Chûshingura in the 1980s:
Rethinking the Story of the 47 Ronin
Henry D. Smith II
paper was originally prepared for
presentation at the Modern Japan Seminar,
and subsequently posted on this web site; for that version, click here. It was then revised to correct various errors of fact in August 2003,
and a final section gEpilogue: After the 300th Anniversaryh was added to bring things up to date and to place the issues in broader perspective.
Matters on which my thinking has changed in the intervening years are dealt with in the bracketed gupdateh sections that have been added to several of the notes.
For other recent writings of mine on Chushingura, click here.
Copyright by the author.
Please do not reproduce
curiosity about Chûshingura was first piqued in December 1981, by a
Tsurumi Shunsuke at a conference in
chance to rethink the story of the 47 Ronin came in autumn 1989, when I
prospect of teaching a graduate seminar at
part of my preparations for the seminar, I stopped by Kinokuniya
Shinjuku during a trip to
was going on? Why this number and variety of books on what I considered
to be safely ghistoryh? Some of the books of
purported to be grealh history, revealing the gtruthh of the original
but a number were historical fiction, while still others analyzed the
of Chûshingura in Japanese culture as a whole. Somehow I had not
vitality from Chûshingura in the 1980s. As it turns out, the legend
seemed to be
as durable and versatile as ever, and it remains quite simply the most
known and frequently re-presented story in
What is Chûshingura?
have more simple-minded intentions than Maruya (to whose ideas I shall
in posing this preliminary question. It is simply a problem of
what do we refer today when we use the term gChûshingurah? Stop and ask
yourself the same question, or better yet, ask it of any Japanese who
most) has never considered the matter. The inevitable hesitation will
home the dimensions of the problem: what in fact do we mean by
The actual word, of course, comes from the joruri Kanadehon Chûshingura of 1748, and purists continue to use it in this restricted way. In actual usage, however, the term has been constantly expanding over the years. In the later
Ultimately, the only sensible definition of gChûshingurah is as an all-encompassing term for the entire body of cultural production that ultimately stems from the Akô Incident of 1701-03. All parts of this body have in common an intention either to tell the story, or to attempt to explain its telling\which becomes simply one more form of re-telling. In this sense, I am merely adding to the vast thing that is gChûshingurah in producing this report. Dealing with Chûshingura is somewhat like dealing with the Tar Baby: when you try to stand apart and assault it, you willy-nilly become part of it. This is precisely why Chûshingura is so tantalizing, and ultimately so frustrating for the historian.
Let me nevertheless make my own effort to stand apart, and to see gChûshingurah as something that does in fact have a history\a history in which the very notion of ghistoryh performs a central function. In so doing, I have ended up strongly opposed to precisely what lured me to the topic in the first place, Tsurumifs proposal that Chûshingura has come to encompass all of the cultural proclivities of the Japanese people. This type of argument is essentially a type of Japanese exceptionalism, whether claiming that Chûshingura must be understood as part of the basic Japanese preference for failed heroes (hangan biiki), or in terms of the Japanese tendency to act in groups, or as a reflection of the hierarchal organization of Japanese society\and so on. Of course it is all this, in varying degrees, but such an approach begs the question of Chûshingurafs durability, since various other legends that are in these obvious ways gJapaneseh have come and gone.
I propose, then, that the gpopularityh and durability of Chûshingura deserve historical rather than cultural explanations, and that all those who interpret it as a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon are misleading us. The power of Chûshingura can ultimately be explained, I would argue, only by the particular nature of the original historical incident of 1701-03, and by the particular historical circumstances through which its retelling has evolved in the almost two centuries since. Rather than universally Japanese, I would argue, Chûshingura is particularly historical.
The Akô Incident
problem begins with giving a name to the incident that began it all. In
quick reminder of the essentials of the incident, or rather of the
incidents involved in the Akô affair: it began on the 14th day of the
Month of Genroku 14 [April 21, 1701], when the lord of Akô, Asano
drew his sword in a corridor of Edo Castle and slashed at the senior
protocol official, Kira Yoshinaka.
was an important day during the visit to
The power of survival of the Akô Incident in later imagination lies less in the drama implicit in this outline sketch than in the complexity and ambiguity of motivation involved both in the initial palace incident and in the night attack. The historical record, for example, does not explain why Asano attacked Kira in the first place, only that he cried as he struck, gThis is for that grudge Ifve had against you!h (Kono aida no ikon oboetaru ka). This obscurity of motive, and the rather limited and contradictory information that we have about the personalities of the two men involved, have made it possible to engage in a wide range of speculation, particularly among amateur historians. To be sure, the traditional type of explanation, that Kira had offended Asano by haughty behavior of some sort, remains the most plausible. Still, there is no hard evidence for it, and the fact that the ronin in their voluminous correspondence almost never touched on the reason for Asanofs grudge suggests that even they did not really know.
The even greater ambiguity lies in the motivation and action of the ronin. They justified the attack as a vendetta (katakiuchi) on behalf of their lord, but in no way did the case fit either the legal or the customary definition of katakiuchi. Kira, after all, was not their masterfs murderer: on the contrary, Asano had tried to murder Kira. Nor was there any justification for avenging the death of onefs lord, only that of a family member: the ronin even had to call on a Confucian scholar to come up with a textual basis for their action. Legalities aside, what was the underlying spirit of their act? Was it indeed personal loyalty to their lord, as the mainstream of the Chûshingura tradition would have it? Or was it a protest against the bakufufs lenient treatment of Kira for his involvement in the incident? Or was it a simple matter of personal honor to carry out their masterfs unfinished task? Or, as one school of interpretation would have it, were they impoverished samurai desperate for a new job and trying to prove their credentials?
