Chûshingura in the 1980s:

Rethinking the Story of the 47 Ronin


Henry D. Smith II

Columbia University

Note:  This paper was originally prepared for presentation at the Modern Japan Seminar, Columbia University, on April 13, 1990,
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 Anniversaryh 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 gupdateh 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 without permission.



            My curiosity about Chûshingura was first piqued in December 1981, by a remark of Tsurumi Shunsuke at a conference in London to the effect that gif you study Chûshingura long enough, you will understand everything about the Japanese.h My respect for Tsurumi as a pioneer scholar of modern Japanese popular culture helped convince me that perhaps I should some day learn more about what I had always felt to be a distasteful chapter in Japanese cultural history. For myself, whose acquaintance with Japan began in 1962 (the year of the last full-scale feature film production of Chûshingura and the end of an era in the mass popularity of the legend), gChûshingurah was a thing of the past, indelibly linked with feudal values and prewar militarism. Of course, I loved the original joruri version of Kanadehon Chûshingura as I knew it through Donald Keenefs translation, which I had used in undergraduate courses, but that seemed something apart from the larger and vaguer gChûshingurah that I associated with prewar Japan.

            The chance to rethink the story of the 47 Ronin came in autumn 1989, when I had the prospect of teaching a graduate seminar at Columbia that I knew would include students in both history and literature, both modern and premodern: Chûshingura seemed a good way to bring these various interests into common focus. This report stems from that seminar, and I am indebted in countless ways to the six graduate students who helped me work through some of the issues treated in this paper\as well as many other issues that I will not have space to mention.[1]

            As part of my preparations for the seminar, I stopped by Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku during a trip to Japan in the summer of 1989, looking for recent writings about Chûshingura. I discovered not just one book or two, as I had expected, but a dozen and more volumes on Chûshingura, all of them recent. Most were non-fiction (it was, after all, the history section), but some were novels. And of course Kinokuniya did not have everything: in the 1980s alone, I would now estimate, about forty new books on Chûshingura appeared, both fiction and non-fiction (see Appendix for a list of thirty).

            What was going on? Why this number and variety of books on what I considered to be safely ghistoryh? Some of the books of course purported to be grealh history, revealing the gtruthh of the original Akô Incident, but a number were historical fiction, while still others analyzed the meaning of Chûshingura in Japanese culture as a whole. Somehow I had not expected much 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 widely known and frequently re-presented story in Japan. It seemed a good time to try to place the entire phenomenon of Chûshingura in broader historical perspective. A good place to start is with the question posed by the title of the single most provocative book of the 1980fs, Maruya Saiichifs What is Chûshingura? (Chûshingura to wa nanika, 1984).

What is Chûshingura?

            I have more simple-minded intentions than Maruya (to whose ideas I shall return) in posing this preliminary question. It is simply a problem of definition: to what do we refer today when we use the term gChûshingurah? Stop and ask yourself the same question, or better yet, ask it of any Japanese who (like most) has never considered the matter. The inevitable hesitation will bring home the dimensions of the problem: what in fact do we mean by gChûshingurah?
            The actual word, of course, comes from the joruri Kanadehon Chûshingura of 1748, and purists continue to use it in this restricted way.[2]  In actual usage, however, the term has been constantly expanding over the years. In the later Edo period, it came to be used in the titles of variant kabuki versions of the story, and increasingly so in Meiji. In late Meiji, as we shall see, there occurred a radical conflation of the previous genealogy of the Akô Incident, by which not only the different lineages of stage and story-telling, but also the historical incident itself, were all gathered within gChûshingurah as an umbrella term.

            Ultimately, the only sensible definition of gChûshingurah 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 gChûshingurah 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 gChûshingurah as something that does in fact have a history\a history in which the very notion of ghistoryh 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, Tsurumifs 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 Chûshingurafs durability, since various other legends that are in these obvious ways gJapaneseh have come and gone.

