1703: 47 Ronin forced to commit seppuku

On this date in 1703, Japan’s most renowned epic of bushido vengeance reached its endgame with the condemned ronin who had avenged their executed master forced to commit seppuku.

So compelling an allegory of conflicting loyalties could hardly have been so skillfully constructed as outright fiction. The 47 Ronin owed personal fealty to a daimyo who drew his blade when provoked by the insolence of a shogunate official, and was condemned to death for the offense.

For the shogun, it was a just assertion of a central state’s prerogatives.

For the samurai made ronin by the death of their lord, it was a test of honor.

Knowing that the offending shogun retainer would be well-defended on the lookout against retribution, forty-seven of them (or possibly more at first; in any case, not the entirety of the samurai force) feigned dissipation and indifference for over a year … then raided his palace and slew him once he dropped his guard.

The ronin were condemned to death, but authorities “allowed” them the more honorable route of seppuku — which they committed to a man.*

Theorists of bushido honor may dicker over whether this plot fulfilled the demands of honor, but less philosophically exacting interlocutors have made the tale among the most beloved in Japanese history — like these illustrations of a traditional adaptation, or several films.

Their graves can be honored by the discerning Tokyo visitor at the popular Sengakuji Temple.

* Actually only 46 of the 47; the other was sent as a messenger, or perhaps fled, but was otherwise separated from his party, and ended up spared.

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