Whatever the gtruthh of the matter, the ambiguities and complexities of the event itself provided plenty of leeway for a variety of widely differing interpretations. This would prove essential to the modern survival of Chûshingura.
The Popular Response: Kanadehon Chûshingura
nature of the immediate public response to the attack on Kira also
difficult interpretive problems. Consider what our own basic texts tell
that gthe public was thrilled,h
was a spontaneous outpouring of admiration for this brave and selfless
new evidence on this score has recently been offered by Kôsaka Jirô in
best-selling book on the diary of a
conventional evidence of public interest that has been cited in the
past is a
kabuki performance in
subsequent road to Kanadehon Chûshingura of 1748 has been
traced by scholars of
Yoshio has compiled a list of 70 such dramatic variants of the legend
Certain interesting trends appear from this data. First, the
overwhelming number of new productions until the
mid-1810s were created
in Kamigata: 24 in
seems possible that this shift from west to east was paralleled by a
emphasis within the tradition as a whole, from the erotic to the
theme of loyalty with which Kanadehon Chûshingura opens and closes, one might argue, is merely a veneer to
authorities happy, and serves to divert attention from the real
concerns of the
Kamigata audiences, the erotic and romantic themes that run throughout
play. In Edo-Tokyo, by contrast, with its greater traditional emphasis
formalism and on the macho bluster of the aragoto style, the theme of
and political struggle is taken more seriously. It is revealing, for
that in Kamigata performances, Kô no Moronao is depicted as above all
The Popular Response: The Kôdan Retellings
Another feature of the kôdan version was the elaboration of the heroic exploits of individual members of the band of forty-seven, thus developing the genre of gishi meimeiden, gseparate biographies of the loyal retainers.h This feature reminds us how important it was that such a large number of individuals were involved in the historical Akô Incident\far more than had been involved in almost any of the other great vendettas in Japanese history. Some have interpreted this as a mark of group-oriented behavior, but it is revealing that in the kôdan tradition it allowed rather for the proliferation of individualistic heroes, each with his own story. In a sense, this division replicates the basic tension in the history of samurai values, between self-centered honor and self-negating loyalty.
The Revival of History and the Meiji Synthesis
For the first half of the Meiji period, Chûshingura survived with no major change in the two great Edo-period lineages of kabuki stage productions and kôdan story-telling. To be sure, the new regime seems to have appreciated the political uses of the 47 Ronin as early as 1868, when the Meiji emperor, on arriving in his new capital of Tokyo, sent an emissary to Sengakuji to place offerings before the graves of the Akô ronin, together with a proclamation addressed to Ôishi and praising him for upholding the principle of the master-follower bond. Yet this did not lead to any particular official manipulation of the legend to foster imperial loyalty: Chûshingura remained in the possession of the people.
The modern transformation of Chûshingura into what amounted to a piece of propaganda on behalf of martial values and selfless sacrifice to the state came, revealingly, only after the way had been paved by the first modern historical studies of the Akô incident. This process began in 1889 with the appearance of The True Story of the Akô Gishi (Akô gishi jitsuwa), an account by Shigeno Yasutsugu (1827-1910), a pioneer of the modern critical method in history. Shigeno insisted on the need to separate out the many counterfeits among the surviving documents of the incident, in an effort to tell the gtrue story.h The form of the book (which was related orally to a newspaper reporter) was an act-by-act analysis of Kanadehon Chûshingura, indicating what was gtrueh and what not. This marks the beginning of a new element in the Chûshingura phenomenon, the perception that the historical event constituted a different kind of story to be told, with different tools and methods. The way to a greater historicity may have been paved by the kôdan tradition and its stronger sense of the actual event\particularly in the use of the historical names of the participants\but the line between history and fiction remained one that was never openly contested.
The pivotal work in the modernization of Chûshingura was Fukumoto Nichinanfs Genroku kaikyo roku (Record of the Valiant Vendetta of Genroku), published in late 1909. The use of the word gGenrokuh signals Nichinanfs consciousness of the historical event, and his work continued the spirit established by Shigeno of trying to recover the original story. Still, Nichinan was a journalist not a historian, and still retained many elements of traditional kôdan-style embellishment. Less than a year after the publication of Genroku kaikyo roku, however, the historiography of the Akô Incident entered a new era with the publication of the documentary collection Akô gijin sansho (3 vols.), which had first been assembled by Nabeta Shôzan, a samurai antiquarian from Taira (Fukushima prefecture) in the late Edo period. Impressed by the need to establish his story on a firmer documentary basis, Nichinan rewrote his earlier version and published it in 1914 as Record of the Truth of the Valiant Vendetta of Genroku (Genroku kaikyo shinsô roku). Although a less readable work, the effort to reach the gtruthh of the event marks an entirely new attitude towards the Chûshingura legacy.
two works, especially the first, were wildly popular in the patriotic
The late Meiji period also marks the beginning of the entirely new Chûshingura genre of film, which by the time it had run its course in the mid-1960s had brought the story of the 47 Ronin to far more Japanese than ever in the past, and with a new level of power and immediacy. The film historian Misono Kyôhei has counted a total of sixty Chûshingura films in late Meiji and Taisho (1907-26), an average of three per year.. The number would rapidly multiply in the years that followed. In general, the film tradition followed in the pattern set by the kôdan-rôkyoku tradition, of treating the Akô incident as a historical event rather than using the Taiheiki gworldh (sekai) of the stage tradition.