           I propose, then, that the gpopularityh 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

            The problem begins with giving a name to the incident that began it all. In Edo times, no one would have called it an gincident,h but would have referred to the gforty-six\or forty-seven\samuraih or the gAkô gishi (or gijin).h In Meiji times, it became more common to call it the gGenroku Incident.h Among historians today, however, consensus seems to favor gAkô Incident,h avoiding the problems of whether Terasaka Kichiemon really should be counted as one of the group, or whether the Akô retainers were in fact grighteous,h or whether all Genroku need be subsumed by the affair.[3]

            A quick reminder of the essentials of the incident, or rather of the series of incidents involved in the Akô affair: it began on the 14th day of the Third Month of Genroku 14 [April 21, 1701], when the lord of Akô, Asano Naganori, drew his sword in a corridor of Edo Castle and slashed at the senior bakufu protocol official, Kira Yoshinaka.[4] It was an important day during the visit to Edo of envoys from the imperial court in Kyoto, whose reception had been placed in the hands of Asano and another daimyo. Asano only wounded Kira slightly before he was restrained, and was immediately taken into custody and ordered to commit seppuku later the same day. Twenty-two months later, forty-seven of the former retainers of Asano, having signed an oath vowing to complete the deed at which he had failed, attacked the Edo mansion of Kira, took his head, and marched across the city to the temple of Sengakuji, where they offered the trophy before the grave of their master. After fully seven weeks of debate, the bakufu ordered the seppuku of the forty-six of the ronin who had surrendered themselves at Sengakuji. The order was carried out the same day, on Genroku 16/2/2 [March 20, 1703], and the ronin were buried that night at Sengakuji.

            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 Ifve 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 Asanofs 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 masterfs murderer: on the contrary, Asano had tried to murder Kira. Nor was there any justification for avenging the death of onefs 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 bakufufs lenient treatment of Kira for his involvement in the incident? Or was it a simple matter of personal honor to carry out their masterfs 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 gtruthh 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

            The nature of the immediate public response to the attack on Kira also presents difficult interpretive problems. Consider what our own basic texts tell us: that gthe public was thrilled,h[5] and gthere was a spontaneous outpouring of admiration for this brave and selfless act.h[6] Within Edo, of course, the news must have traveled swiftly, and public interest was surely high, but was there mass public sympathy for the act? One member of the seminar attempted to look at the contemporary documentation of the incident, and found it to be a mass of contradictory and ambiguous evidence.[7] It is difficult to say whether the gpublich was either thrilled or shocked: given the divisions that would soon emerge among samurai leaders on this issue, it seems at least reasonable to question the assumption that the public response was uniformly positive.

            Interesting new evidence on this score has recently been offered by Kôsaka Jirô in his best-selling book on the diary of a Nagoya samurai in the Genroku era. The diarist, Asahi Bunzaemon, was alert to every bit of gossip that passed his way, and he reported such incidents as love suicides in long and consuming detail. The vendetta of the Akô ronin, however, was reported in one utterly non-committal line, and their seppuku was not even mentioned. Kôsaka suggests that if the incident had been such a big stir in Edo, Bunzaemon would clearly have heard much more about it through his many sources and would have reported it in greater detail.[8]

