Original Story from A.B. Mitford's Tales of Old Japan
Afterword & Commentary by Justin Hagen
At the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived a daimyo, called Asano Takumi no Kami, the Lord of the castle of Ako, in the province of Harima. Now it happened that an Imperial ambassador from the Court of the Mikado, having been sent to the Shogun at Edo, Takumino Kami and another noble called Kamei Sama were appointed to receive and feast the envoy; and a high official, named Kira Kotsuke no Suke, was named to teach them the proper ceremonies to be observed upon the occasion. The two nobles were accordingly forced to go daily to the castle to listen to the instructions of Kotsuke no Suke. But this Kotsuke no Suke was a man greedy of money; and as he deemed that the presents which the two daimyos, according to time-honored custom, had brought him in return for his instruction, were mean and unworthy, he conceived a great hatred against them and took no pains in teaching them, but on the contrary rather sought to make laughing-stocks of them. Takumi no Kami, restrained by a stern sense of duty, bore his insults with patience; but Kamei Sama, who had less control over his temper, was violently incensed, and determined to kill Kotsuke no Suke.
One night when his duties at the castle were ended, Kamei Sama returned to his own palace, and having summoned his councilors to a secret conference, said to them, “Kotsuke no Suke has insulted Takumi no Kami and myself during our service in attendance on the Imperial envoy. This is against all decency, and I was minded to kill him on the spot; but I bethought me that if I did such a deed within the precincts of the castle, not only would my own life be forfeit, but my family and vassals would be ruined, so I stayed my hand. Still the life of such a wretch is a sorrow to the people, and tomorrow when I go to court I will slay him: my mind is made up, and I will listen to no remonstrance." And as he spoke his face became livid with rage.
Now one of Kamei Sama's councilors was a man of great judgment, and when he saw from his lord's manner that remonstrance would be useless, he said, “Your lordship's words are law; your servant will make all preparations accordingly; and tomorrow, when your lordship goes to court, if this Kotsuke no Suke should again be insolent, let him die the death.” And his lord was pleased at this speech, and waited with impatience for the day to break, that he might return to court and kill his enemy.
But the councilor went home, and was sorely troubled, and thought anxiously about what his prince had said. And as he reflected, it occurred to him that since Kotsuke no Suke had the reputation of being a miser he would certainly be open to a bribe, and that it was better to pay any sum, no matter how great, than that his lord and his house should be ruined. So he collected all the money he could, and, giving it to his servants to carry, rode off in the night to Kotsuke no Suke's palace and said to his retainers, “My master, who is now in attendance upon the Imperial envoy, owes much thanks to my Lord Kotsuke no Suke, who has been at so great pains to teach him the proper ceremonies to be observed during the reception of the Imperial envoy. This is but a shabby present which he has sent by me, but he hopes that his lordship will condescend to accept it, and commends himself to his lord ship’s favor.” And, with these words, he produced a thousand ounces of silver for Kotsuke no Suke, and a hundred ounces to be distributed among his retainers.
When the latter saw the money, their eyes sparkled with pleasure, and they were profuse in their thanks; and begging the councilor to wait a little, they went and told their master of the lordly present which had arrived with a polite message from Kamei Sama. Kotsuke no Suke in eager delight sent for the councilor into an inner chamber and after thanking him, promised on the morrow to instruct his master carefully in all the different points of etiquette. So the councilor, seeing the miser's glee, rejoiced at the success of his plan; and having taken his leave returned home in high spirits.
But Kamei Sama, little thinking how his vassal had propitiated his enemy, lay brooding over his vengeance, and on the following morning at daybreak went to court in solemn procession.
When Kotsuke no Suke met him, his manner had completely changed, and nothing could exceed his courtesy. “You have come early to court this morning, my Lord Kamei,” said he. “I cannot sufficiently admire your zeal. I shall have the honor to call your attention to several points of etiquette today. I must beg your lordship to excuse my previous conduct, which must have seemed very rude; but I am naturally of a cross-grained disposition, so I pray you to forgive me.” And as he kept on humbling himself and making fair speeches, the heart of Kamei Sama was gradually softened, and he renounced his intention of killing him. Thus, by the cleverness of his councilor, was Kamei Sama, with all his house, saved from ruin.
Shortly after this, Takumi no Kami, who had sent no present, arrived at the castle, and Kotsuke no Suke turned him into ridicule even more than before, provoking him with sneers and covert insults; but Takumino Kami affected to ignore all this, and submitted himself patiently to Kotsuke no Suke's orders.
This conduct, so far from producing a good effect, only made Kotsuke no Suke despise him the more, until at last he said haughtily, “Here, my Lord of Takumi, the ribbon of my sock has come untied; be so good as to tie it up for me.”
Takumi no Kami, although burning with rage at the affront, still thought that as he was on duty he was bound to obey, and tied up the ribbon of the sock.