The mounting nationalism of the 1930s tended to leave the mainstream of Chûshingura locked into the mode that took shape in the 1910s, although some literary efforts subversive of that mainstream were already beginning to emerge among a small minority of intellectual writers, as we shall shortly see. The mainstream itself took a turn in a more intellectual direction with the epic gnew kabukih version of Mayama Seika, Genroku Chûshingura, begun in 1934 as a piece for Sadanji II, and continuing through nine more acts until 1941 (by which time Sadanji had died). Mayamafs pretensions as a historian are evident in the long and pedantic explanations he provides in the printed text, alleging his concern for period correctness. Yet his work is every bit as much a product of the ideology of its own time, notably in his depiction of the anxiety of Ôishi over whether Asanofs act might be interpreted as insulting to the emperor; this introduction of imperial loyalism into the minds of the 47 Ronin seems to be Mayamafs innovation, with no historical justification.
The war interrupted the modern film mainstream of Chûshingura, but did not radically alter its course. Both stage and film versions of the story were prohibited under the early years of the Occupation for intimate associations with feudal values and wartime patriotism. From 1949, however, the ban on Chûshingura was lifted, and productions of both kabuki and film proceeded apace. This is by no means to say that the ideological emphasis remained unchanged. Gregory Barrett has suggested that the major shift was to play down the emphasis on abject loyalty to onefs superior, and rather to stress Ôishi Kuranosukefs personal affection for his lord. In a sense, the abstraction of loyalty that had allowed its modern transference from daimyo to emperor now reverted to a more direct and personal sort of loyalty. But the theme of loyalty itself remained central.
postwar survival of Chûshingura, however, was not simply a product of
of re-direction. As Satô Tadao notes, Chûshingura was the only one of
Great Vendettash of the
The Democratization of Chûshingura
In its very essence, the Akô Incident was politically multivalent. Although carried out in the name of loyalty to their feudal lord, the vendetta of the 47 Ronin was explicitly in defiance of the bakufu, as recognized by their death sentence. Given the essentially contradictory demands of loyalty under the bakuhan system, their action could be interpreted in two wholly different ways, either as confirming loyalty in the abstract or as negating loyalty not directed to the shogunate. Where the notion of gpublich hung in the balance between bakufu and han, things could go either way. And so in the twentieth century, when gpublich was again defined in ambiguous ways, either as personal loyalty to the emperor or as abstract loyalty to the state, the Akô Incident was perfectly placed to satisfy both. And even after the democratizing reforms of the Occupation period, the Akô story could still be reoriented to adapt to new times, by conceiving of the actions of the ronin as directed against the autocratic actions of the bakufu.
This new gdemocratich phase in the history of Chûshingura actually had its beginnings before the war, among the liberal and modernist intellectuals of the Taisho and early Showa era. The earliest sign was perhaps Akutagawa Ryûnosukefs short story gÔishi Kuranosuke on a Certain Dayh (Aru hi no Ôishi Kuranosuke, Chûô kôron, Oct. 1917), a sketch of the leader of the 47 Ronin during his stay in the Hosokawa domain mansion awaited the judgment of the bakufu following the vendetta. It was modern in two senses. First, Akutagawa turned to the primary sources of the historical incident, in particular the account of Horikawa Denfemon, who was in charge of guarding the group at the Hosokawa mansion in which Ôishi had been placed. Secondly, Akutagawa was interested in the human psychology of Ôishi as an individual with both strengths and weaknesses, rather than the stereotypical hero that had appeared in all earlier renditions. This interest in probing the more complex and human side of the participants in the Akô affair set into motion a strand of Chûshingura rendition that remains strong to this day.
The modern turn also took a radical twist in the early Showa period with the first appearance of interpretations that openly challenged the black-and-white idealism of the older Chûshingura tradition. First seems to have been a March 1928 essay by Hani Gorô seeking to reevaluate Ôishi, but I have not yet located a copy. Another gmaterialisth interpretation of the motives of the 47 Ronin was put forth first in May 1931, in a Chûô kôron article by the liberal Hasegawa Nyozekan entitled gThe Akô Gishi in Light of Historical Materialism,h in which the motives of the ronin in seeking revenge were attributed not to their loyalty but to their poverty and need for a new job. A similar line of thought was pursued by the Marxist historian Tamura Eitarô in a series of books and articles on the Akô event extending from Chûshingura monogatari in 1934 on to Akô rôshi in 1964. Doggedly pressing his argument that the ronin were simply in search of a new master and never expected to sacrifice their lives, Tamura set a tone of iconoclasm that opened a new chapter of revisionist thinking in the history of the Akô Incident. To be sure, there had been distinguished earlier critics of the roninfs actions, such as Satô Naokata two years after the event and Fukuzawa Yukichi in the Meiji period, but these had been in largely legal grounds. Tamura was the first to impute economic motives.
The most important work for the postwar revival of Chûshingura, however, was the first long modern historical novel on the theme of the Akô Incident, Osaragi Jirôfs Akô rôshi of 1928 (serialized the previous year in the Mainichi newspapers). The use of grôshih rather than ggishih hints at the diversion of emphasis away from the theme of loyalty, and in the direction of a conception of the attack on Kira as a protest against the corrupt and venal government of the bakufu under Tsunayoshi. This element was in fact already part of prewar orthodoxy. The biography of Ôishi that appeared in the old elementary school textbooks, for example, opened on precisely this theme, stressing the gloosenessh of Genroku politics and the decadence of Tsunayoshi and his animal-protection laws. The rônin could thus easily be resurrected after the war as paragons not of loyalty, but of justice and honesty in politics.