            The conventional evidence of public interest that has been cited in the past is a kabuki performance in Edo just twelve days after the seppuku of the ronin, which was ostensibly about the Soga brothers but possibly related to the Akô Incident. The evidence for this and another account of early theatrical reenactments in Edo, however, is highly problematic and now discredited by many scholars.[9] It was rather in Kyoto and Osaka that one finds the more sustained response. Of course, the stricter censorship in Edo is doubtless the key factor, but it remains a fact that the Chûshingura legend was created in Kamigata, where it was easier to fantasize about the historical event.  Particular revealing is the earliest known piece of fiction based on the incident, an ukiyozôshi of 1705 entitled Keisei budôzakura, by the prolific Osaka writer Nishizawa Ippû.[10] The entire incident is transposed to the pleasure quarters, with Asano (gAsamanosukeh) as a chonin playboy skilled in the martial arts and Kira (gKichikôh) as the pompous son of a nouveau riche merchant. The two conflict over a rivalry for the affections of the courtesan Kurahashi, and it is actually Kichikô who attacks Asamanosuke, reversing the historical order of aggression. Both are wounded, but Asamanosuke dies. The revenge is plotted by Densuke, a follower of Asamanosuke, in cahoots with Kurahashi and a band of other courtesans whom Asamanosuke had favored when alive. Densuke and fourteen courtesans attack Kichikô when he lets down his guard and visits the pleasure quarters, and then all commit suicide before Asamafs grave. Nowhere to be found in all of this is any trace of interest in samurai valor or loyalty: the real point of the story, argued Aoki Sentei, lay in the contrast of the gsuih sophistication of Asama and the stingy, boorish style of Kichikô. We are already at a long parodic remove from the event.

            The subsequent road to Kanadehon Chûshingura of 1748 has been carefully traced by scholars of Edo theater.[11] The pivotal year, it is now agreed, was 1710, the year after Tsunayoshifs death, when there appeared a cluster of plays that drew on the Akô Incident in elaborate and only thinly disguised detail. Other plays followed over the succeeding decades. Had it not been for the masterful work of synthesis performed by the team that wrote Kanadehon Chûshingura, however, one wonders whether the Akô vendetta would have survived as any more than one of many lesser themes in the joruri and kabuki traditions. Not only did Kanadehon Chûshingura provide the word gChûshingura,h but its tremendous popularity assured that the theme would be imitated on a far more extended and imaginative scale than ever before.

            Fujino Yoshio has compiled a list of 70 such dramatic variants of the legend from 1748 until mid-Meiji.[12] Certain interesting trends appear from this data. First, the overwhelming number of new productions until the mid-1810s were created in Kamigata: 24 in Osaka and 4 in Kyoto, versus only 6 in Edo. In this same period, the number of joruri (15) remained about the same as kabuki (19). After this, however, the pattern is reversed, with 30 new works in Edo-Tokyo in the period 1818-1892, and only 6 in Osaka; of these, only one was joruri. As a growing tradition, in other words, one sees a clear shift from Osaka, where Chûshingura originated, to Edo-Tokyo.

            It seems possible that this shift from west to east was paralleled by a change of emphasis within the tradition as a whole, from the erotic to the political. The theme of loyalty with which Kanadehon Chûshingura opens and closes, one might argue, is merely a veneer to make the authorities happy, and serves to divert attention from the real concerns of the Kamigata audiences, the erotic and romantic themes that run throughout the play. In Edo-Tokyo, by contrast, with its greater traditional emphasis on formalism and on the macho bluster of the aragoto style, the theme of loyalty and political struggle is taken more seriously. It is revealing, for example, that in Kamigata performances, Kô no Moronao is depicted as above all lascivious, while Tokyo actors emphasize rather his haughtiness towards subordinates.[13] Given the richness and complexity of the original joruri text, it is in fact possible to get quite different emphases from the play.

            Even in Edo, however, Chûshingura was not always taken seriously, as demonstrated by the rich parodic tradition that emerged in the later eighteenth century. The earliest of these appears to be Hoseidô Kisanjifs kibyôshi parody of 1779, Anadehon tsûjingura (roughly, gA Treasury of Those In the Know, A Guide to the Pitfalls of Lifeh).[14] In the preface, Kisanji writes that the loyalty of Ôboshi and the others was grand, but the real cause of the whole affair was Enfya Hanganfs utter lack of sophistication (tsû) in failing to realize that his bribe was too small. Thus having subverted the basic moral order of Chûshingura, Kisanji proceeds to his own version, in which everyone is utterly preoccupied with worldliness and with whether others are being too stingy or not. This was followed by numerous other kibyôshi parodies, as well as such similar subversions of the legend as Shikitei Sanbafs Chûshingura Henchikiron (1812), a gperverse argumenth that diametrically opposes the received wisdom on Chûshingura, and Tsuruya Nanbokufs kabuki Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (1825) began as a tale of one of the gdisloyal retainersh who did not participate in the vendetta.

