Each year on this date, Sengakuji Temple holds a festival commemorating the 47-Ronin event (the most famous example of the samurai code of honor courage, and loyalty—bushido—and now a national legend). The graves of Asano Takumi no Kami Naganori and his former samurai are there. This is where these rōnin committed ritual suicide after avenging their master’s death. Their graves are a popular site of pilgrimage to this day.
In 1701, two daimyo, Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the young daimyo of the Akō Domain (a small fiefdom in western Honshū), and Lord Kamei of the Tsuwano Domain, were ordered to arrange a fitting reception for the envoys of the Emperor in Edo, during their sankin kōtai service to the Shogun. These daimyo names are not fictional, nor is there any question that something actually happened in Genroku (year) 15, on the 14th day of the 12th month (Tuesday, January 30, 1703). There is no doubt that what is commonly called the “Akō incident” was an actual event.
Asano and Kamei were to be given instruction in the necessary court etiquette by Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful Edo official in the hierarchy of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s shogunate. He became upset with them, allegedly either because of insufficient presents they offered him (in the time-honored compensation for such an instructor), or because they would not offer bribes as he wanted. Other sources say that he was naturally rude and arrogant, or that he was corrupt, which offended Asano, a devoutly moral Confucian. Whether Kira treated them poorly, insulted them, or failed to prepare them for fulfilling specific bakufu duties, is uncertain, but offense was taken.
Initially, Asano bore all this stoically while Kamei became enraged and prepared to kill Kira to avenge the insults. However, Kamei’s quick thinking counselors averted disaster for their lord and clan (since all of them would have been punished if Kamei had killed Kira) by quietly giving Kira a large bribe; Kira thereupon began to treat Kamei well, which calmed Kamei.
However, Kira allegedly continued to treat Asano harshly, because he was upset that the latter had not emulated his companion. Finally, Kira insulted Asano, calling him a country boor with no manners, and Asano could restrain himself no longer. At the Matsu no Ōrōka, the main grand corridor that interconnects different parts of the shogun’s residence, Asano lost his temper and attacked Kira with a dagger, wounding him in the face with his first strike; his second missed and hit a pillar. Guards then quickly separated them.
Kira’s wound was hardly serious, but the attack on a shogunate official within the boundaries of the shogun’s residence was considered a grave offense. Any kind of violence, even drawing a katana, was completely forbidden in Edo Castle. The daimyo of Akō had removed his dagger from its scabbard within Edo Castle, and for that offense, Asano was ordered to kill himself by committing seppuku. Asano’s goods and lands were to be confiscated after his death, his family was to be ruined, and his retainers were to be made ronin (leaderless).
This news was carried to Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, Asano’s principal counselor, who took command and moved the Asano family away, before complying with bakufu orders to surrender the castle to the agents of the government.
Of Asano’s over three hundred men, forty-seven, especially their leader Ōishi, refused to allow their lord to go unavenged, even though revenge had been prohibited in the case. They banded together, swearing a secret oath to avenge their master by killing Kira, even though they knew they would be severely punished for doing so. Kira was well guarded, however, and his residence had been fortified to prevent just such an event. The ronin saw that they would have to put him off his guard before they could succeed. To quell the suspicions of Kira and other shogunate authorities, they dispersed and became tradesmen and monks.
Ōishi took up residence in Kyoto and began to frequent brothels and taverns, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kira still feared a trap, and sent spies to watch the former retainers of Asano. One day, as Ōishi returned home drunk, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed at him. A Satsuma man, passing by, was infuriated by this behavior on the part of a samurai—by his lack of courage to avenge his master as well as his current debauched behavior. The Satsuma man abused and insulted Ōishi, kicked him in the face (to even touch the face of a samurai was a great insult, let alone strike it), and spat on him.
