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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley



an appeal to the emotional side of human nature could not fail to undermine the stoicism of the samurai and the morality of society in general. The practice of the military arts went out of fashion, and it became an object with the bushi not only to have his sword highly ornamented, but also to adapt its dimensions to the fashion of the moment, thus sacrificing utility to elegance. In short, the Genroku era (1688-1703) was essentially a time of luxury and extravagance, its literature abounding in theatrical plays, songs, verses, and joruri, and its ideals involving the sacrifice of the noble to the elegant. Men were promoted in rank not merely because they could dance gracefully, but also because they made themselves conspicuous for kindness to dogs, in obedience to the shogun's foible, and as many of these men had not learned to ride on horseback they petitioned for permission to use palanquins. This marked a signal departure from the severe rules of former days. Street palanquins (machi-kago) ultimately came into use by all who could afford the luxury. In short, the ancient order of educational precedence was reversed, and polite accomplishments took the place of military science.



Nevertheless, this degenerate era produced one of the most remarkable acts of self-sacrificing loyalty that stand to the credit of Japanese samurai.

On the 7th of February, 1703, forty-seven bushi, under the leadership of Oishi Yoshio, forced their way into the mansion of Kira Yoshihide; killed him in order to avenge the death of their feudal chief, Asano Naganori, daimyo of Ako; and then surrendered themselves to justice. Under the title of The Forty-seven Ronins, this story has been told in history, on the stage, and in all forms of literature, so that its details need not be repeated here. It will suffice to say that, under great provocation, the Ako feudatory drew his sword in the precincts of Yedo Castle and cut down Kira Yoshihide, for which breach of court etiquette rather than for the deed of violence, the Ako baron was condemned to commit suicide and his estates were confiscated. Thereupon, forty-seven of his principal vassals pledged themselves to wreak vengeance, and, after nearly two years of planning and watching, they finally succeeded in achieving their purpose. Degenerate as was the spirit of the time, this bold deed aroused universal admiration. The vendetta was not illegal in Japan. It had been practised from medieval times and often with direct sanction of the authorities. But in no circumstances was it officially permissible within the cities of Kyoto, Yedo, Osaka, and Sumpu, or in the vicinity of the shogun's shrines. The forty-seven ronins had therefore committed a capital crime. Yet they had only obeyed the doctrine of Confucius, and the shogun therefore endeavoured to save their lives. More than a year was spent discussing the issue, and it is recorded that Tsunayoshi appealed to the prince-abbot of Ueno in order to secure his intervention in the cause of leniency. The day was ultimately carried by the advocates of stern justice, and the forty-seven ronins were ordered to commit suicide.

They obeyed without a murmur. One of them, Terasaka Kichiemon by name, had been sent to carry the news to Ako immediately after the perpetration of the deed of vengeance. He returned when his comrades were condemned and gave himself up to the authorities, but they declined to punish him on the ground that the case had already been disposed of. The eminent Confucian scholar, Hayashi Nobuatsu, petitioned for the pardon of the ronins, and the scarcely less celebrated Muro Kyuso compiled a book describing the incident; but, for some reason never fully explained, the noteworthy scholar, Ogyu Sorai, took the opposite side. One act of the authorities is eloquent as to the sentiment prevailing at the time. They condemned Yoshihide's son, Yoshikata, to be deprived of his ancestral domain for not having died in company with his father. As for the feeling of the nation at large, it was abundantly manifested by many of the great feudatories, who vied with one another in conferring offices and revenues on the sons and grandsons of the "Forty-seven."

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