The Popular Response: The Kôdan Retellings

            The late Edo period meanwhile saw the development of a new and rather different lineage of Chûshingura, in the genre of oral story-telling known as kôshaku (later kôdan) that flourished on well into the Meiji period. Although these variants derived in many ways from the stage traditions, they differed in claiming to be real stories of real people, so-called jitsuroku (gtrue recordsh), and hence used the actual names of the historical participants in the Akô Incident, rather than the pseudonyms of Kanadehon Chûshingura. As analyzed by Satô Tadao, the kôdan versions tended to emphasize the impetuous, heroic male aspects of the legend, minimizing the romantic and domestic complications that were an important part of joruri and kabuki. Thus the kôdan versions almost completely omit the story of the romance of Kanpei and Okaru that came to be so popular in the kabuki tradition. Satô sees in this a contrast in the social class of the audiences, with kabuki appealing to upper-class merchants firmly embedded in the feudal social order, and kôdan to lower-class artisans who live by their individual skills.[15]

            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.[16] In a sense, this division replicates the basic tension in the history of samurai values, between self-centered honor and self-negating loyalty.

            In the Meiji period, the kôdan versions\known by such titles as gThe 47 Samurai of Akôh (Akô shijûshichi-shi) or gBiographies of the Loyal Retainersh (Gishiden)\were carried over into the genre of rôkyoku (naniwa-bushi), which began in Osaka in the late Edo period and in which oral narration was provided with samisen accompaniment. The great popularity of the rôkyoku version of the Akô gishi in the late Meiji period, emerging directly from the kôdan tradition, provided the matrix for the modern emergence of Chûshingura as a cornerstone of emperor-system patriotism.

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.[17] 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 gtrueh 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 Nichinanfs Genroku kaikyo roku (Record of the Valiant Vendetta of Genroku), published in late 1909. The use of the word gGenrokuh signals Nichinanfs 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 gtruthh of the event marks an entirely new attitude towards the Chûshingura legacy.

            Nichinanfs two works, especially the first, were wildly popular in the patriotic climate of Japan following the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and lay the foundations for the understanding of the story as one of martial valor and devotion to superiors. Although more conscious of the gtruthh of the historical incident, Nichinan in no way compromised the essential emphasis on loyalty and valor. In this way, a more modern consciousness of the history of the Akô Incident was fused with the latent historicity of the kôdan tradition to yield a new rendering of the Chûshingura tradition, one particularly well suited to the times. The importance of historicity is revealed in comparing the fate of Chûshingura with that of the legend of the vendetta of the Soga brothers, which was a far longer and deeper tradition in many ways than Chûshingura, but which did not survive as a major theme in popular culture after the end of Meiji. The great liability of the Soga brothers is that they were almost impossible to recover for history, dating from a much earlier period and with virtually no documentary support.

            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.[18].  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 gworldh (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 kabukih 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). Mayamafs 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 Asanofs act might be interpreted as insulting to the emperor; this introduction of imperial loyalism into the minds of the 47 Ronin seems to be Mayamafs innovation, with no historical justification.[19]

            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 onefs superior, and rather to stress Ôishi Kuranosukefs personal affection for his lord.[20] 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.

            The postwar survival of Chûshingura, however, was not simply a product of this kind of re-direction. As Satô Tadao notes, Chûshingura was the only one of the gThree Great Vendettash of the Edo period that did in fact survive the war: nothing more was to be seen of the Soga Brothers or Araki Bunzaemon, names that are today virtually unknown to the majority of Japanese.[21] The advantage of Chûshingura lay once again in the ambiguities and complexities offered by the historical incident itself. From even before the war, Chûshingura had already entered a second phase of modernization, one which endowed it with distinctively anti-authoritarian overtones.

