyoto. And in January 2003, TV Tokyo (site is Japanese only) aired Chushingura: Ketsudan no toki (Chushingura: The decisive moment) as a marathon 10-hour New Year samurai drama.

Many special anniversary events were also held. On December 15, the anniversary of the attack, Sumida City hosted a "Chushingura walk" in Tokyo. The course of about 11 kilometers started at Sengakuji temple (where the loyal retainers deposited Kira's head after wreaking their vengeance, and the site of their graves) and ended at the ruins of Kira's mansion in Sumida Ward. This event easily attracted its capacity of 500 participants; the organizers were deluged with nearly that number of entries in just the first two days of accepting applications. Perhaps in part because of the manageable distance, the participants included some preschool children.

Every year on December 14, the city of Ako in Hyogo Prefecture holds the Ako Gishi (loyal samurai) Festival (site is Japanese only). Last year's festival drew a crowd of 130,000 visitors, twice the usual number. The festival, first held in 1900, has now taken place 95 times and has established itself as the largest festival in the region. Though the festival is always large, the organizers of the tricentennial Gishi Festival made it an especially big deal with special events, including a concert by Hideki Togi, a performer of the traditional Japanese imperial court music known as gagaku, held in the memory of the loyal warriors.

According to a spokesperson for the Ako municipal government, the festival has undergone a personality change since World War II: "Before the war, the festival emphasized 'Chushingura' as an embodiment of the samurai spirit or the Japanese soul, whereas since the war, the emphasis has shifted to the story's pure entertainment value as a morality tale." But be this change as it may, the Japanese seem likely to enjoy this classic tale for generations to come.

Copyright (c) 2003 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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