text played a key role in the 1960s transition from film to television
basic medium for the mass propagation of Chûshingura. The year 1962 saw
great feature-film production, Inagaki Hiroshifs Chûshingura,
to a close a half-century era. The new era began in 1964, when NHK
chose the Chûshingura
theme for the second of its year-long ggrand
fleuve dramah (taiga dorama), of which a one-hour
shown every Sunday evening. Entitled Akô rôshi, it was based in
1927 novel. The power of television, authorized by the government
brought the images of the 47 Ronin directly into the homes of millions
Japanese over a sustained period of time, reviving the legend just at
that it was faltering. The production was accompanied by a new
books about the Akô Incident. It is surely not without significance
was also the year of the Tokyo Olympics: the triumphal return to the
international scene of a democratized
In the years following, NHK has continued to play the central role in the survival of Chûshingura in mass culture by selecting it twice more for the taiga dorama series, in 1975 and 1982. In both cases, it was occasion for the publication of new books about Chûshingura, the reissue of old ones, and renewed speculation by intellectuals about the perpetual appeal of the theme to the Japanese people. That things were changing, however, was revealed in the approaches of the two series, neither of which approached the Akô Incident head-on. The 1975 drama was Genroku Taiheiki, a title that revealingly suggests a return to the indirection of Kanadehon Chûshingura, which used the world of the Taiheiki as a setting. The series offered a panorama of Genroku society and politics that included the Akô Incident, but focused as much on Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, chamberlain under Tsunayoshi, and on the politics of shogunal succession.
1982 NHK series was given the abstruse title Tôge no gunzô,
as something like ggroup portrait at the divide,h implying that the
period was a kind of historical watershed. The Akô Incident here
as the main theme than as the backdrop to the depiction of the lives of
of ordinary citizens of
kind of glenient treatmenth of old villains that Barrett detects in the
NHK series, however, reflects more than just a pious wish to show Japan
big happy family. Rather it emerges from an on-going process of
reexamining the legend and challenging some of its central verities by
back to the historical event. In a sense, this is in the spirit of
the grealh Akô Incident pioneered earlier in the century by Fukumoto
and carried forth in a more explicit mode of debunking by Tamura Eitarô
argument of the 1930s that the Akô vendetta was no more than a campaign
What has changed since the war is a widening of the field of debunking activity, and the emergence of a virtual industry of amateur history-writing aimed at revealing the gtruthh of the Akô Incident in ways that often amount to the most fantastic speculation. The best example, perhaps, is the problem of the cause of the incident that began it all, the attack by Asano in the Pine Corridor of Edo Castle. The way was first cleared by the demonstration of respectable historians\notably Matsushima Eiichi in his judicious 1964 Chûshingura: Sono seiritsu to tenkai in the Iwanami Shinsho series\that the surviving documentation gave very few clues as to the real reasons for Asanofs grudge against Kira. This means that it is anybodyfs guess, and as a result a great many theories have been put forward.
for example, the episode on the Pine Corridor incident that appeared in
to Historyh (Rekishi e no shôtai)
series, in which academic historians, amateur historians, and writers
historical fiction are all happily mixed together to debate a
One major topic of discussion in this particular program was the
theory,h deriving from the fact that both Akô and Kira Yoshinakafs own
of Kira-chô, located 40 km southeast of Nagoya on Atsumi Bay, just
be producers of salt. It was the novelist Ozaki Shirô\a native of
first proposed in 1949 that the incident had its origins in a salt
between Asano, whose Akô salt was of superior quality, and Kira, who
access to the
offered on the same show was a novel theory centering on the abnormal
psychology of Asano, proposed by Anzai Norio, a specialist in the
of historyh from
Without going into the five other theories discussed on the NHK show, this should be enough to suggest the amount of ingenuity that has been devoted to explaining the twists and turns of the Akô Incident. These have been put forth in a steady outpouring of books claiming to tell, once again, the gtruthh of the Akô Incident. In effect, the incident has become much like a mystery story, to be figured out by clever detectives; any concern with the deeper moral and political implications of the event recedes into the background. In these ways, the historicity of the Akô Incident has served to keep the Chûshingura legend alive even when those political implications no longer seem compelling. Symptomatic of this trend is Izawa Motohikofs Chûshingura Genroku jûgonen no hangyaku (Shinchôsha, 1988), described on the cover as a ghistorical detective story.h It involves a young contemporary playwright who is asked to write a play about Chûshingura and becomes entangled in the mysteries of the historical event itself. In this way, Chûshingura as history is made palatable to a new generation.
the entire body of debunking and revisionism about the Akô Incident,
themes that stand out are the reevaluation of Kira Yoshinaka and of the
retainers who failed to participate in the attack. Each of these themes
considerable history. In particular, the rescue of Kira from his
fate, emphasizing his role as a model lord in his own domain, has been
since the 1930s, and has become especially active in the postwar
writer of the 1980s who has made the most imaginative use of what might
called ganti-Chûshingurah themes was Inoue Hisashi, a virtuoso parodist
looks back to
followed the disloyal retainers with a new characterization of Kira in
Inu no adauchi, written for a performance at the Komatsuza in
Maruya Saiichifs gWhat is Chûshingura?h
more than Inoue Hisashi, the writer who did the most to revive
the 1980s was Maruya Saiichi, whose Chûshingura to wa
nanika became a bestseller after its appearance in 1984 and has
to inspire new writings in and about the legend. It is difficult in
compass to do justice to the complexity of Maruyafs various arguments,
the sheer interest of the book, with its wealth of fascinating and
about the Akô Incident and
it must be remembered, is a novelist and literary critic, and these
much to fashion his conception of Chûshingura. His basic approach is
clearly in his explicit use of gChûshingurah to refer to both to the
event and to Kanadehon Chûshingura, distinguishing the two as
shite no Chûshingurah and gshibai to shite no Chûshingura.h This in
reflects his central theme, that the historical Akô vendetta was
literally a gdramatich
incident (gekiteki na jiken), in the sense
that the 47
Ronin were reenacting the vendetta of the Soga Brothers as it had been
various specific arguments advanced by Maruya tend to be drawn from
and anthropology, thus tying in with a generally popular intellectual
Not content with seeing the force of onryô in the vendetta of the Akô ronin, Maruya asserted a hidden element of hostility to the bakufu in the act, tracing it back to an alleged anti-Yoritomo motif in the revenge of the Soga brothers. In this way, Maruya continued an older tradition of seeing the Akô vendetta as essentially directed against the bakufu, but he now gave it an even more sinister and seditious sense. In Maruyafs most controversial allegation, he carried this theme of a disguised rebellion over to Kanadehon Chûshingura, which he interprets as a kind of gcarnivalh in the European manner, a springtime festival involving the ritual killing of the king of winter\in this case, Moronao, but by implication, the shogun Tsunayoshi as well.
