Friday, February 23, 2024

Training 2024: Sengaku-ji And The 47 Ronin

 Sengaku-ji (Sengaku Temple) is a temple located in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area .  Original founded in 1612 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, it became famous as the final resting place of The 47 Ronin.

Outer gateway to Sengaku-ji

The Ako Icident (as it is formerly referred to in the history of the time) started in 1701, when a daimyo, Asano Naganori, was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide, literally "cutting of the stomach") after he attacked a high court official, Kira Yoshinaka, in the palace of the Shogun.  To draw a sword inside the castle was strictly forbidden, to attack even more so.  Asano had felt deeply insulted as Kira has degraded and insulted him in the course of instructing him in court etiquette (popular rumor was it was because Kira was hoping for a bribe).

Original entrance gate to Sengaku-ji
After his suicide, the Shogunate demanded the Asano family's domain of Ako be surrendered (along with its castle), its goods confisticated, and its samurai made ronin (literally "A man of the waves" or a masterless samurai, which did not find a place in the Tokugawa's Neo-Confucian social structure of warrior, merchant, farmer, and craftsman).

Enter Oishi Kuranosuke, head chamberlain of the Asano Clan.

Statue of Oishi Kuranosuke

Oisihi, having been notified of the impending forfeiture, first moved the remaining Asano family members and then, against the arguments of some of his clan, formally surrendered the castle and its domain.  He requested to re-establish the house of Asano but failed.

In the meantime, he had a second plan.

Main Temple, Senkaku-ji

Oishi began reaching out to former retainers of the Asano with a plan:  To take revenge on Lord Kira by his assassination. This would be difficult, as Kira was on the watch and carefully monitoring the movements of Oishi and many of the former Asano samurai. 

Rear view of the Main Gate

And so Oishi hatched a plot.  Reaching out to key retainers, he began to construct a plan whereby he and the retainers would ambush Kira.  This would have to be completed in secret and could not be done while Kira suspected a thing.

Bell Tower

Not only would the men have to gather; they would have to get arms and armor without raising suspicion and assemble at a given time when Kira was in a location and no longer suspicious.

Temple Buildings

The execution of the plan took 14 months.  During that time, Kira's agents tracked Oishi in Kyoto.  What they saw was a man who apparently had given himself over entirely to pleasure, visiting the pleasure quarters and drinking and carrying on with women.  All the time in the background, the team continued to work to gather arms and manufacture armor in secret and remain in contact.

Plum blossoms in February

Finally, Kira's agents gave up. Oishi had turned into a wastrel and his men the same.  There was no threat.

On 31 January 1703, Oishi and 46 other ronin, all former retainers of the Asano, stormed Kira's mansion in Edo (now Tokyo).  Splitting into two groups (Kuranosuke led one and his son, 15 year old Chikara, led the other,) they captured the porters lodge and opened the gate.

Entrance to the graves

Prior to the start of the attack, Oishi emphasized to his men that their target was Lord Kira:  women, children, and non-combatants were to be spared.  He also sent messengers to Kira's neighbors, notifying them of the attack and that they were in no danger.  And at the formal initiation of the attack, one of the 47 Ronin climbed to the roof and announced the attack to the neighborhood and that this was an act of revenge.

Tomb of Oishi Kuranosuke

The attack went on through the night.  The 47 stormed the house and began searching for Kira.  Kira's retainers, when they realized they were losing, attempted to go for aid but were cut down by Oshi's bowmen stationed on the walls.  16 retainers were killed and 22 injured, but Kira could not be found.

Graves of The 47 Ronin

Finally, in a shed for storing charcoal and firewood, a man was found.  Refusing to give his name, he was examined.  His head bore a scar, put there by the sword of Asano.  Lord Kira had been found.

Graves of The 47 Ronin
Oishi addressed Kira as a retainer would based on Kira's rank, explaining why they had come and offering Kira the chance to commit seppuku and retain his honor; Oishi would act as his kaishakuin (second) and behead him to prevent suffering.  Kira was shaken and trembling; finally, seeing there was no change, Oishi cut off Kira's head with a dagger.  

Extinguishing all lamps to prevent any risk of fire, The 47 Ronin sent one man, Terasaka Kiechiemon, to the Asano domain to announce the deed.  The now 46 Ronin began a walking retreat to Sengaku-ji, a temple favored by the Asano's.  The story spread quickly and as they marched along, they were feted and offered refreshments by passers-by.

Grave of Oishi Chikara, Oishi Kuranosuke's son
Upon arriving at Sengaku-ji, they washed Kira's head in a nearby well and presented it and the dagger that had cut it off on the grave of Lord Asano.  Praying at the temple and giving their remaining funds to the Abbott, they surrendered to the Shogunal authorities.

Graves of The 47 Ronin
The Shogunal government was in a bit of a pickle.  Lord Kira was not a popular man, and at the time the decision against Lord Asano had been wildly unpopular.  Also, The 47 Ronin had demonstrated a retainer's loyalty to one's lord, something that the Shogunal government was effectively built on.  To decry that would be to decry the very existence of the Shogunate. 

At the same time, the government could not support acts of revenge like this - there was a process for seeking revenge, but it was a defined process and included a formal declaration of the act of seeking revenge.  The 47 Ronin had done none of this.

