The celebrated tale of the 47 loyal retainers stems from the historical event known as the Ako incident (1701-1704). Continuously illustrated, adapted, parodied, and performed since its occurrence at turn of the 18th century, the Ako incident made its first appearance in the popular culture of Osaka and Kyoto, but soon returned to its origin in Edo. Though the Osaka and Kyoto renditions of the tale included romantic intrigue, the story took a political turn when it appeared in Edo’s popular culture. The novel Kanadehon Chushingura (1748) draws upon the basis of the historical Ako incident, but provides Asano with a motive to strike Kira, framing the tale as one of honor and triumph over crooked government officials. The story goes as follows:
In 1701, the young Lord Asano Naganori and Lord Kamei are instructed to organize a reception for envoys of the emperor in direct service to the shogun. During the preparation, Kira Yoshinaka, a powerful government official, offends Asano and Kamei. Asano responds to the initial insults stoically, but Kamei is deeply upset. Though Kamei plans to kill Kira in response to the insult, wise counselors remove Kamei from the escalating situation. Asano’s self-control soon fades.
After multiple circumstances of insult, Asano can no longer tolerate Kira’s behavior and draws his sword, striking Kira, scarring his face but failing to kill him. While Kira’s injury is minor, Asano’s act, both of drawing of a sword in the palace and striking a member of the bakufu, is fatal. Asano is sentenced to seppuku (self-disembowelment). Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano’s principal retainer, and 46 of his companions vow to avenge their master’s death. After more than a year of careful planning, these ronin (or samurai without a master) stage a night attack on Kira’s mansion and finish what their master started.
Following their victory, these 47 ronin march across Edo to present Kira’s head at their avenged master’s grave. With their loyal quest at an end, they turn themselves in. All 47 are sentenced to seppuku, yet their act of revenge so embodies the samurai code of bushido–loyalty and honor–that the 47 ronin are enshrined at Sengakuji Temple beside their beloved master.
During the 19th century, this tale of loyalty provided irresistible inspiration for artists. Kuniyoshi, master of the legendary and historical, seized this theme in his dramatic and dynamic series Seichu gishi den (Stories of the Faithful Samurai, 1847-1848). These works stray from Kabuki iterations of these heroes. Instead, Kuniyoshi captures the ronin as he imagined them from the legend. The tale continued to grow in popularity during the Meiji era, feeding a national nostalgia for a Japan past.
The graves of the 47 loyal retainers continue to receive every mark of respect to this day. The Gishisai Festival (Dec. 14) in Ako city, Hyogo prefecture, commemorates the loyal act of the 47 ronin, but they are not alone. The story of the 47 loyal retainers continues to serve as a popular subject for movies, theater, books, and manga.