47 Ronin a Samurai from Japan (1)
In the old days in Japan, the samurai were warriors, fighting men. They served a daimyo, one of the great Japanese lords. They lived in his castle, fought for him, and died for him. They fought with long swords and short swords, spears, and bows and arrows. They were brave, fierce men, famous for their loyalty to their lord.
The Death of Asano
'Good morning, Lord Asano.'
The speaker was Lord Kira Yoshinaka, a tall man, in black. He stood in the middle of a room in the Shogun's palace. He watched Lord Asano, and waited.
Lord Asano Naganori was a younger man, thirty-four years to Lord Kira's sixty years. He walked slowly across the room from the door, and stopped in front of Kira.
'Lord Kira,' he said coldly. 'Good morning.' And then he bowed, just a small bow of the head.
Lord Kira bowed too, an even smaller bow. He smiled, but his eyes were cold.
'Are you ready for your next lesson, Lord Asano?' he said. 'You have much to learn about palace ceremony, and you are a very slow student. Shall we begin?'
Lord Asano bowed again, but did not speak. His mouth was a thin, hard line. Every day Kira called him 'slow', or 'stupid', or 'difficult', and he did not like it.
In the Shogun's palace at Edo in the year 1701, ceremony was very important. The right words, at the right time of day. The right bow, small or deep, for different people. The right clothes, at different hours of the day. The right presents, for the right people... This was the way of life in the Shogun's palace, and Lord Kira was the teacher of ceremony - for this Shogun, and for many Shoguns before him. After forty years as a teacher, Kira knew everything about the ceremony of the palace.
But Lord Asano knew nothing. He was a daimyo from the country, from Ako Castle, a place seventeen days' journey by horse to the south-west of Edo. The daimyo were powerful men in Japan at this time, and were rulers in their own part of the country. But daimyo must also serve the Shogun, and every year the Shogun called two of them to his palace at Edo.
'Every day is the same,' said Asano angrily, at his house in Edo that evening. 'Every day I must do this ceremony, or that ceremony, I must stand here, or there, bow to this person, or that person. And I must do six months of this! Every day Kira calls me bad names! I make mistakes because he is a bad teacher!'
Hayami, one of Asano's samurai, helped him with his ceremonial clothes. Hayami was very good with the bow and arrow, but not so good with words.
'Lord, I heard something about Kira,' he said.
'What?' said Asano.
'He likes presents, and money. The other daimyo gives him presents or money, and then Kira is happy, and the lessons go well. Why don't you give him a present?'
'No!' shouted Asano. 'I am Lord Asano of Ako, and I do not give presents to the Shogun's servants! His job is to teach me ceremony, not to ask for presents!'
Hayami said nothing more, but he was afraid for his master. Every day Asano came back from the palace with an angry face, and angry words.
'How is this going to end?' Hayami said to Kataoka, another of Asano's samurai. 'Four more months of this. What can I do? We need Oishi here. Lord Asano doesn't listen to me, but he listens to Oishi sometimes.'
But Oishi Yoshio was at Ako Castle, a long way away. He was the captain of Lord Asano's three hundred samurai. When Lord Asano came to Edo, most of his samurai came with him, but Oishi stayed behind at Ako to take care of everything there.
It ended suddenly on a spring day in 1701.
The day began well, with a blue sky and the song of birds in the palace gardens. Lord Asano arrived at the palace, put on his ceremonial clothes, and went for his lesson with Lord Kira.
Perhaps Kira was tired that day. Perhaps he was angry because there were no presents from Lord Asano. Perhaps he just did not like the young lord from Ako.
'You must wait,' he told Asano. 'I have another, more important meeting first.' He turned his back on Lord Asano. 'What a stupid man!' Kira said. Usually, he said things like this in a quiet voice, but today he did not speak quietly, and everybody in the great palace room could hear him. 'I hear Asano's wife is stupid too, and his children,' Lord Kira said to the room.
Something broke inside Lord Asano. 'Lord Kira, stop a moment,' he cried.
'Well, what is it?' said Kira, turning back to Asano.
People remembered this moment for many years. Asano drew his sword, and attacked Lord Kira. With a cry, Kira put his hand to his head, but he did not fall. Asano lifted his sword again, but now there were palace guards around him. They: pulled him to the floor, and held his sword arm. Lord Kira ran away. There was a deep cut on his face.
The Shogun's palace was a place of ceremony, not a place for fighting. It was a terrible thing to do - to draw a sword and attack someone inside the palace.
The attack happened at about midday. At one o'clock the guards took Asano to the house of another daimyo. At four o'clock an order came from the Shogun. 'Lord Asano must die, but because he is a daimyo, he can die the samurai way, with honour. He can commit seppuku.'
And so it happened. At six o'clock that same day Lord Asano of Ako committed seppuku. He took out his long knife, and cut into his stomach from left to right.
Outside the palace Lord Asano's samurai, Kataoka, knew nothing of this. He waited for his master to leave the palace at the end of the day, but Asano never came. At last another daimyo told Kataoka the terrible news.