Not too long after, Ōishi went to his loyal wife of twenty years and divorced her so that no harm would come to her when the ronin took revenge. He sent her away with their two younger children to live with her parents; he gave the eldest boy, Chikara, a choice to stay and fight or to leave. Chikara remained with his father. Ōishi began to act oddly, very unlike a composed samurai. He frequented geisha houses (particularly Ichiriki Chaya), drank nightly, and acted obscenely in public. Ōishi’s men bought a geisha, hoping she would calm him. This was all a ruse to rid Ōishi of his spies.
Kira’s agents reported all this to Kira, who became convinced that he was safe from the retainers of Asano, that they must all be bad samurai indeed, without the courage to avenge their master after a year and a half. Thinking them harmless and lacking funds, he then reluctantly let down his guard.
The rest of the faithful ronin now gathered in Edo, and in their roles as workmen and merchants gained access to Kira’s house, becoming familiar with the layout of the house and the character of all within. One of the retainers (Kinemon Kanehide Okano) went so far as to marry the daughter of the builder of the house, to obtain the house’s design plans. All of this was reported to Ōishi. Others gathered arms and secretly transported them to Edo – another offense.
After two years, when Ōishi was convinced that Kira was thoroughly off his guard, and everything was ready, he fled from Kyoto, avoiding the spies who were watching him, and the entire band gathered at a secret meeting place in Edo to renew their oaths. On Genroku 15, on the 14th day of the 12th month, early in the morning in a driving wind during a heavy fall of snow, Ōishi and the ronin attacked Kira Yoshinaka’s mansion in Edo. According to a carefully laid-out plan, they split up into two groups and attacked, armed with swords and bows. One group, led by Ōishi, was to attack the front gate; the other, led by his son, Ōishi Chikara, was to attack the house via the back gate. A drum would sound the simultaneous attack, and a whistle would signal that Kira was dead.
Once Kira was dead, they planned to cut off his head and lay it as an offering on their master’s tomb. They would then turn themselves in and wait for their expected sentence of death. All this had been confirmed at a final dinner, at which Ōishi had asked them to be careful and spare women, children, and other helpless people. (The code of bushido does not require mercy to noncombatants, or forbid it.)
Ōishi had four men scale the fence and enter the porter’s lodge, capturing and tying up the guard there. He then sent messengers to all the neighboring houses, to explain that they were not robbers, but retainers out to avenge the death of their master, and that no harm would come to anyone else: the neighbors were all safe. One of the ronin climbed to the roof and loudly announced to the neighbors that the matter was a revenge act (katakiuchi, 敵討ち). The neighbors, who all hated Kira, were relieved and did nothing to hinder the raiders.
After posting archers (some on the roof) to prevent those in the house (who had not yet awakened) from sending for help, Ōishi sounded the drum to start the attack. Ten of Kira’s retainers held off the party attacking the house from the front, but Ōishi Chikara’s party broke into the back of the house. Kira, in terror, took refuge in a closet in the veranda, along with his wife and female servants. The rest of his retainers, who slept in barracks outside, attempted to come into the house to his rescue. After overcoming the defenders at the front of the house, the two parties led by father and son joined up and fought the retainers who came in. The latter, perceiving that they were losing, tried to send for help, but their messengers were killed by the archers posted to prevent that eventuality.
Eventually, after a fierce struggle, the last of Kira’s retainers was subdued; in the process the ronin killed sixteen of Kira’s men and wounded twenty-two, including his grandson. Of Kira, however, there was no sign. They searched the house, but all they found were crying women and children. They began to despair, but Ōishi checked Kira’s bed, and it was still warm, so he knew he could not be far away.
A renewed search disclosed an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll; the courtyard held a small building for storing charcoal and firewood, where two more hidden armed retainers were overcome and killed. A search of the building disclosed a man hiding; he attacked the searcher with a dagger, but the man was easily disarmed. He refused to say who he was, but the searchers felt sure it was Kira, and sounded the whistle. The ronin gathered, and Ōishi, with a lantern, saw that it was indeed Kira—as a final proof, his head bore the scar from Asano’s attack.