Then Kotsuke no Suke, turning from him, petulantly exclaimed, “Why, how clumsy you are! You cannot so much as tie up the ribbon of a sock properly! Any one can see that you are a boor from the country, and know nothing of the manners of Edo.” And with a scornful laugh he moved towards an inner room.
But the patience of Takumino Kami was exhausted; this last insult was more than he could bear.
“Stop a moment, my lord,” cried he. “Well, what is it?” replied the other. And, as he turned round, Takumino Kami drew his sword, and aimed a blow at his head; but Kotsuke no Suke, being protected by the court cap which he wore, the wound was but a scratch, so he ran away; and Takumi no Kami, pursuing him, tried a second time to cut him down, but,missing his aim, struck his sword into a pillar. At this moment an officer, named Kajikawa Yosobei, seeing the affray, rushed up, and holding back the infuriated noble, gave Kotsuke no Suke time to make good his escape.
Then there arose a great uproar and confusion, and Takumi no Kami was arrested and disarmed, and confined in one of the apartments of the palace under the care of the censors. A council was held , and the prisoner was given over to the safeguard of a daimyo, called Tamura Ukiyo no Daibu, who kept him in close custody in his own house, to the great grief of his wife and of his retainers; and when the deliberations of the council were completed, it was decided that, as he had committed an outrage and attacked another man within the precincts of the palace, he must perform harakiri (commit suicide by disemboweling), his goods must be confiscated, and his family ruined. Such was the law. So Takumino Kami performed harakiri, his castle of Ako was confiscated, and his retainers having become Ronin (masterless samurai), some of them took service with other
daimyo, and others became merchants.
Now among these retainers was his principal councilor, a man called Oishi Kuranosuke, who, with forty-six other faithful dependents, formed a league to avenge their master's death by killing Kotsuke no Suke. This Oishi Kuranosuke was absent at the castle of Ako at the time of the affray, which, had he been with his prince, would never have occurred; for, being a wise man, he would not have failed to propitiate Kotsuke no Suke by sending him suitable presents; while the councilor who was in attendance on the prince at Edo was a dullard, who neglected this precaution, and so caused the death of his master and the ruin of his house.
So Oishi Kuranosuke and his forty-six companions began to lay their plans of vengeance against Kotsuke no Suke; but the latter was so well guarded by a body of men lent to him by a daimyo called Uyesugi Sama, whose daughter he had married, that they saw that the only way of attaining their end would be to throw their enemy off his guard. With this object they separated and disguised themselves, some as carpenters or craftsmen, others as merchants; and their chief, Kuranosuke, went to Kyoto, and built a house in the quarter called Yamashina, where he took to frequenting houses of the worst repute, and gave himself up to drunkenness and debauchery, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kotsuke no Suke, in the meanwhile, suspecting that Takumino Kami's former retainers would be scheming against his life, secretly sent spies to Kyoto, and caused a faithful account to be kept of all that Kuranosuke did. The latter, however, determined thoroughly to delude the enemy into a false security, went on leading a dissolute life with harlots and drunkards. One day, as he was returning home drunk from some low haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed him to scorn. It happened that a
Satsuma man saw this, and said, “Is not this Oishi Kuranosuke, who was a councilor of Asano Takumi no Kami, and who, not having the heart to avenge his lord, gives himself up to women and wine? See how he lies drunk in the public street! Faithless beast! Fool and craven! Unworthy the name of a Samurai!”
And he trod on Kuranosuke's face as he slept, and spat upon him; but when Kotsuke no Suke's spies reported all this at Edo, he was greatly relieved at the news, and felt secure from danger.
One day Kuranosuke's wife, who was bitterly grieved to see her husband lead this abandoned life, went to him and said, “My lord, you told me at first that your debauchery was but a trick to make your enemy relax in watchfulness. But indeed, indeed, this has gone too far. I pray and beseech you to put some restraint upon yourself.”
“Trouble me not,” replied Kuranosuke, “ for I will not listen to your whining. Since my way of life is displeasing to you, I will divorce you, and you may go about your business; and I will buy some pretty young girl from one of the public-houses, and marry her for my pleasure. I am sick of the sight of an old woman like you about the house, so get you gone, the sooner the better."
So saying, he flew into a violent rage, and his wife, terror stricken, pleaded piteously for mercy.
“Oh, my lord! Unsay those terrible words! I have been your faithful wife for twenty years, and have borne you three children; in sickness and in sorrow I have been with you; you cannot be so cruel as to turn me out of doors now. Have pity! Have pity!”
“Cease this useless wailing. My mind is made up, and you must go; and as the children are in my way also, you are welcome to take them with you.”
