A message from Chushingura (Part 1) - A Story from Japanese History

Tragedy that Highlights the Folly of Our Worldly Passions

A samurai doesnʼt always take his own life.

One of the most popular Japanese samurai dramas is called Chushingura. Chushingura are fictionalized plays based on the true historical incident of the “Forty-seven Ronin1” and their mission to avenge their master. A ronin is simply any samurai who has no master and is therefore not in service to anyone directly except for the emperor. This drama is very popular among Japanese culture, so much so, that it has been played repeatedly ever since the Edo period, nearly 300 years ago.

Chushingura became a smash hit as a kabuki play but also in a Japanese-style puppet play. Even present-day it receives popularity in movies, TV dramas, ballets and operas. Chushingura has attracted worldwide acclaim as well. It is a well-known fact that the 26th president of the States, Theodore Roosevelt, loved this story and admired the samurai spirit.

How come this particular story drew so much public sympathy throughout the ages? Maybe it is because at the heart of Chushingura is a tragedy that can happen anytime, anywhere when any two people with pride are together. Though this story may be hundreds of years old, it still carries with it a powerful message for modern times.

It was March 14, 1701. A streak of blood splattered in a particular corridor within Edo Castle. Lord Asano suddenly attacked Master Kira, one of his head directors. Asano drew his sword and shouted, “You, monster. I will get my revenge!” Lord Asano was fully aware that by rule, if he drew his sword in that corridor, he would have no choice but commit hara-kiri (a ritual suicide by disembowelment). Also all his property and his position as a samurai would be forfeited. Still he broke that rule in cold blood.

It was obvious that he could not repress his uncontrollable anger. But why was he unable to hold back his wrath? Let us take a quick look at the cause of this misfortunate event. First of all, what kind of person was Lord Asano? He was the daimyo, the ruler of the Ako province which has a very vast territory. Asano succeeded the previous lord when he was as young as nine years old. Since then he had been trained to be a daimyo. Lord Asano was the third ruler in this family lineage. He was always at the top and never had the necessity to bow his head to others. On the other hand, the victim, Master Kira was called the head director of the solemnity. He held a high official rank among all the directors. In addition to that, his family had an honorable ancestry with a long and distinguished history. Accordingly he was a person of high esteem.

At that time, it was a custom to hold a lavish ceremony at Edo Castle every March inviting the imperial envoy from Kyoto. The conflict between these two famous figures started from Asanoʼs nomination to the marshal of the imperial envoy. His duty was to provide welcoming, wining, dining and lodging for the group. All the cost was of course to the new marshalʼs expense. And any clumsiness whatsoever in the presence of the Imperial envoys affected the dignity of the court as a whole. Failure, in any degree, wouldnʼt be tolerated. For any daimyo it was a harrowing mission. Lord Asano once excused himself from accepting the nomination saying, “I am not familiar with the formalities and protocol. Beyond that I am inexperienced. Could you please replace me with somebody else to this duty?” He was admonished as follows “You donʼt need to worry. Every year, whoever is designated as the marshal can manage to serve without any mistakes under the direction of Master Kira. All you have to do is follow his guidance.” In short, Master Kira would act as a superintendent role for Asano so that he would not mess it up.

One of Asanoʼs chief retainers made an official visit to Master Kiraʼs quarters to greet him and ask for his help. It was ritual that in such situations a generous gift was to be offered. Master Kira was waiting with high expectations, but Lord Asano had only provided him with a modest gift. Master Kira was greatly disappointed and angrily ejected the visitor in a curt manner. “What a shameful offering!” Master Kira said. “With the 53,000 koku2 of the Asano clan, how can he send such a humble gift? What a contemptuous attitude! Such a backwoodsman would never be able to serve as a marshal!” Kira was filled with rage as if he had been taken lightly or insulted.

On the other hand, Asano meant no harm. When planning to send the gift, Lord Asano had thought: “I am aspiring to become a great ruler of honor by following the real bushido, the spirit of the samurai. It must be discourteous rather than pleasing to present money and goods to such senior officer as Master Kira. It must seem as if it were a bribe. I will definitely show my thanks to him once I have fulfilled an important mission like this.” In reality, it was common sense at that time for the lord who was nominated as marshal to present in advance a good sum of money and goods to the director as a premium. That gift was considered as legitimate income for the head director of the solemnity.

But Asano had the notion that he was absolutely right without doubt. Whenever you have a notion that “Iʼm absolutely right,” you tend to make people angry even if you donʼt have bad intentions. He probably couldnʼt even fathom that he was being narrow-minded. Itʼs so common in life that just a few misunderstandings can cause tremendous anger and develop into irreparable situations.

Soon Asano visited Kira in person, and with a respectful attitude, turned to Kira for guidance as if he became the disciple of a master. Kira thought, “This guy really doesnʼt look to be a dull person. It may be that he was well aware of the premium, but maybe heʼs trying to feed me a line so he can spare the money.” Master Kira started to make unfair remarks toward Asano. Once you hold bad feelings toward someone, you start to take everything in a negative way, which can become very fearsome.

(To be continued)


1. Ronin is a samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period (1185-1868) of Japan 2. The koku is a Japanese unit of volume. The koku was originally defined as a quantity of rice, historically defined as enough rice to feed one person for one year. A koku of rice weighs about 150 kilograms (330 pounds).

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #20 | 2012, A message from Chushingura (Part 1) - A Story from Japanese History

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The Buddhist Village Times #20

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