Grave of Horibe Yahyoe.  Oldest of The 47 Ronin, he was 77 at the time of The Ako Incident

The government came to the following decision:  The 46 Ronin, who had been placed in the custody of four daimyo, were to commit seppuku, allowing them to die as warriors and retain their honor.  No revenge could be sought by Kira's family.  The matter was closed.

The Ronin had always planned this as a possible outcome.  And so, on 20 March 1703, the 46 committed seppuku.  Their remains, along with the remains of Lord Asano and his wife Yozen-in (Buddhist name), were buried at Sengaku-ji.

Overlooking the graves, with Oishi Kuranosuke's in the background

One may note only 46 died.  The 47th, Terasaka Kiechiemon, who had been sent to the Asano domain to declare the revenge, was pardoned by the Shogunate.  Accounts vary of why he was pardoned: some say it was because of his youth, others that it was "plot" by Oishi and the others by clearly stating he as not part of the action to allow his survival.  He lived until 1747 and died at the age of 87, when he was then buried with his comrades.

Another odd note:  There are 48 graves for the Ronin present.  Added in their number is Kayano Shigezane, a retainer who was forced to commit seppuku when a family member disapproved of his taking part in the act.

A final note:  The Asano were restored to their status, but not as the Lords of Ako domain.

A festival for The 47 Ronin is celebrated at the temple on 14 December.

Entrance to the graves, with Oishi Chikara's in the background

One climbs the stairs above, where a monk and/or a volunteer will take 300 Yen and offer you lighted incense sticks, which are placed on the stone alters in front of each grave.

This was my second time in Sengaku-ji.  It is a humbling and haunting experience.

Head Washing Well - The well where the head of Kira was washed before being presented on the tomb of Lord Asano.

Further information:  If one wants to learn more, the Wikipedia link above is a great start.  Do not - and I mean DO NOT - by any means watch the more recent movie starring Keanu Reeves (whom otherwise I enjoy as an actor) - it has almost nothing to do with the actual story except there may be a revenge and 47 Ronin may be involved.  If you have a long period of time, there was a 1941 movie produced which, while not having the fighting, is probably more true to the actual events (located at There have been more recent (1950's to 1970's) adaptations.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it instantly became a classic in the samurai culture and remains so to this day.

For written works, I cannot recommend highly enough Donald Keene's translation of  Kandehon Chushingura (more colloquially known as "The Chushingura)".  Originally developed as a bunraku (puppet play), it had to recast the events to an earlier period due to Shogunal censorship but retains the spirit of the events (especially Oishi's deception).

The 47 Roinin (Source)
The 47 Ronin on their way to Sengaku-ji, stopped by locals for refreshment (Source)


  1. What an interesting story. Such bravery and loyalty would seem to be an odd thing nowadays, at least in our culture.

    Thanks for the movie link. I use Internet Archive a lot for audiobooks, but never thought to look at their video collection.

    1. Leigh - It was even an odd thing back in the day. This would have been over 100 years since the last great Battle of Sekigahara, 85 years after the Siege of Osaka, and 63 years after the Shimabara Rebellion. This sort of dedication to one's master seemed a relic of former days come back to life. There is no similar story in the Edo period (1600-1868) to compare to it.

      Loyalty has become another casualty to modern culture.

      I accidentally stumbled in the movie link. Turns out there is quite a bit there.

  2. Anonymous5:47 AM

    Thanks for sharing! Japanese culture, particularly the Samurai aspects, or so mis-understood in the west.... We should teach the men of today what those that came before them did.

    1. Anon - As ugly as the story is, it remains one of my favorites (partially because it is true). Such loyalty to one's master (substitute "boss" or "leader" here) is something we no longer understand.

  3. Nylon126:09 AM

    Ah! More photos from Over There, especially connected to such an episode in history. Yah, not going to rely on Hollywood for ANY "facts". Thanks for the work put into today's post TB, more places to visit on the InterNets.

    1. Nylon12 - Thanks! It is funny - I sat down to write this, and only later realized I was there two hours. Writing such things gives me joy.

      Hollywood is usually quite questionable about their history, but this was especially egregious. I do hope everyone involved was suitably embarrassed.

  4. I have been told I have a healthy imagination. I can imagine following through on many forms of suicide and what it must be like but for the life of me, I couldn't imagine having to follow through with seppuku. It just sounds horrific, even with the beheading to ease the suffering.

    It was a fascinating story though. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Ed - The practice of Seppuku is an interesting (if somewhat macabre) history.

      The first recorded act of seppuku was in 1180 by Minamoto no Yorimasa. It continued after that time, with variations - one of the most painful forms was to cut one's stomach open several times. The Kaishaku-in (second) was likely introduced for several reasons: one was to end the suffering sooner, another to make sure that the samurai died with honor (e.g., if they did not have the fortitude to do it, the kaishakuin would make sure it was done).

      Over time it became highly ritualized (seppuku being the name of the ritual), sometimes not even requiring the initial cut: reaching for a fan or laying down the pen after a death poem would be enough to trigger the final cut.

      Interestingly, the goal of the cut of the Kaishakuin was not to completely take the head off but to leaf a slight piece of the neck attacked, so the head would roll down into the lap. A bouncing head was considered bad form on the part of the Kaiskakuin.

  5. The tale of the 47 ronin is one of my absolute favorites, love the photos. Those guys knew honor.

    1. Sarge, I think the thing that is most fascinating to me is that it is a real story. Men actually did this, and I have seen where they lay.

      The Chushingura, if you can find a copy, is pretty enjoyable.


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