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 gpublich hung in the balance between bakufu and han, things could go either way. And so in the twentieth century, when gpublich 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 gdemocratich 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 Ryûnosukefs short story gÔishi Kuranosuke on a Certain Dayh (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.[22] It was modern in two senses. First, Akutagawa turned to the primary sources of the historical incident, in particular the account of Horikawa Denfemon, 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.[23] Another gmaterialisth 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 roninfs 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 Jirôfs Akô rôshi of 1928 (serialized the previous year in the Mainichi newspapers). The use of grôshih rather than ggishih 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 gloosenessh of Genroku politics and the decadence of Tsunayoshi and his animal-protection laws.[24] The rônin could thus easily be resurrected after the war as paragons not of loyalty, but of justice and honesty in politics.

            Osaragifs text played a key role in the 1960s transition from film to television as the basic medium for the mass propagation of Chûshingura. The year 1962 saw the last great feature-film production, Inagaki Hiroshifs Chûshingura, bringing 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 dramah (taiga dorama), of which a one-hour installment was shown every Sunday evening. Entitled Akô rôshi, it was based in Osaragifs 1927 novel. The power of television, authorized by the government network, brought the images of the 47 Ronin directly into the homes of millions of Japanese over a sustained period of time, reviving the legend just at the point that it was faltering. The production was accompanied by a new outpouring of books about the Akô Incident. It is surely not without significance that 1964 was also the year of the Tokyo Olympics: the triumphal return to the international scene of a democratized Japan was accompanied by a revival of the nationfs greatest legend, now itself 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.

            The 1982 NHK series was given the abstruse title Tôge no gunzô, translatable as something like ggroup portrait at the divide,h implying that the Genroku period was a kind of historical watershed. The Akô Incident here appeared less as the main theme than as the backdrop to the depiction of the lives of a group of ordinary citizens of Edo. According to the analysis of Gregory Barrett, gsentimentality was used to fashion a contemporary message of patriotism through the treatment everyone receives,h as reflected in the lenient treatment of Kira, of the Akô retainers who were not loyal, and even of the notorious shogun Tsunayoshi himself. Thus, Barrett argues, gNHKfs Chûshingura bears a remarkable resemblance to the Japanese family drama in which no one is to blame for arguments resulting from misunderstandings that are ironed out in the final reconciliation scene.h[25] By this process of watering down and deflection of emphasis away from the theme of either loyalty or protest, the Chûshingura legend has been further adapted to postwar needs.

Re-enter History

            The kind of glenient treatmenth of old villains that Barrett detects in the 1982 NHK series, however, reflects more than just a pious wish to show Japan as one big happy family. Rather it emerges from an on-going process of critically reexamining the legend and challenging some of its central verities by turning back to the historical event. In a sense, this is in the spirit of discovering the grealh Akô Incident pioneered earlier in the century by Fukumoto Nichinan, and carried forth in a more explicit mode of debunking by Tamura Eitarô in his argument of the 1930s that the Akô vendetta was no more than a campaign to win new employment.

            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 gtruthh 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 Asanofs grudge against Kira.[26] This means that it is anybodyfs guess, and as a result a great many theories have been put forward.