When she heard her husband speak thus, in her grief she sought her eldest son, Oishi Chikara, and begged him to plead for her, and pray that she might be pardoned. But nothing would turn Kuranosuke from his purpose, so his wife was sent away, with the two younger children, and went back to her native place. But Oishi Chikara remained with his father.
The spies communicated all this without fail to Kotsuke no Suke, and he, when he heard how Kuranosuke, having turned his wife and children out of doors and bought a concubine, was grovelling in a life of drunkenness and lust, began to think that he had no longer anything to fear from the retainers of Takumi no Kami, who must be cowards, without the courage to avenge their lord. So by degrees he began to keep a less strict watch, and sent back half of the guard which had been lent to him by his father-in-law, Uyesugi Sama. Little did he think how he was falling into the trap laid for him by Kuranosuke, who, in his zeal to slay his lord's enemy, thought nothing of divorcing his wife and sending away his children so as to remove all attachment to this world! Admirable and faithful man!
In this way Kuranosuke continued to throw dust in the eyes of his foe, by persisting in his apparently shameless conduct; but his associates all went to Edo, and, having in their several capacities as workmen and peddlers contrived to gain access to Kotsuke no Suke's house, made themselves familiar with the plan of the building and the arrangement of the different rooms, and ascertained the character of the inmates, who were brave and loyal men, and who were cowards; upon all of which matters they sent regular reports to Kuranosuke. And when at last it became evident from the letters which arrived from Edo that Kotsuke no Suke was thoroughly off his guard, Kuranosuke rejoiced that the day of vengeance was at hand; and, having appointed a trysting-place at Edo, he fled secretly from Kyoto,
eluding the vigilance of his enemy's spies. Then the forty-seven men, having laid all their plans, bided their time patiently.
It was now mid-winter, the twelfth month of the year, and the cold was bitter. One night, during a heavy fall of snow, when the whole world was hushed, and peaceful men were stretched in sleep upon the mats, the Ronin determined that no more favorable opportunity could occur for carrying out their purpose. So they took counsel together, and, having divided their band into two parties, assigned to each man his post. One band, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, was to attack the front gate, and the other, under his son Oishi Chikara, was to attack the back of Kotsuke no Suke's house; but as Chikara was only sixteen years of age, Yoshida Chiuzayemon was appointed to act as his guardian. Further it was arranged that a drum, beaten at the order of Kuranosuke, should be the signal for the simultaneous attack; and that if any one slew Kotsuke no Suke and cut off his head he should blow a shrill whistle, as a signal to his comrades, who would hurry to the spot, and, having identified the head, carry it off to the temple called Sengakuji, and lay it as an offering be fore the tomb of their dead lord. Then they must report their deed to the Government, and await the sentence of death which would surely be passed upon them. To this the Ronin one and all pledged themselves. Midnight was fixed upon as the hour, and the forty-seven comrades, having made all ready for the attack, partook of a last farewell feast together, for on the morrow they must die. Then Oishi Kuranosuke addressed the band, and said,
“Tonight we shall attack our enemy in his palace; his retainers will certainly resist us, and we shall be obliged to kill them . But to slay old men and women and children is a pitiful thing; therefore, I pray you each one to take great heed lest you kill a single helpless person.” His comrades all applauded this speech, and so they remained, waiting for the hour of midnight to arrive.
When the appointed hour came, the Ronin set forth. The wind howled furiously, and the driving snow beat in their faces; but little cared they for wind or snow as they hurried on their road, eager for revenge. At last they reached Kotsuke no Suke's house, and divided themselves into two bands; and Chikara, with twenty-three men, went round to the back gate. Then four men, by means of a ladder of ropes which they hung on to the roof of the porch, effected an entry into the courtyard; and, as they saw signs that all the inmates of the house were asleep, they went into the porter's lodge where the guard slept, and, before the latter had time to recover from their astonishment, bound them. The terrified guard prayed hard for mercy, that their lives might be spared; and to this the Ronin agreed on condition that the keys of the gate should be given up; but the others tremblingly said that the keys were kept in the house of one of their officers, and that
they had no means of obtaining them. Then the Ronin lost patience, and with a hammer dashed in pieces the big wooden bolt which secured the gate, and the doors flew open to the right and to the left. At the same time Chikara and his party broke in by the back gate.
Then Oishi Kuranosuke sent a messenger to the neighboring houses, bearing the following message, “We, the Ronin who were formerly in the service of Asano Takumi no Kami, are this night about to break into the palace of Kotsuke no Suke, to avenge our lord. As we are neither night robbers nor ruffians, no hurt will be done to the neighboring houses. We pray you to set your minds at rest.” And as Kotsuke no Suke was hated by his neighbors for his covetousness, they did not unite their forces to assist him. Another precaution was yet taken. Lest any of the people inside should run out to call the relations of the family to the rescue, and these coming in force should interfere with the plans of the Ronin, Kuranosuke stationed ten of his men armed with bows on the roof of the four sides of the courtyard, with orders to shoot any retainers who might attempt to leave the place. Having thus laid all his plans and posted his men, Kuranosuke with his own hand beat the drum and gave the signal for attack.