first reviews of Maruyafs book were uniformly enthusiastic, but in
a lengthy and highly critical review by Suwa Haruo, a historian of
going into the many complexities of all the arguments involved, let me
say that on strictly historical grounds, I tend to side with Suwa
claims that Maruyafs theories simply cannot be proved. Maruya himself
recognized this in one of his responses to Suwa, claiming that since he
dealing with deep, hidden motivations, one could not expect to find any
evidence. Time and again, Maruya claims to have a special sense of the
superstitious and magical (jujutsuteki, one of his favorite
beliefs of the common people of
In the end, Maruya has succeeded in using history to further the cause of Chûshingura as literature. Yamaguchi Masao, at the end of his hostile review of Maruyafs book, quotes approvingly the remark of a science fiction writer who wondered why Maruya, gwith that much knowledge, didnft just go ahead and write a novel.h And in the end, that is probably the best way to read Chûshingura to wa nanika\as a novel. Or more accurately, we must realized that we have reached a point in the history of Chûshingura that any systematic effort to separate history from fiction is doomed to frustration.
gWhat the Hell is Chûshingura?h
Chûshingura has shown remarkable resilience throughout its history of almost two centuries, and seems alive and well today. Indeed, mass media even declared a gChûshingura boomh in 1986, beginning with New Yearfs Eve when a Nihon Television production of Chûshingura achieved an audience share of 17 per cent when competing against NHKfs venerable song contest, gKôhaku uta-gassen.h It was followed by a February performance at the Kabuki-za, and a complete performance of the original puppet play at the National Theater in the fall. In addition, Chûshingura went international with the European tour of gThe Kabuki,h a French adaptation of the Chûshingura theme performed by the Tokyo Ballet. In the same year, Inoue Hisashifs Fuchûshingura appeared and the first volume of Morimura Seiichifs new epic historical novel of Chûshingura was published in October.
But is it possible that we are reaching the end of Chûshingura as a living tradition? The possibility is raised by a consideration of the age of the authors responsible for the spate of books published in the 1980s that are listed in the Appendix below. Out of fourteen for whom birth years could be ascertained, five were born in the 1920s, eight in the years 1931-34, and one (Izawa Motohiko, the author of the ghistorical detectiveh story mentioned earlier) in 1954. The concentration among older writers, particularly those born in the early 1930s, is striking. In other words, Chûshingura is being kept alive by a generation that could still read the account of Ôishi Yoshio in the prewar elementary school textbooks, and who reached maturity during the great postwar era of Chûshingura film popularity, from 1949 to 1962.
Does this mean that Chûshingura will in fact begin to disappear as this older generation and its readers disappear? One small piece of evidence to the contrary is one of the most curious books of the 1980s, a 1988 work by the implausible author gAkita to Ikumi to Tamiko-chanh with the equally implausible title eHeh, Chûshinguraa, nanda sore?f to iu kata ni pittari no Chûshingura desu. The title, which appeared in zany typography on a shocking pink cover, is difficult to translate in a way that captures the sense of the contemporary Tokyo slang, but the authors themselves provide a good stab at it in an English table of contents provided as an appendix (itself a revealing mark of contemporary youth culture): What the hell is Chûshingura?
As the title suggests, the book is clearly intended for a generation that did not grow up with Chûshingura but somehow feels responsible for knowing about it. The main text, although written in the characteristic jargon of teenage girls and illustrated with cheery cartoons, actually provides a serious and responsible account of all the details of the historical Akô Incident. In a mark of contemporary egalitarianism, all honorifics are dropped, and Lord Asano becomes gAsano-kun,h while Kira is referred to as gKira no jisamah (something like gGrandpa Kirah). It is hard to know exactly what to make of a book like this, but at the very least it proves that there is clearly an audience for Chûshingura in the younger generation, if only to overcome its embarrassment at not really knowing anything about it.
if Chûshingura does not ultimately win over the younger generation in
* * *
Epilogue: After the 300th Anniversary
completing the above essay in early 1990, I forgot about Chûshingura
several years but eventually decided that I should myself take
advantage of the
upcoming 2001-03 tercentenary of the Akô Incident in some way. I
I would simply like to provide an update on what has happened to the
On the whole, however, publishing trends from the early to mid 1990s suggest a stable continuation of the Chûshingura boom of the late e80s, and the year 1994 even saw the appearance of feature films on Chûshingura for the first time since 1978. What I did not anticipate was that NHK would select Chûshingura once again\for the fourth time\as the theme of its Sunday evening gTaiga Dramah in the year 1999, entitled Genroku ryôran (A Hundred Flowers of Genroku). The publishing industry responded with a vengeance, churning out in a single year from autumn 1998 almost exactly the same number of titles about Chûshingura that had been produced in the entire decade of the 1980s. I was in Japan in the latter half of 1999, and did not sense that the Japanese nation was any more obsessed with Chûshingura than ever before; it was rather once more a mark of the astonishing power of NHK to determine what interests the Japanese people, and when, and in turn to stimulate the book market. My conclusion remains the same, that the single most powerful influence in sustaining the capacity of Chûshingura since the 1960s has been television in general, and NHK in particular.