            Take, for example, the episode on the Pine Corridor incident that appeared in NHKfs gInvitation to Historyh (Rekishi e no shôtai) series, in which academic historians, amateur historians, and writers of historical fiction are all happily mixed together to debate a particular issue. One major topic of discussion in this particular program was the so-called gsalt-farm theory,h deriving from the fact that both Akô and Kira Yoshinakafs own domain of Kira-chô, located 40 km southeast of Nagoya on Atsumi Bay, just happened to be producers of salt. It was the novelist Ozaki Shirô\a native of Kira-chô\who first proposed in 1949 that the incident had its origins in a salt rivalry between Asano, whose Akô salt was of superior quality, and Kira, who had easier access to the Edo market. Of the several versions of the salt-farm theory, the most common envisions Kira sending spies to Akô to steal the secrets of superior salt technology, thereby provoking Asano and eventually the Matsu-no-rôka attack. Never mind that there is not a shred of evidence for the theory: the NHK show made a virtue of this by featuring a lengthy discussion by a leading expert of Edo salt production, who conclusively demonstrated that the industrial spy theory was in fact implausible, since the geological and labor conditions in Kira-chô would have made Akôfs techniques useless anyway.

            Also offered on the same show was a novel theory centering on the abnormal psychology of Asano, proposed by Anzai Norio, a specialist in the gpsychology of historyh from Ôtemon Gakuin University in Osaka and the author of such works as A Psychological Walking Tour of Kyoto and The Psychology of the Tea Ceremony. Professor Anzai diagnoses Asano as a clear case of an obsessive-compulsive personality type (nenchaku kishitsu), characterized by exaggerated attachment to form and ceremony, extreme preoccupation with cleanliness, and a revulsion against money\naturally extending to the offering of bribes. What actually happened in the Pine Corridor, however, was a kind of epileptic fit to which this type of personality is susceptible and which allegedly ran in the Asano family. The immediate provocation of the attack, Anzai speculates, was a sudden burst of light that struck Asanofs eye, triggering what is known as a gilluminant seizureh (kôgensei hossa).[27] Anzai admits that the sun was high and the sky cloudy at the time of the attack, but proposes that the contrasting pattern of light and dark on the floor would have been sufficient.

            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 gtruthh 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 Motohikofs 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.

            In the entire body of debunking and revisionism about the Akô Incident, the two themes that stand out are the reevaluation of Kira Yoshinaka and of the gdisloyalh retainers who failed to participate in the attack. Each of these themes has a considerable history. In particular, the rescue of Kira from his villainous fate, emphasizing his role as a model lord in his own domain, has been pressed since the 1930s, and has become especially active in the postwar period. The town of Kira-chô itself has predictably made much of this theme, and the temple with Kirafs local grave has become a popular tourist site, attracting some 10,000 visitors a year.[28] Various recent books have been devoted entirely to telling the Kira story, such as Fumidate Terukofs non-fiction Kira Kôzukenosuke no Chûshingura or Morimura Seiichifs two-volume historical novel, Kira Chûshingura, both published in 1988.

            The writer of the 1980s who has made the most imaginative use of what might be called ganti-Chûshingurah themes was Inoue Hisashi, a virtuoso parodist who looks back to Edo popular fiction (gesaku) for inspiration. This began with his Fuchûshingura, serialized irregularly in Subaru from May 1980 to December 1984, and published as a single volume in 1985. It is, the title tells us, a gTreasury of Disloyal Retainers,h a series of nineteen portraits of those retainers of Asano who did not participate in the vendetta. Inouefs takes as point of departure the argument that the 47 Ronin accounted for fewer than one in six of the 308 former retainers of Asano, and that it would clearly be a mistake to see this minority as in any way typical.[29] For a real gmodelh of Japanese behavior, one needs rather to turn to the gdisloyalh retainers. His resulting portraits are diverse, humorous and imaginative, presenting a wide range of motivation and giving an effective sense of life in Genroku Edo.

