Field Report: In the footsteps of the 47 Rōnin at Sengaku-ji, Tōkyō, Japan (05 July 2015)

05Jul15 011 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

We will never know the full truth behind what drove Asano Naganori to unsheathe his sword within the confines of Edo Castle in 1701, and in so doing trigger the famous raid of the 47 Rōnin nearly two years later. We do know where this long and bloody tale ended: the serene precincts of Sengaku-ji in Tōkyō, where even today one might find the graves of the more than forty men whose act of revenge secured for them an enduring place in history.

05 July 2015. The skies above Tōkyō were heavily overcast, but there wasn’t much in the way of rain, so I decided to head out for a bit of outdoor sightseeing.

After breakfast, I hopped onto a train and travelled to the JR hub of Shinagawa Station, from where I set out on a rather long walk towards my destination of the day.

You might have noticed on the map that there’s a metro stop – Sengakuji Station on the Toei Asakusa Line – located very close to where I was going. If you’re heading for the same place, using the Toei network and getting off there will definitely save you a fair bit of walking. In my case, I chose to spend more calories but save more yen by using my JR Pass to reach the nearest JR station (which happens to be Shinagawa).

Today’s destination: Sengaku-ji (泉岳寺).

Established in 1612 under the patronage of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Sengaku-ji originally stood on a site not far from Edo Castle. When the temple burned down three decades after its foundation, the monks packed up and set down new roots a little further away, on a hill within sight of the sea.

Well, it was within sight of the sea. In our own time, with centuries of landfill and urban sprawl having pushed back the waves, Tōkyō Bay is a good 1.5 kilometres or so away (and even that part of the water is heavily built up with artificial islands and concrete causeways). My walk up to the temple from the lower street level – not all that far from where the water’s edge once lay – was a pleasant but featureless stroll past apartment blocks and mid-rise office buildings.

In the midst of all this bland modernity, my first encounter with the past: Sengaku-ji’s Middle Gate, erected in 1836.

05Jul15 001 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

The temple once had a succession of three gates, this being the second (hence its name), but only the last two now remain.

A little further on, I came across the Main Gate, which dates from 1832.

05Jul15 002 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

Off to one side of the gate stands a 1921 statue of Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, leader of the 47 Rōnin whose tale almost needs no telling.

05Jul15 003 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

In fact, I really do want to refrain from telling the tale here – if only because the accepted version of the so-called Akō Incident (as embodied in this Wikipedia article, for example) is so heavily distorted by the influence of popular literature that it would take far more than a simple blog post to set the record straight. In terms of bare facts, the story as outlined in Wikipedia and elsewhere isn’t entirely false, but the discussion of the motives and the aftermath are very problematic (“oversimplified” doesn’t even begin to describe it). Those who are interested in forming a more nuanced view might consider using the following resources as a starting point:

  • The “Three Hundred Years of Chūshingura” series of academic articles on the Akō Incident (and on related Edo-period popular literature) published in Monumenta Nipponica volume 58, numbers 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 (2003). Accessible through JSTOR if you or your university/institution has a subscription to that journal database.
  • Discussions on the Talk page of the Wikipedia article on the 47 Rōnin. In many ways, the Talk threads on this particular subject are more enlightening than the article itself!
  • The Revenge of the 47 Ronin: Edo 1703 (2011) by Stephen Turnbull. Despite occasional errors and inconsistencies, it’s a very good introduction to the Akō Incident that draws upon some great sources.
  • “The 47 Ronin: Feudal Drive-By Of Yore” on the Shogun-ki blog. Perhaps less scholarly than the peer-reviewed articles mentioned at the top of this list, and occasionally bordering on the invective (perhaps even sliding right into it), but it touches quite nicely on a couple of the controversial myths that have arisen around the Akō Incident. Incidentally, that same blog has a review of Stephen Turnbull’s book on the 47 Rōnin.
  • Whatever may have actually taken place, and whatever the reasons behind each individual player’s actions might have been, all we know is that blood – innocent or guilty? – was spilt on that snowy night in 1703 (not 1702 as some accounts indicate) when the 47 Rōnin wrought their bloody act of revenge. We also know that more blood would be spilt less than two months later, namely the 47’s own (or rather 46, read this long but fascinating article for more on that tricky question), as they paid for the vendetta with their lives.