Genroku ryôran in 1999 seems to have
exhausted popular interest in Chûshingura, and the anniversary
2001-03 were muted and modest. Local institutions with a vested
Gishi-related tourism, notably Sengakuji temple in
events now lead me to predict that whatever happens to Chûshingura in
future, it will be television and not printed books that will be the
factor. Apart from the periodic year-long NHK dramas, Chûshingura
appears in various guises in many other TV programs, and these turn out
heavily concentrated in the month of December. The pattern began from
in 1953, the first year of public television broadcasting, when both
Tokyo TV showed special Chûshingura dramas on December 14 and 15. The
concentration of Chûshingura themes in December has continued until
as clearly revealed in a detailed chronology of Chûshinura-related
programs that appears in a series of materials edited by
It seems therefore best to think now of Chûshingura in 21st-century Japan as more of a national ghabith than a national glegend,h a reassuring seasonal event that demands as little thought about its deeper meanings as Christmas does for the majority of the American population. Still, the weight of Chûshingura and its undeniable capacity to encompass many of the values that have been forged by the Japanese people over three centuries will remain a topic of abiding interest to scholars of Japan and of the ways in which national cultures invest themselves in special stories from their past.
Appendix: Chûshingura-Related Books of the 1980s
originally prepared in 1990, this list contained thirty titles. Since
bibliographies and electronic resources have enabled the more complete
below of fifty-six titles, which is still selective, excluding about
books considered too marginal or narrow. Reprints or anthologies of
have also been omitted. The books below are classified into six types:
(drama, excluding TV scripts), F (fiction), G (general), H (history), K (kabuki-related, including ukiyo-e), and L
other than joruri and kabuki, mostly
1980.03 NHK, ed. Chûshingura. Rekishi e no shôtai, vol. 5. NHK. (Reissued with revisions as vol. 15 in Nov. 1988.) [H]
1980.08 Saitô Hanzô. Akô gishi Ôtaka Gengo den. Kôdansha. [H]
1980.12 Fujita Motohiko. Chûshingura omoshiro jiten: Akô rôshi, shiwasu no uchiri! Nagaoka Shoten. [G]
1980.12 Kumashiro Teruo. Fukushû: Moo hitotsu no Akô rôshi den. Tôkyô Shinbun Shuppankyoku. [H , F]
1981.06 Noda Hideki. Akô rôshi: Konchû ni narenakatta fâburu no sûgakuteki kinôhô. Jiritsu Shobô. [D]
1981.11 Arai Hideo. Jissetsu Genroku Chûshingura. Nihon Bunkasha. [H]
1981.11 Kataoka Nizaemon. Sugawara to Chûshingura. Kôyô Shobô. [K]
1981.11 Sakaiya Taichi. Tôge no gunzô, vol. 1. Nihon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai. The text for the 1982 NHK Taiga Drama; vol. 2 appeared in 1982.02 and vol. 3 in 1982.06. [F]
1981.11 Watanabe Tamotsu. Chûshingura: Moo hitotsu no rekishi kankaku. Hakusuisha. [K]
1981.11 Ozaki Hideki, comp. Chûshingura meimeiden: Monogatari to shiseki o tazunete. Seibidô. [H, L]
1981.12 Horikawa Toyohiro. Kira Kôzuke-no-suke zuidan. Meigen Shobô. [H]
1981.12 Kumashiro Teruo. Chûshingura igaishi. Tôkyô Shinbun Shuppankyoku. [H, F]
1981.12 Kuwata Tadachika. Akô rôshi shidan. Shiode Shuppan. [H]
1981.12 Satte Tetsuji. Onna-tachi no Chûshingura. Shunfyôdô Shoten. [F]
1981.12 Shioda Michio. Genroku Bushidô: Chûshingura to ningenzô. Green Arrow Shuppansha. [G]
1981.12 Tamiya Yukio. Jitsuroku Yonezawa Chûshingura: Akô rôshi to Uesugi-ke. Yonezawa: Fubô Shuppan. [H]
1982.01 Suwa Haruo, Chûshingura no sekai: Nihonjin no shinjô no genryû. Yamato Shobô. [G]
1982.02 Satake Shingo. Chûshingura no onna-tachi. Kôfûsha Shuppan. [F]
1982.06 Iio Kuwashi. Igaishi Chûshingura. Shin Jinbutsu Ôrai Sha. [H]
1982.08 Muramatsu Shunkichi. Akô jiken no kyozô to nazo: Ura kara kaita sugao no Chûshingura. Nihon Bungeisha. [H]
Teruo. Kôshô Akô jiken:
1982.11 Tsuka Kôhei. Tsuka-ban Chûshingura. Kadokawa Shoten. [F]
1983.04 Morimura Seiichi. Shinsetsu Chûshingura. Shinchôsha, 1933. [F]
1983.10 Hashida Sugako. Onna-tachi no Chûshingura. Yamatoyama Shuppansha. [F]
1983.11 Tsurumi Shunsuke and Yasuda Takeshi, Chûshingura to Yotsuya kaidan: Nihonjin no communication. Asahi Shinbunsha. [K]
1983.12 Yoshida Chiaki. Shashin Chûshingura. Hoikusha. [K]
1984.01 Hyôgo Prefectural Museum. Akô jiken to gChûshingurah. Exhib. cat. [G]
Haruo, ed. Akô jiken ni
kansuru bungei to shisô.
1984.04 Hiraoka Yûei. Ôishi Yoshio. Gakushû Kenkyûsha. (Manga) [H]
1984.10 Maruya Saiichi. Chûshingura to wa nanika. Kôdansha. [H, L]
1985.06 Iio Kuwashi, Za Chûshingura. Shin Jinbutsu Ôrai Sha. [H]
1985.11 Nakajima Shizuo. Asano Takumi no kami ninjô no himitsu. Medical Publicity. [H]
1985.12 Inoue Hisashi. Fuchûshingura. Shûeisha. [F]
Kinnosuke. Chûshingura no jikenbo.