            Inoue followed the disloyal retainers with a new characterization of Kira in the play Inu no adauchi, written for a performance at the Komatsuza in Tokyo in September 1988.[30] The play recreates the final two hours of Kirafs life in real time, from the point at which he goes to hide in a charcoal shed when the Akô band attacks. Hiding in the shed with him are a dog that had been a personal gift from Tsunayoshi, various personal retainers and maids, and a thief who just happens to have snuck into the mansion on the night of the attack. In the final scene, Kira wakes up to the fact that he has been little more than a victim of Tsunayoshifs regime, and grasps Ôishifs true intent as rebellion against the shogun. Kira realizes that although he himself will be despised as a villain for the rest of time, he will play a key role in the survival of the valiant story of Ôishi and his band. Sensing that he and Ôishi thus share a common glorious destiny, Kira in triumph leaves the charcoal shed to meet his fate, declaring that gNow Kôsuke-no-suke goes forth to live!h

Maruya Saiichifs gWhat is Chûshingura?h

            Even more than Inoue Hisashi, the writer who did the most to revive Chûshingura in the 1980s was Maruya Saiichi, whose Chûshingura to wa nanika became a bestseller after its appearance in 1984 and has continued to inspire new writings in and about the legend. It is difficult in brief compass to do justice to the complexity of Maruyafs various arguments, or to the sheer interest of the book, with its wealth of fascinating and arcane detail about the Akô Incident and Edo culture in general. Some of his major emphases, however, can be quickly outlined.

            Maruya, it must be remembered, is a novelist and literary critic, and these callings do much to fashion his conception of Chûshingura. His basic approach is seen most clearly in his explicit use of gChûshingurah to refer to both to the historical event and to Kanadehon Chûshingura, distinguishing the two as gjiken to shite no Chûshingurah and gshibai to shite no Chûshingura.h This in turn reflects his central theme, that the historical Akô vendetta was literally a gdramatich incident (gekiteki na jiken), in the sense that the 47 Ronin were reenacting the vendetta of the Soga Brothers as it had been understood through Edo kabuki performances. In short, Maruya proposes, the historical Akô Incident was essentially a literary event\a new and daring conflation of the role of history and literature in the Chûshingura legend as a whole.

            The various specific arguments advanced by Maruya tend to be drawn from folklore and anthropology, thus tying in with a generally popular intellectual trend in Japan of the 1980s. He argues that the vendettas of the Soga Brothers and the 47 Ronin were both attempts to appease the vengeful spirits (onryô) of their dead masters (or father in the Soga case), drawing on Japanese folklore research on onryô. Maruyafs arguments here bear a strong resemblance to the those of Umehara Takeshi in Kakusareta jûjika (1972), in which it is argued that the rebuilding of Hôryûji after the fire of 672 was intended in many complicated ways as an effort to ward off the avenging spirit of Shôtoku Taishi, angry at the termination of his line. Indeed, Maruyafs entire approach shares much with that of Umehara: both are contemptuous of established academic theories, both drawn to riddles and mysteries, both prone to seek explanations in hidden spiritual forces, and both are compelling writers.

            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 Maruyafs most controversial allegation, he carried this theme of a disguised rebellion over to Kanadehon Chûshingura, which he interprets as a kind of gcarnivalh 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.

            The first reviews of Maruyafs book were uniformly enthusiastic, but in March 1985, a lengthy and highly critical review by Suwa Haruo, a historian of Edo theater, appeared in the journal Shingeki. Suwa systematically argued against most of Maruyafs arguments about the meaning of the Soga drama and its impact on the Akô affair. Maruya answered Suwa in a scathing counter-attack in Gunzô in May 1985, leading to a counter-reply by Suwa and then a counter-counter-reply by Maruya. Meanwhile, Maruya was attacked on another front, by the anthropologist Yamaguchi Masao, who accused him of both misunderstanding and misapplying western anthropological theory in his notion of Chûshingura as gcarnival.h[31]

            Without going into the many complexities of all the arguments involved, let me simply say that on strictly historical grounds, I tend to side with Suwa Haruo, who claims that Maruyafs theories simply cannot be proved. Maruya himself recognized this in one of his responses to Suwa, claiming that since he was dealing with deep, hidden motivations, one could not expect to find any direct evidence. Time and again, Maruya claims to have a special sense of the superstitious and magical (jujutsuteki, one of his favorite words) beliefs of the common people of Edo, enabling him to see through to the true motivations of the Akô ronin, which have been misrepresented over the centuries by Confucian scholars. Here, as in his reliance on the findings of folklorists, Maruya clearly sees himself at practicing a kind of minshûshi, or gpeoplefs history.h

