The 47 Ronin: Obligations in Conflict and Introducing Japanese Literature; footnote regarding The Simpsons

Introducing students to alien cultures can be treacherous–one must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of “they are so different from us (cute/gross/savage /’worse’/[or occasionally] better [as in the Noble Savage construct])” and the “they are just like us (except wearing funny costumes).” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a particularly fine example of this navigational problem, but really anyone who has taught a text from the past which is, as LP Hartley observed, “a foreign country: they do things differently there,” has encountered this issue–ignore this at your peril.  (More on helping students enter imaginatively into other cultures and helping them make moral decisions about the actions of other cultures–complete with exercises and texts plus a digression on Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the list of 373 cross-cultural universals presented by anthropologists in a later blog.)

I introduce a lengthy unit on Japanese literature and culture by first telling my students the story of Orestes (yes, I know he is Greek) and then I move on to Chushingura (also known as The 47 Ronin). My point in beginning this way is to have them understand that obligations (to society, God–and even self) can often come in conflict with each other–and that they face these conflicts each day but rarely reflect on their shared heritage with Orestes (or Oishi/Yoshi–the hero of Chushingura). Orestes, you’ll recall, is caught between the obligations to: 1) never murder your mother and 2) always avenge your father’s murder when his mother, Clytemnestra, kills his father, Agamemnon.  Students face the same conflicts (though the scales seem smaller) when a teacher asks them not to tell school mates what was on a quiz or what happened in class and then the student is asked by a friend to do exactly that.  How do you decide between the obligations of friendship and the obligations imposed by your teacher for academic integrity.  Too easy? Try this one, you are at a party or gathering and a friend tells an off-color or racist or anti-semitic joke–what do you do then? You see someone shoplift… You are witness to a fight in a theater (this happened to me)… Some people gossip about others… There are dozens of these moral decisions that face us each day.  We are all Orestes–and we are all Oishi/Yoshi.  So first I try to render the moral problem that the story will reveal as familiar–though the “solution” will be culturally different.

The story of the forty-seven ronin (masterless samurai also known as “wave men”) is a tale of revenge.  It is also a famous illustration of the resolving of obligations in conflict and is known in Japan as Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers).  The historical events took place between 1701 and 1703 and the play upon which almost all versions (and there are scores of versions in drama, film, and fiction) are based is by Chikamatsu and appeared shortly after the events described.

In March of 1701, Lord Asano was appointed by the Shogun as one of two daimyo (lord of a fief) in charge of the ceremony at which all the daimyo of Japan made their periodical pledge of loyalty to the Shogun.  Lord Kira, Minister of Protocol, was the only one who knew all the etiquette of the ceremony.  It was customary to offer this minister a gift (or bribe) before requesting information on the protocols.  Lord Asano, however, failed to offer a gift when he went to Kira seeking his help.  Different versions present Asano as a rube who didn’t know he had to present a gift or as a victim of an effete and corrupt Kira who expects a bribe to do his duty (the more common riff).

In his chagrin at this “insult,” Lord Kira gave Lord Asano incorrect information as to proper dress for the ceremony and then taunted him when  Asano arrived in the wrong costume for he both shamed himself and insulted the Shogun.  I tell students it would be the equivalent of showing up at a White House State Dinner in torn shorts and flip-flops (having been convinced by friends that dress was “casual”).  Asano was so upset at the provocation that he drew his sword and struck Lord Kira on the forehead with the flat side; Kira was barely hurt as Asano did not mean to kill.  This constituted a second offense (the first is failure to dress appropriately), for it was forbidden to unsheath one’s sword in the Shogun’s palace (with good reason–assassination was a real possibility).  Thus, in order to do right (gi) and defend his good name (giri) (against Lord Kira’s treachery), Lord Asano was forced to offend against his obligations to the Shogun (chu) (never draw your sword in the Shogun’s palace).  The only remedy for this was seppuku, which Lord Asano carried out with the help of his faithful retainer Oishi (or Yoshi)–who now becomes the hero of this tale.  Asano’s fief was confiscated and his retainers became masterless samurai, ronin.

Oishi, who was privy to all the court machinations, determined to exact vengeance on Lord Kira–as he is obligated to do (to protect and defend his master’s honor even in memory), but this could only be accomplished by violating chu in a flagrant manner, for the Shogun had ordered that there be NO vendetta (indeed all societies that move toward a rule of law move away from vengeance and vendetta).  Still, Asano’s followers know that they are OBLIGATED to uphold their master’s honor. In order to test which of their Lord Asano’s 321 samurai retainers were capable of this heroic deed, Oishi called them together and proposed that Asano’s assets be divided equally among them regardless of rank.  Those who protested he knew were more concerned with their own wealth than with their dead Lord’s honor.  A “dog samurai,” the chief steward who was the leader of the immoral retainers, proposed another plan to which Oishi and the loyal followers agreed immediately.  They did this so that the dishonorable samurai would leave.  Oishi then explained to the remaining 46 loyal retainers his plan.

