The 47 ronin, or masterless samurai, is probably one of the most well-known historical stories that comes from Japan. That said, whenever I mention the 47 ronin to my students, they have no idea who I’m talking about, as in Japanese they arereferred to as “Akoroshi”, or the masterless samurai from Ako. Needless to say, as it happened over 300 years ago, it has shown remarkable staying power. Here’s a brief summary of what happened:
The two main characters in this saga were Lord Asano of Ako (present-day Hyog0) and his official advisor, Lord Kira. Kira didn’t like Asano very much, and did not treat him well, which of course Asano did not appreciate. He was tired of all these insults, so one day, at Edo Castle, he attacked Kira, but did not manage to kill him. Since it was forbidden to draw a sword within the castle at that time, Asano was arrested and sentenced to death by suppuku (hara-kiri) that same day. Kira was not given any punishment, although by law he should have had an equal one. Asano was forced to kill himself in the outside garden, another insult to someone of his rank. In addition, his entire estate was confiscated and the entire family had their rank removed.
The Ako Gishi (retainers of the Lord of Ako) were furious and wanted to avenge their master. They planned, for the next two years, on how to do this, and finally, on December 14th, 1702, they managed to attack and kill Kira. They then took his head to Sengakuji, where Asano’s grave was, to show him the head and report what they had done. Afterwards, they turned themselves in to the shogunate and committed seppuku on February 4th, 1703.
Sengakuji is an old temple, and was one of the top three Buddhist temples in Edo. It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1612, although due to it burning down 30 years later it was rebuilt in its present site. There is a statue of Oishi Kuranosuke, the loyal retainer who helped the 47 ronin, right at the entrance in front of the main gate into the temple complex. About halfway from the main gate to the graveyard, is the Kubi-Arai well, where the vengeful retainers washed the Kira’s decapitated head before presenting it to Asano’s grave. After that you walk up the stairs, go through a smaller gate, and come to the graves of the 47 ronin. They are all identical, even the writing on the stone, save for one line that has their name (I’m assuming). Asano’s grave is nearby, but fenced off from visitors. After you walk through the gate to the graves, you can pay the local caretaker 100 yen for 47(?) incense sticks, which he will light for you, place in a bamboo holder, and then you go and place a stick in front of each grave. When I arrived there in the morning, there was a group of Japanese businessmen who each did this. Almost all bowed or spent time in front of what I assumed were important graves (Asano? some of the more famous retainers?). It was quite nice standing in the morning sunshine being surrounded by sweet-smelling incense smoke wafting through the beams of sunlight.
Quality of Monuments: While there is a cemetery here, it’s very small and within the temple grounds. There are a few statues, in addition to the head-washing well, and the Blood-Stained Plum Tree and Stone (apparently Asano’s blood gushed out and stained both the tree and the stone nearby). As mentioned above, the graves of the 47 ronin are identical. It’s very remanescent of a military cemetery.
Cemetery Grounds: The cemetery is slightly elevated (on a hill) but it’s all paving stones so it’s easy to get around. Visiting the temple and cemetery would not take more than 20 minutes, unless you wanted to spend time (and a little money) in the onsite museum.
Visitors: There was a small, but regular stream of visitors to this site. I think I was the only female on the premises when I was there.
Photographer Notes: Even though this place was small, I liked the small details present here in the old stones and lanterns and moss and trees, so it was more productive that I anticipated. There will be some hard shadows on sunny days though. That said, if you are there when a lot of people have laid down incense, you may be able to get some atmospheric shots of sunbeams through the smoke. It’s very fleeting though – the incense sticks burn out very quickly, long before they are completed.
Name: Sengaku-ji (泉岳寺)
Inaugurated: Temple originally built in 1612, reconstructed site built in 1641
Location: Minato ward, Tokyo, near Sengakuji station (towards Shinagawa). Take exit A2 and it’s a short walk up the hill.
Hours: 07:00-17:00 (Oct-Mar), 07:00-18:00 (Apr-Sept). The museum has shorter hours, from around 9:00-16:00/16:30.