At that, Ōishi went on his knees, and in consideration of Kira’s high rank, respectfully addressed him, telling him they were retainers of Asano, come to avenge him as true samurai should, and inviting Kira to die as a true samurai should, by killing himself. Ōishi indicated he personally would act as a kaishakunin (“second”, the one who beheads a person committing seppuku to spare them the indignity of a lingering death) and offered him the same dagger that Asano had used to kill himself. However, no matter how much they entreated him, Kira crouched, speechless, and trembling. At last, seeing it was useless to ask, Ōishi ordered the other ronin to pin him down, and killed him by cutting off his head with the dagger. They then extinguished all the lamps and fires in the house and left, taking Kira’s head with them.
One of the ronin, the ashigaru Terasaka Kichiemon, was ordered to travel to Akō and report that their revenge had been completed. (Though Kichiemon’s role as a messenger is the most widely accepted version of the story, other accounts have him running away before or after the battle, or being ordered to leave before the ronin turned themselves in.)
As day was now breaking, they quickly carried Kira’s head from his residence to their lord’s grave in Sengaku-ji temple, marching about ten kilometers across the city, causing a great stir on the way. The story of the revenge spread quickly, and everyone on their path praised them and offered them refreshment.
On arriving at the temple, the remaining forty-six ronin (all except Terasaka Kichiemon) washed and cleaned Kira’s head in a well, and laid it, and the fateful dagger, before Asano’s tomb. They then offered prayers at the temple, and gave the abbot of the temple all the money they had left, asking him to bury them decently, and offer prayers for them. They then turned themselves in; the group was broken into four parts and put under guard of four different daimyo. During this time, two friends of Kira came to collect his head for burial; the temple still has the original receipt for the head, which the friends and the priests who dealt with them all signed.
The shogunate officials in Edo were in a quandary. The samurai had followed the precepts of bushido by avenging the death of their lord; but they had also defied the shogunate authority by exacting revenge, which had been prohibited. In addition, the Shogun received a number of petitions from the admiring populace on behalf of the ronin. As expected, the ronin were sentenced to death for the murder of Kira; but the Shogun had finally resolved the quandary by ordering them to honorably commit seppuku instead of having them executed as criminals. It is known that each of the assailants ended his life in a ritualistic fashion. Ōishi Chikara, the youngest, was only 15 years old on the day the raid took place, and only 16 the day he had to commit seppuku.
Each of the forty-six ronin killed himself on Genroku 16, on the 4th day of the 2nd month (元禄十六年二月四日?, Tuesday, March 20, 1703). This has caused a certain amount of confusion ever since, with some people referring to the “forty-six ronin”; this refers to the group put to death by the Shogun, while the actual attack party numbered forty-seven. The forty-seventh ronin, identified as Terasaka Kichiemon, eventually returned from his mission and was pardoned by the Shogun (some say on account of his youth). He lived to the age of 87, dying around 1747, and was then buried with his comrades. The assailants who died by seppuku were subsequently interred on the grounds of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their master.
The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to arouse suspicion by purchasing any. The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The graves at the temple have been visited by a great many people throughout the years since the Genroku era. One of those who visited the tombs was the Satsuma man who had mocked and spat on Ōishi as he lay drunk in the street. Addressing the grave, he begged for forgiveness for his actions and for thinking that Ōishi was not a true samurai. He then committed suicide and was buried next to the graves of the ronin.
Near the temple you can find numerous places selling Okonomiyaki, a pancake stuffed with various ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked” (cf. yakitori and yakisoba). Kansai- or Osaka-style okonomiyaki is the predominant version of the dish, found throughout most of Japan. The batter is made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, meat (generally thin pork belly, often mistaken for bacon), octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, konjac, mochi or cheese.
Some okonomiyaki restaurants are grill-it-yourself establishments, where the server produces a bowl of raw ingredients that the customer mixes and grills at tables fitted with teppan, or special hotplates. They may also have a diner-style counter where the cook prepares the dish in front of the customers.
As with all Asian cuisine these days, I recommend going to Japan if you want okonomiyaki. However, if you insist on making it yourself here is a very good link: