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Book Review: The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History

John A. Tucker presents the first comprehensive historical study of one of the most famous events in Japanese history.

The 47 Ronin the Vendetta in History coverPublished in February 2018 this seminal work about the Forty-Seven Rōnin, one of the most famous historical tales in Japan, is probably one of the most accessible academic studies in the English language. It is very well laid out, the structure eminently logical, the referencing structure precise and the bibliography pleasantly well-stocked. Unsurprisingly, whilst Tucker does mention less reliable sources, he does not dwell on the conjectural discrepancies that arise from these, his suppositions being based on his analysis of empirical texts. There are a few black and white illustrations ranging from location and portrait photographs through to reproductions of illustrations both woodblock prints and commemorative prints.

The book is broken down into three sections. The first, chapters one to four, covers the history of the incident and the subsequent vendetta. The second, chapters five and six, looks at and analyses the Confucian debate in the period prior to and leading up to the incident and the subsequent vendetta, at the time the sentences were handed down, and subsequent debates and perspectives. The third and final section, chapters seven to eleven, covers the post vendetta coverage on stage in Bunraku (puppet) and Kabuki theatre (with a description of all eleven acts of the play ‘Chūshingura’ based on the incident and vendetta), as a political tool, as war time rhetoric and propaganda tool, and since.

Ako Castle John A. Tucker

Akō Castle © John A. Tucker

Whilst the first section is eminently accessible and in places quite riveting for those interested in these events in Japanese history, probably the most fascinating and academically challenging is the second section on the Confucian debates surrounding the events.

For anyone perhaps wanting to delve more deeply into Tucker’s thinking about the influence of Confucian and Neo Confucian thinking on attitudes towards the rōnin and their vendetta it might also be worth reading Tucker’s ‘Rethinking the Akō Rōnin Debate’ (Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 1999 26/1-2) which compliments and adds to chapters five and six.

Here he examines and elaborates on the debates around the notions of the 47 Rōnin as ‘chūshin gishi’ as exemplified through Confucian and Neo-Confucian perspectives. The debate revolves around Chen Beixi’s Neo-Confucianism notions of ‘chūshin gishi’ (loyal and righteous samurai) and the term’s nuances and whether or not the 47 Rōnin should be iconicised posthumously as such, the connotation being to venerate and deify them for the purposes of worship. The analyses also looks into the political, legal and judicial issues that emerge from these philosophical notions, for instance the rōnin simply as hubristic felons who had violated the law as opposed to personal bonds created through samurai ethics emphasised by the notion of ‘chūshin gishi’.

Later on the debate once again re-emerges with reflection on anti Bakufu sentiment expressed through their deification as exemplified by the message (ironic given the Imperial occasion during which Asano’s actions had signalled the beginnings of the vendetta) sent to Sengakuji by the Meiji Emperor on his accession to the rule of Japan reflecting the public reverence of the rōnin. This is in addition to discussions around attitudes towards the ‘patriotic’ rōnin in the 1930s and 40s inspired by a resurgent nationalistic and ideological and fascist Pax Japonica.

Oishi Grave Sengakuji John A. Tucker

If looking at the history of these events based on empirical evidence a few points of conjecture arise out of Tucker’s book.

Tucker describes the Asano’s secondary ‘shimoyashiki’ residence at Akasaka (at or close to the site of Hikawa-Jinja Shrine), along with the main Teppōzu primary ‘kamiyashiki’ residence (the site now bordering St. Luke’s International University in Chuo City) as having both been subject to a compulsory vacation order. Whilst other sources state that Asano’s ‘shimoyashiki’ in Akasaka was handed over to the Lord of Hitoyoshi Domain Nagaari Sagara it is also elsewhere recorded that this was the Edo mansion of the family of Asano Naganori’s wife Akura’s family, the Asano Daimyō of Miyoshi, not that it was a property belonging to her husband (‘Parting in the Snow at Nambuzaka’, Monumenta Nipponica, Tōchūken Kumoemon translated by Henry D. Smith II, pages 509 – 519). The record also states that it was exchanged for property belonging to the Daimyō of the Nambu family of the Morioka clan who lived there until the end of the Edo period. This is where the name of the adjacent slope called Nambu-zaka comes from.

As Tucker explains early on in the book it is still a matter of debate to this day whether Terasaka Kichiemon Nobuyuki, the 47th rōnin, was sent by Ōishi Kuranosuke to deliver the news to younger brother Daigaku (reviewer’s note: and Asano Naganori’s wife Yoze-in at the ‘shimoyashiki’), fled, was prevented from taking part on the attack on Kira’s mansion, or was simply discarded because of his low status (for an in depth discussion see ‘The Trouble with Terasaka: The 47th Rōnin and the Chūshingura Imagination’, Henry D. Smith II, Japan Review, 2004, 16: pages 3 – 65). Terasaka and his wife are buried at Sōkeiji Temple where he and his wife lived in the latter part of their lives. Their graves are not open to the public.

That the Shōgunate made a decision that resulted in Kira’s relocation to Honjo is not a matter for conjecture but two prior actions by Kira, resigning his position as kōke (master of ceremonies) and stepping down as head of the family were instigated by Kira himself so the implication that Kira’s fall from grace was as a result of the opprobrium dealt out by the Shōgun Tsunayoshi is conjecture.

No mention is made of the vilification of Kira’s wife’s family, one of the most powerful clans at the time. They were denigrated because of their lack of response in defending Kira at the time of the attack. For not having defended his grandfather Uesugi Tsunanori’s second son Kira Yoshichika, Kira’s grandson and heir who was seventeen year old at the time of Kira’s death, was later condemned and banished to Shinano where he died of malaria at the age of twenty.

Written statements by the rōnin, their leader and chamberlain of Akō Domain Ōishi Yoshio Kuranosuke are referred to but no mention is made of those of his son Ōishi Chikara Yoshikane, all of which were translated by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, Second Secretary to the British Legation during the Meiji Restoration (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Final_Statement_of_the_47_Ronin), though this might also feed into Tucker’s discussion points about the veracity, or otherwise, of the statements that feed into the debates surrounding these events.

In his discussions about the punishment of seppuku for an attack in Edo Castle Tucker does not mention or expand on the sentences of seppuku which were meted out to the perpetrators of three of four previous attacks in Edo Castle in 1627, 1628, 1670; in 1684 the perpetrator was killed on the spot. And in discussing Kira’s relocation to Honjo does not refer to the fact that, except for one who was killed by his attacker, the parties attacked were subsequently banished (‘The Akō Incident 1701 – 1703’, Monumenta Nipponica 58:2 pages 151 – 170, Bitō Masahide).

Finally the author posits that the gun boat diplomacy of Rutherford Alcock, the Consul-General in Japan between 1858 and 1864, at the Battle of Shimonoseki and the Bombardment of Kagoshima was undertaken in a way that demonstrated that he was swayed by his knowledge of the values associated with the rōnin vendetta. It is an understatement to say that this is far-fetched and perhaps before this was posited the author could have done with some detailed research into previous empirical examples of British historical gun boat diplomacy in the Far East, especially China and quite possibly some research into the reasons for and resulting sea actions that took place in these locations.

These points aside the book is a pleasure to read though as usual as an academic tome it carries a retail cost slightly higher than other general publications but for those, like this reviewer, who are absolutely fascinated with these events in Japanese history it is well worth the investment.

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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  1. July 12, 2019 at 10:08 am
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