Ten of Kotsuke no Suke's retainers, hearing the noise, woke up; and, drawing their swords, rushed into the front room to defend their master. At this moment the Ronin, who had burst open the door of the front hall, entered the same room. Then arose a furious fight between the two parties, in the midst of which Chikara, leading his men through the garden, broke into the back of the house; and Kotsuke no Suke, in terror of his life, took refuge, with his wife and female servants, in a closet in the veranda; while the rest of his retainers, who slept in the barrack outside the house, made ready to go to the rescue. But the Ronin who had come in by the front door, and were fighting with the ten retainers, ended by overpowering and slaying the latter without losing one of their own number; after which, forcing their way bravely towards the back rooms, they were joined by Chikara and his men, and the two bands were united in one.
By this time the remainder of Kotsuke no Suke's men had come in, and the fight became general; and Kuranosuke, sitting on a camp-stool, gave his orders and directed the Ronin. Soon the inmates of the house perceived that they were no match for their enemy, so they tried to send out intelligence of their plight to Uyesugi Sama, their lord 's father-in-law, begging him to come to the rescue with all the force at his command. But the messengers were shot down by the archers whom Kuranosuke had posted on the roof. So no help coming, they fought on in despair. Then Kuranosuke cried out with a loud voice, “Kotsuke no Suke alone is our enemy; let some one go inside and bring
him forth dead or alive!”
Now in front of Kotsuke no Suke's private room stood three brave retainers with drawn swords. The first was Kobayashi Hehachi, the second was Waku Handaiyu, and the third was Shimidzu Ikkaku, all good men and true, and expert swordsmen. So stoutly did these men lay about them that for a while they kept the whole of the Ronin at bay, and at one moment even forced them back. When Oishi Kuranosuke saw this, he ground his teeth with rage, and shouted to his men, “What! Did not every man of you swear to lay down his life in avenging his lord, and now are you driven back by three men? Cowards, not fit to be spoken to! To die fighting in a master's cause should be the noblest ambition of a retainer!” Then turning to his own sou Chikara, he said, “Here, boy! Engage those men, and if they are too strong for you, die!”
Spurred by these words, Chikara seized a spear and gave battle to Waku Handaiyu, but could not hold his ground, and backing by degrees, was driven out into the garden, where he missed his footing and slipped into a pond; but as Handaiyu, thinking to kill him, looked down into the pond, Chikara cut his enemy in the leg and caused him to fall, and then crawling out of the water killed him. In the meanwhile Kobayashi Hehachi and Shimidzu Ikkaku had been killed by the other Ronin, and of all Kotsuke no Suke's retainers not one fighting man remained. Chikara, seeing this, went with his bloody sword in his hand into a back room to search for Kotsuke no Suke, but they only found the son of the latter, a young lord named Kira Sahioye, who, carrying a halberd, attacked him, but was soon wounded and fled. Thus the whole of Kotsuke no Suke's men having been killed, there was an end of the fighting; but as yet there was no trace of Kotsuke no Suke to be found.
Then Kuranosuke divided his men into several parties and searched the whole house, but all in vain; women and children weeping were alone to be seen. At this the forty seven men began to lose heart in regret, that after all their toil they had allowed their enemy to escape them, and there was a moment when in their despair they agreed to commit suicide together upon the spot; but they determined to make one more effort. So Kuranosuke went into Kotsuke no Suke's sleeping-room, and touching the quilt with his hands, exclaimed,
“I have just felt the bed -clothes and they are yet warm, and so methinks that our enemy is not far off. He must certainly be hidden somewhere in the house."
Greatly excited by this, the Ronin renewed their search. Now in the raised part of the room, near the place of honor, there was a picture hanging; taking down this picture, they saw that there was a large hole in the plastered wall, and on thrusting a spear in they could feel nothing beyond it. So one of the Ronin, called Yazama Jiutaro, got into the hole, and found that on the other side there was a little courtyard, in which there stood an outhouse for holding charcoal and fire wood. Looking into the outhouse, he spied something white at the further end, at which he struck with his spear, when two armed men sprang out upon him and tried to cut him down, but he kept them back until one of his comrades came up and killed one of the two men and engaged the other, while Jiutaro entered the outhouse and felt about with his spear.
Again seeing something white, he struck it with his lance, when a cry of pain betrayed that it was a man; so he rushed up, and the man in white clothes, who had been wounded in the thigh, drew a dirk and aimed a blow at him. But Jiutaro wrested the dirk from him , and clutching him by the collar, dragged him out of the outhouse. Then the other Ronin came up, and they examined the prisoner attentively, and saw that he was a noble-looking man, some sixty years of age, d