    We shall draw closer to that event shortly. First, let’s pass through the gate and take a quick look at Sengaku-ji’s main hall. The building we see today is a mid-20th century reconstruction, the original having been destroyed during the Second World War.

    05Jul15 014 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    Up to this point, almost without realising it, I was following the 46 Rōnin’s steps very closely … perhaps even treading on the very same ground they once walked upon. Yes, you read correctly: 46 (not 47). By the time the band of warriors reached the temple, one of their number – Terasaka Kichiemon – had parted ways with them, for reasons that are still debated today. (Have a look at this scholarly piece for a thorough discussion of the matter.)

    Turning left, I passed an old well covered by a wire net. This is said to be the very same well where the rōnin washed the head of the murdered Kira before presenting it before the tomb of their late lord.

    05Jul15 013 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    From here, they would have pressed on into the temple compound, walking upon the ground underneath this fine gateway with an elegant tiled roof…

    05Jul15 012 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    …except that they wouldn’t have seen this gate at the time. Not at this spot anyway, though it might have been a familiar sight to at least some of the men, since the structure had originally come from one of Asano’s houses. (It was transferred to Sengaku-ji during the Meiji period, no doubt to deepen the link between the temple and the rōnin vendetta.)

    The rōnin’s steps would have carried them further on, towards the grave of their dead master – in front of which they reverently deposited the awful, bloody proof of their vengeance.

    05Jul15 005 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    Not far away stands the tomb of Asano’s wife, buried here years after her husband’s remains were originally interred.

    05Jul15 004 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    Nearby, up a low flight of steps, standing in orderly ranks on a raised stone platform right next to Asano’s tomb…

    05Jul15 006 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    …are the graves of the 48 Rōnin themselves. Rough-hewn stone markers, almost perpetually wreathed in milky clouds of incense smoke, each giving only the sparest details of the life whose mortal remains are entombed underneath.

    05Jul15 007 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    05Jul15 008 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    05Jul15 011 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    By the way, the number I’ve given just now (48) isn’t a mistake: in the course of a brief stroll we’ve gone from 47 men to 46 to 48. Terasaka Kichiemon, who had been ordered to leave (or fled of his own accord, depending on whom you believe) before the remaining 46 entered Sengaku-ji, eventually rejoined his comrades when he died a natural death many years after the rest had been sentenced to seppuku. As for the 48th … we are not talking here about the “Satsuma man” who supposedly insulted Ōishi and committed suicide to atone for the act – that tale is probably untrue anyway – but of another member of the conspiracy who committed suicide before the revenge took place, and was accorded a place of honour amongst the others. (I shall not endeavour to burden this already lengthy post with the 48th man’s story, since it can be read elsewhere.) If we keep playing the numbers game, you might also consider that with the extra tombstone-like monuments erected within the enclosure, the number of markers rises even further to about 50…

    …so let’s stop playing the numbers game. Let’s stop, and instead pause to observe with all due reverence. Regardless of what one thinks about the “Revenge of the 46 (or 47, or 48)” – and I am one of those who view it in a somewhat negative light, rather than in the semi-legendary heroic aura that pervades popular literature regarding the event – this hallowed setting invites respect, and any visitor is well advised to render that respect.

    Of course, even in death, respect is not accorded equally amongst this band of warriors. As befits the commander of the 47 Rōnin (let’s stick to the traditional number from here on), Ōishi’s gravestone is the largest of the lot, and is one of only two in the graveyard with a roof for protection…

    05Jul15 010 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    …the other being the funerary monument of his son, Yoshikane (also known by the name Chikara), who at just fifteen years of age was the youngest member of the group. Next to Chikara’s relatively small tablet – the size alluding to his youth, perhaps? – is a larger stele set upon a stone tortoise, erected to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the rōnin’s death.

    05Jul15 009 Japan Honshu Tokyo Sengakuji 47 Forty Seven Ronin Graves

    On my way out of the compound, I paused at the temple’s two small museums – located directly across each other – to view purportedly original relics of the vendetta and other exhibits related to the tale of the 47 Rōnin.

    And so ended my brief visit to Sengaku-ji. My own sceptical views about the actual event (and the motives of the key players) notwithstanding, I thought it was a worthwhile experience, and I might even pay a return visit this year as part of my continuing research into the Akō Incident.

    Next, I headed off to burn a few more hours on lunch and sightseeing, before embarking on the longest land journey I’d ever taken in my entire life…

    …but that tale will be told in another post.

    Cheerio.

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