First, they would have to throw everyone, especially Lord Kira who would be expecting retribution, off the scent by pretending to be men without honor.  Oishi himself left town and earned a reputation as a drunken gambler to avoid the Shogun’s police and Lord Kira’s spies.  The rest of the men began to frequent brothels, to appear drunk in the streets, to neglect their family obligations.  Those who were married renounced their wives.  Those who were unmarried were expelled from their families.  (This leads to the fascinating idea that to be “men with honor” they have to become “men without honor”–my students understand this best when I ask them to imagine the experience of undercover officers–at what point as they break the law to serve the law do they themselves become broken [see the pulp movie Deep Cover starring the estimable Laurence Fishburne].) This behavior convinced everyone that these ronin were “lost;” even Lord Kira was deceived.

On a snowy night in December of 1703 (we are now more than 30 months from the event that precipitated this), Kira held a saké party; many of his guards were drunk.  The forty-seven (often depicted in firemen’s gear so that the carrying of ladders and the natural costume protection this gives) raided the stronghold, and finally tracked down Kira after killing all 61 of his followers without suffering a single loss.  They found Kira hiding in an outhouse and gave him the opportunity to commit seppuku.  He did not do so and so they cut his head off and carried it with the bloody sword to Lord Asano’s grave.  All of Tokyo (Edo at the time) admired the deed of the ronin who demonstrated their loyalty to their wronged master.  Their giri was restored; they still had to pay their chu. They have obligations to the Shogun after all.

Only in death could giri and chu be reconciled.  The people of Edo and elsewhere were extremely supportive of the forty-seven and even the Shogun was impressed.  The State rule against vendetta demanded that they all be executed but the Shogun instead allowed the men to commit seppuku, so that they might die with honor, which they did. This tale illustrates both the conflict and the heroic resolution of opposing circles of obligation. It is considered by many foreigners to be the national epic of Japan. It is, of course, in this ending that the story is distinctively Japanese–it would never occur to Orestes to commit seppuku to shame the Furies and it is a “solution” that it is difficult for us to anticipate without knowing bushido and the Samurai culture.

Within two weeks of the mass seppuku there was a puppet play (bunraku) depicting these events (it was suppressed).  It has been a popular story in Japan ever since. I have visited the great memorial to the 47 Ronin outside of the city of Okayama–and as I stood there my knees shook and my breath got short; I was in a place rendered sacred by sacrifice, honor, and (yes) violence.

My deepest appreciation to my great teacher and mentor Robert Ducharme for introducing me to this story many years ago. BTW, in an episode of The Simpsons that takes place in Japan, Bart and Homer get starring roles in a prison production of Chushingura (Season 10, episode 23)–certainly an obscure cultural reference even from a television show that specializes in obscure cultural references.

Next week two Japanese short stories (I think) and maybe a Czech short story, too! Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism” and Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” belong together (perhaps in a future blog) because they present similar moral dilemmas and solve them quite differently. The DeMatha Alumni book and movie club opens on Sunday, December 4 with a discussion of the movie Master and Commander and the Patrick O’Brian works upon which it is based.  Kilby Alumni Lounge, 3:00.



Filed under 47 Ronin, books and learning, critical thinking, inferential skills, japanese literature, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The 47 Ronin: Obligations in Conflict and Introducing Japanese Literature; footnote regarding The Simpsons


    You might want to suggest to your students THE BOOK OF FIVE RINGS
    Years ago I gave this book to the wrestling coach who have his wrestlers read and discuss and take to the mat these strategies for single handed combat… they won state that year! Also made those 14th century samurai warriors come to life!

  2. Hi Mary Kim, I often direct students to The Book of Five Rings (and for the particularly ambitious the 5-volume biographical novel, “Musashi”). I do tell them about Musashi and his life and I xerox several pages from Noel Perrin’s “Giving up the Gun”–a wonderful history of the importance of the sword in Japanese life. We will be watching Masaki Kobayashi’s “Hara-kiri” and his “Samurai Rebellion” (students have to come in on a Saturday to watch that with me–have never had a complaint). I’m writing more about matters Japanese over the next two weeks for sure and maybe over the next four weeks depending on what I’m thinking. Thanks for the shout out to The Book of Five Rings! Dan

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