The Tale of the 47 Ronin
Every year, the Emperor would send a message of peace to the Shogun. The Shogun selected a Daimyo to greet the Emperor’s messenger. In 1701, the Shogun selected a Daimyo named Takumi to greet the messengers. Takumi did not know the proper way to greet them. The Shogun’s secretary, Lord Kotsuke, was chosen to teach Takumi how it was to be done. Kotsuke was a greedy, mean and jealous man. He would not give instruction without pay. Takumi refused to pay. He felt it was Kotsuke’s duty to honor the order of the Shogun and teach him without expecting a reward.
Kotsuke became very angry. He refused to teach Takumi anything and took every opportunity to insult him. One day, Kotsuke ordered Takumi to tie the laces on Kotsuke’s sandals. Takumi resented the order, but he bent down and tied the laces. Then, Kotsuke turned to the other nobles who were present and, with a sneer and a laugh, said, “Look at that. This serf cannot even tie a sandal correctly.”
With this insult, Takumi lost his temper and self-control. He drew his sword and attacked Kotsuke. Kotsuke was not seriously injured, but Takumi had committed two crimes: he had drawn his sword in the palace of the Shogun and he had wounded an official of the Shogun. In addition, he had violated Bushido by showing emotion and allowing them to control him. For these crimes Takumi knew he must die. That night, in a shrine in a moonlit garden, he performed Seppuku. All of his loyal Samurai watched.
Takumi’s land and possessions were seized. Some of those possessions were given to Kotsuke in payment for the wounds he had received. Takumi’s loyal Samurai now became Ronin.
Among the Samurai of the dead Takumi was his councilor, a man named Kuranosuke. He and forty-six other Samurai formed a league, The League of the Loyal Warriors, to avenge the death of their lord. These Ronin felt that Kotsuke was at fault because he had insulted their lord. They believed Kotsuke had murdered Takumi just as if he had actually stabbed him. The league vowed to seek revenge.
Kotsuke suspected that these Ronin would plot against him. He sent spies to watch the Ronin and he hired more Samurai to guard his home and family.
Kuranosuke, however, was determined to fool the secretary into a false sense of security. So, for almost two years, the Ronin led wild and drunken lives. They seemed to have forgotten their dead lord and Bushido. When Kotsuke’s spies reported this to him, he was very relieved and began to relax his guard. It is then that the Ronin struck. Dressed in the black silk costume of the ninja, they slipped over the walls of Kotsuke’s palace. After a bloody battle, the Ronin killed all of Kotsuke’s guards. They found Kotsuke hiding in a shed behind some bags of charcoal and firewood. With great respect, they offered to allow Kotsuke to perform Seppuku and die an honorable death. But, Kotsuke was a coward. He begged them to spare his life and promised them large rewards if they did so.
Kuranosuke, seeing that it was useless to urge Kotsuke to die the death of a Daimyo, forced him down and cut off his head with the same short sword with which Lord Takumi had killed himself. The Ronin then placed the head of the dead Kotsuke in a bucket to be taken to the tomb of Lord Takumi.
The forty-seven Ronin had proven themselves loyal to their lord and master. Everyone praised their courage and faithfulness. Even so, they knew what they must do now. They had killed one of the Shogun’s high officials. They had shown that they were not completely loyal to the Shogun. For that crime, Bushido demands death. Every one of the forty-seven Ronin performed Seppuku. Their bodies were buried in front of Takumi’s tomb. When news of their deeds spread, people from all over the kingdom of Japan came to pray at the graves of these faithful and brave men.
1. What character qualities are exhibited by the 47 Ronin?
2. Explain how the killing of Kotsuke by the Ronin was a product of the same Bushido Code that required them to perform seppuku at the end of the tale. Isn’t this a contradiction?