1986.07 Nanbara Mikio. Onna Chûshingura. Kadokawa Shoten. [F]
1986.09 Shimura Takeshi. Chûshingura no jinseikun. Mikasa Shobô. [G]
1986.10 Morimura Seiichi, Chûshingura. 2 vols. Asahi Shinbunsha. [F]
1986.12 Fujita Hiroshi. Issatsu marugoto Chûshingura no hon. Longsellers. [G]
1986.12 Minagawa Hiroko. Chûshingura satsujin jiken. Tokuma Shoten. [F]
1986.12 Sawada Fujiko. Chûshingura hiren ki. Kôdansha. [F]
1987.11 Imao Tetsuya. Kira no kubi: Chûshingura to imajineeshon. Heibonsha. [L]
1988.03 Morita Naruo. Chûshingura no e. Kôdansha. [F]
1988.04 Iio Kuwashi. Chûshingura no shinsô. Shin Jinbutsu Ôrai Sha. [H]
1988.10 Inoue Hisashi. Inu no adauchi. Bungei Shunjû Sha. [D]
1988.10 Yoshii Shôjin. Ôno karô nazo no chikuten: Chûshingura gaiden jidai shôsetsu. Privately published. [F]
1988.11 Kobayashi Nobuhiko. Ura-omote Chûshingura. Shinchôsha. [F]
1988.11 Morimura Seiichi. Kira Chûshingura. 2 vols. Kadokawa Shoten. [F]
1988.12 Fumidate Teruko. Kira Kôzukenosuke no Chûshingura. PHP Kenkyûjo. [H]
1988.12 Izawa Motohiko. Chûshingura Genroku jûgonen no hangyaku. Shinchôsha. [F]
1988.12 Nakau Ei. Chûshingura ukiyo-e. Ribun Shuppan. [K]
1988.12 Nakayama Mikio. Chûshingura monogatari. Gakugei shorin. [K]
1989.01. Kôdo Suisei. Chûshingura nante nakatta. Banseisha. [H]
1989.03 Sôda Kôichi. Onna-tachi no Chûchingura. Shufu to Seikatsu Sha. [F]
1989.12 Akamatsu Masaaki. Ko-senryû de tsuzuru Akô gishi den. Taihei Shooku. [L]
1 The students and their topics were: Michael Ainge (short stories about Ôishi Kuranosuke by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke and Nogami Yaeko), Andy Cane (Utamaro parody prints on Chûshingura), John Carpenter (early uki-e Chûshingura prints), Iori Joko (kibyôshi parodies of Chûshingura), Sue Kawashima (the case for Kira Kôzuke-no-suke), Jordan Sand (reporting the Akô incident in Edo), and Keiko Takahashi (Hiroshigefs Chûshingura prints).
2 In actual fact, the term gChûshingurah seems to have been used prior to Kanadehon, in an illustrated kurohon chapbook of 1746. Few, however, are aware of this.
3 The regular use of gAkô jikenh seems to date from the 1960s. The one-volume Nihonshi jiten of 1954, edited by the Kokushi kenkyûshitsu of Kyoto University, describes the incident under gAkô gishi,h while the first volume of the Iwanami Kokushi daijiten (Yoshikawa Kôbunkan, 1979 ff), uses rather gAkô jiken.h [Update: For a detailed study of Terasaka Kichiemon, who disappeared after the attack on Kira, see Henry D. Smith II, gThe Trouble with Terasaka: The Forty-Seventh Rônin and the Chûshingura Imagination,h Nichibunken Japan Review, 14 (2004).]
4 Kirafs name is read by some as Yoshihisa.
Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and Albert Craig,
6 Paul Varley, Japanese Culture, 3rd ed. (University of Hawaii Press, 1984), p. 184.
Sand, gChûshingura as a Media Event: Reporting and Documentation of the
Incident,h seminar paper,
Jirô, Genroku o-tatami bugyô no nikki:
no mita ukiyo (Chûkô shinsho, 1984), pp. 180-183. [Update:
I now believe that Kôsaka was wrong, since he failed to notice
that Asahi Bunzaemonfs single line on the night attack was followed by
a note gfor
details, see Jintenroku,h a
manuscript collection that appears to have a variety of materials
the Akô incident. I may have underestimated the degree to which
about the night attack spread quickly throughout
9 See Donald Shively, gTokugawa Plays on Forbidden Topics,h in James Brandon, ed., Chûshingura: Studies in Kabuki and the Puppet Theater (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1982), p. 35. In Japanese, the most recent discussion of the problem is Watanabe Tamotsu, Chûshingura: Moo hitotsu no rekishi kankaku (Hakusuisha, 1981), pp. 34-39.
10 I rely here on the description of Aoki Sentei, gKeiseika serareta gishi shôsetsu,h Aoi, nos. 2-4 (June-Aug, 1910), pp. 13-17, 10-12, 14-18.
12 Fujino Yoshio, Kanadehon Chûshingura: Kaishaku to kenkyû (3 vols., Ofûsha, 1974), I/80-144.
13 Nakayama Mikio, Chûshingura monogatari, Ukiyoe kabuki shiriizu 3 (Gakugei shorin, 1988), p. 17.
and three other kibyôshi parodies
were the topic of the seminar paper by Iori Joko, gChûshingura Parodies
in Kibyôshi,h seminar paper,
15 Satô Tadao, Chûshingura: Iji no keifu (Asahi Shinbunsha, 1976), p. 88.
16 It might be argued that the two words gKanadehonh and gChûshingurah imply two different vectors in the interpretation of the Akô vendetta, with the former emphasizing the individuality and sense of honor of each the 47 separate retainers, and the latter implying their unity as a band loyal to a single lord. In the variants of Kanadehon Chûshingura listed by Fujino, op.cit., words referring to the kana number (particularly girohah and gshijûshichih) are just about twice as common in the kabuki tradition as words relating to loyalty (chûshin, gishin, chûgi, etc.) up until Meiji, when terms of loyalty becomes dominant.