Kataoka ran back to Asano's house in Edo, and called for Hayami and the other samurai. 'Our lord is dead,' he cried. 'Get the horses ready! We must ride to Ako at once!'
At that time, it was usually a journey of seventeen days from Edo to Ako, but Kataoka and Hayami did the journey in ten days. When they arrived at Ako Castle, they were tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty. Oishi Yoshio, the captain of the Ako samurai, was not pleased with them. 'Look at you!' he said. 'What kind of samurai are you? Dirty clothes, dirty horses...'
But Oishi forgot about that when he heard the terrible news of Lord Asano's death.
'And that's not all,' said Hayami. He pushed the hair out of his eyes. 'The Shogun's government is going to take Lord Asano's castle, his land, his money - everything! Can they do that, Oishi?'
'Yes,' said Oishi. 'They can. To draw a sword in the Shogun's palace is a crime. But why did Lord Asano attack Kira? What happened? Did they fight?'
'We don't know,' said Kataoka, 'we weren't there! But Lord Asano was angry every day because of Lord Kira.'
'But Asano didn't kill Kira?' said Oishi.
'No,' said Hayami. 'Kira is alive and well. People say that he just has a cut on his head.'
'And where is Lord Asano's body now?' asked Oishi.
'They're taking it to the temple of Sengaku-ji,' said Kataoka, 'just outside Edo. Some of our samurai went with the body. Then they are coming back to Ako.'
During the next days, Lord Asano's samurai made the journey down to Ako. Some of them brought news.
'Lord Asano's younger brother, Daigaku, is under house arrest in Edo,' Yoshida told Oishi. Yoshida was one of the older samurai. He and Oishi were old friends.
'Did you see Daigaku?' asked Oishi.
'Yes, just for two minutes. They're going to send him away, to Hiroshima, to the Asano family there.'
Soon there were nearly three hundred of Asano's samurai at Ako, and Oishi Yoshio called a meeting. It was a noisy, angry meeting.
Horibe was a famous swordsman. He was a fierce fighter, and a brave man, but he did not often stop to think before he spoke. He was the first to speak.
'Lord Asano is dead because of Kira,' he shouted to the meeting. 'Kira is a killer. A man cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord. This is the code of the samurai! When do we attack Kira?'
The samurai began to talk, but Oishi held up his hand. 'Nobody questions your honour as a samurai, Horibe. But we are not samurai now, we are ronin. We have no master, no lord. The Shogun's government killed Lord Asano because of a crime - the crime of drawing a sword in the palace. And why did this crime happen? Because of Lord Kira. We want revenge for our lord's death, and that means Kira must die. But he knows that, and he has many friends in the government. So we must be careful, we must be clever.'
'Careful? Clever?' shouted Horibe. 'What kind of samurai are you? We must attack Lord Kira at once! In Edo, people in the streets are saying that. They know we must take revenge for Asano's death. People want us to do that! It is the samurai way!'
'So you want to die a dog's death outside the palace?' called Yoshida. 'How many guards are there at the palace? Eh? Tell me that! Hundreds! We can't get near Kira - he knows we want him, so he has hundreds of guards around him, day and night.'
'The government is going to take Ako Castle away from the Asano family,' called another samurai. 'When the government soldiers come here, can we fight them? Can we hold Ako Castle for Daigaku? He's the head of the Asano family now.'
Kataoka answered this question. 'For a week, perhaps. But not longer. No, the Asano family at Ako is finished. We must leave Ako Castle and begin new lives as ronin.'
'So what can we do?' called Okuda, one of Horibe's friends. 'Tell us, Oishi! What can we do?'
'What do you want?' said Oishi. 'Do you want revenge? Revenge has a price, and the price is death. We cannot hope to live after we take our revenge on Kira. We must commit seppuku - everyone of us.'
'We are samurai!' cried a man called Hara. 'Death with honour is always better than a life without honour. That is the samurai code!'
Oishi smiled. 'There are brave hearts in this room. Now go away, and think. Think about the samurai way. Where is the road to honour? Can you live under the same sky as the killer of your daimyo? Think long and carefully. Talk to your families, and come back here in three days. Or leave Ako and begin a new life.'
In the next two days many ronin left the castle. They took their families and went away, perhaps to serve a new daimyo, perhaps to work in the cities, perhaps to go hungry. The life of a ronin was not easy.
After three days Oishi called the next meeting. He and Yoshida stood at the door and watched. Horibe, Okuda, and their friends arrived first, of course. Then more came, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty... sixty-two.
Yoshida closed the doors, and Oishi began to speak.
'You are here because you want revenge for the death of our daimyo. You are true samurai, loyal to your lord in life - and in death. We must make a league together - a league for revenge. But for now, we must be silent, we must be secret, we must wait for months, maybe years, before we can move. We cannot attack Kira now, because he and his guards are waiting for us. But when he forgets about us, then we can move. Because we, the ronin - we do not forget. We can wait a long, long time for revenge.'