17 I am indebted in the following account to Matsushima Eiichi, Chûshingura: Sono seiritsu to tenkai (Iwanami Shoten, 1964), pp. 213 ff.
18 As cited by Satô Tadao, op.cit., p. 96, from a privately published work, Eiga Chûshingura
19 Mayamafs work is discussed in detail in Donald Keene, gVariations on a Theme: Chûshingura,h in James Brandon, op.cit., pp. 13-21. Satô Tadao, op.cit., p. 108, quotes Mayamafs daughter as claiming that her father really wanted to depict the Akô ronin as opponents of tyrannical shogunal rule, but was prevented by the militarism of the times. Mayamafs Genroku Chûshingura served as the basis for Mizoguchi Kenjifs two-part film of the same name, 1941-42.
20 Gregory Barrett, Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines (Associated University Presses, 1989), p. 30.
21 Satô Tadao, op.cit., p. 111.
story was translated and analyzed by Michael Ainge, gNogami Yaeko and
Ryûnosuke: Two More Voices Join the Chûshingura Legend,h seminar paper,
work is mentioned in Matsushima, op.cit., p. 223, as having
under the penname Ôkawa Hyônosuke, entitled gÔishi Yoshio no baai.h [Update: I have since located the
article, which was published in the March 1929 issue of Shinkô
hata no moto ni, and
included in Hani Gorô rekishiron chosakushû, vol. 3 (Aoki
Shoten, 1967), pp. 120-25. Hani saw the Akô incident as the result of a
in the feudal class of the Genroku period that led Tsunayoshi to put
pressure on the daimyo through forced confiscations and by using pawns
Kira to exact bribes. He saw the rônin avengers as reacting out not
concern for their real interests, which would have led to a
alliance with the unpropertied classes, but from ideological
high ideals. Hani doubtless considred the Akô
affair to have
24 Quoted in Satô Tadao, op.cit., pp. 102-3.
25 Barrett, op.cit., p. 32.
26 Matsushima, p. 10. [Update: The observation that no real evidence survives for the nature of Asanofs grudge was made long before Matsushima, in the first serious modern history of the Akô incident by Shigeno Yasutsugu, Akô gishi jitsuwa (Taiseikan, 1889).]
27 [Update: I now know that the proper medical term for this affliction is gphotosensitive epilepsy (PSE),h thanks to the widely reported gPokemon panich of December 1997, in which hundreds of young Japanese children were thought to have suffered from just such an attack while watching an episode of the animated cartoon gPokemonh that had bright flashing lights.]
was studied by Sue Kawashima, gKira Yoshihisa, A Tragic Hero: A
Perspective,h seminar paper,
made these points in a taidan with Morimura Seiichi, Shûkan
30 I rely here on the description of the play in Nawata Kazuo, geChûshinguraf sakuhin arekore: kinsaku to ippin,h Taishû bungaku kenkyû, v. 87 (January 1989), pp. 8-9.
31 Yamaguchi Masao, gChûshingura to ôken no ronri,h Kokubungaku: Kaishaku to kanshô 31/15 (December 1986), pp. 38-41.
32 These details come from Asahi kiiwaado, 1987, p. 28.
33 [Update: The expanded list of titles in the Appendix yielded 20 more authors with known birth dates, spreading the spectrum more into the postwar generation. But even with this new total of 34 Chushingura writers, almost four-fifths (27) received all or most of their primary education before 1945. In particular, virtually all who wrote books on the history of the Akô incident were from the prewar generation, while writers of historical fiction tended to be younger.]
1999 workshop was held in at the
35 For my more recent thinking on the Akô incident and the Chûshingura phenomenon, see Henry D. Smith II, gThe Capacity of Chûshingura,h Monumenta Nipponica, 58/1 (Spring 2003), pp. 1-42), and gThe Trouble with Terasaka: The Forty-Seventh Rônin and the Chûshingura Imagination,h Nichibunken Japan Review, 14 (2004).
great majority of web sites about Chûshingura are (like web sites about
anything) amateurish and of no interest, but two in particular stand
serious efforts (albeit by amateurs) to engage in online history.
impressive is the site of Tanaka Mitsurô (born ca. 1960), called gLong
(Rongaibi / Nagatsuta) after the area of
37 The tradition of theatrical feature films of Chûshingura essentially ended in 1962, when television took over as the major visual medium. Exceptions were Akô-jô danzetsu (Tôei, dir. Fukasaku Kinji, 1978), and the two films that appeared simultaneously in October 1994: Shijûshichi-nin no shikyaku (Tôei, dir. Ichikawa Kon) and Chûshingura gaiden: Yotsuya kaidan (Shôchiku, dir. Fukasaku Kinji).
38 This is based on a search of the National Diet Library OPAC using the subject heading of gAko gishih plus the title keyword gChûshingura,h which yields 144 titles for the year 1998.09-1999.08 versus 143 for the decade 1980-89. (These totals include reprints and overlaps between the two searches.)
39 Akô-shi Sômubu Shishi Hensanshitsu, ed., Chûshingura, vol. 5 (1993), pp. 809-88.
40 Miyazawa Seiichi, Kindai Nihon to eChûshinguraf gensô (Aoki Shoten, 2001), p. 8.