            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 Maruyafs book, quotes approvingly the remark of a science fiction writer who wondered why Maruya, gwith that much knowledge, didnft 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 boomh in 1986, beginning with New Yearfs Eve when a Nihon Television production of Chûshingura achieved an audience share of 17 per cent when competing against NHKfs 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 Hisashifs Fuchûshingura appeared and the first volume of Morimura Seiichifs new epic historical novel of Chûshingura was published in October.[32]

            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 detectiveh story mentioned earlier) in 1954.[33] 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-chanh 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 jisamah (something like gGrandpa Kirah). 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.

            Even if Chûshingura does not ultimately win over the younger generation in Japan, however, history lies in wait to provide one more grand opportunity for a new lease on life. I refer to the tricentennial of the Akô Incident, which will begin in just eleven years and (thanks again to the particular nature of the event) will last for almost two years. It is hard to believe that there are not publishers, producers, and politicians in Japan who are already beginning to plan for the event: if Chûshingura is lively in the 1980s, it boggles the mind to think what it might be in 2001-2003.

*          *          *

Epilogue: After the 300th Anniversary

            After completing the above essay in early 1990, I forgot about Chûshingura for 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 organized a workshop in England in August 1999 and a conference in New York in March 2003, and taught both graduate and undergraduate seminars about Chûshingura in spring 2002.[34] I profited greatly from the stimulation of colleagues and students and learned much more about the history of this immensely complicated chapter in Japanese history\although I know that I have barely scratched the surface. My basic approach and concerns have not really changed, however, and with the exception of the small emendations indicated in the notes, I find myself in basic agreement with what I wrote in 1990.[35]

            Here I would simply like to provide an update on what has happened to the Chûshingura phenomenon in Japan in the intervening thirteen years. I noted in 1990 that the younger generation of Japanese seemed to have precious little interest in Chûshingura, and that most Chûshingura-related books of the 1980s were written by the prewar generation. I must now qualify at least the second assertion: the continued outpouring of Chûshingura books in the 1990s revealed the emergence of a generation of postwar-born Japanese with a consuming interest in the history of the Akô incident. Not only were an increasing percentage of the new books written by a younger generation, but there also predictably appeared respectable web sites about the historical Akô incident, proof that a new generation was taking advantage of a new technology.[36]

            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.[37] 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 Dramah 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.[38] 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 celebrations of 2001-03 were muted and modest. Local institutions with a vested interest in Gishi-related tourism, notably Sengakuji temple in Tokyo and Ôishi Shrine in Akô, mounted massive fund-raising campaigns to build new structures to celebrate the tercentenary, but public interest on the whole was muted. It was certainly not the gmind-bogglingh celebration that I had predicted. It is particularly revealing that events related to the 300th anniversary of the night attack, in late 2003, were almost entirely performances of the classical theatrical versions of Kanadehon Chûshingura on the kabuki and bunraku stages.

            These events now lead me to predict that whatever happens to Chûshingura in the future, it will be television and not printed books that will be the decisive factor. Apart from the periodic year-long NHK dramas, Chûshingura regularly appears in various guises in many other TV programs, and these turn out to be heavily concentrated in the month of December. The pattern began from the start in 1953, the first year of public television broadcasting, when both NHK and Tokyo TV showed special Chûshingura dramas on December 14 and 15. The heavy concentration of Chûshingura themes in December has continued until this day, as clearly revealed in a detailed chronology of Chûshinura-related television programs that appears in a series of materials edited by Akô City. This shows that in the four decades from 1953 to 1992, over one thousand programs related to Chûshingura have been shown, of which 52 per cent were in the month of December, for an average of 14.2 Chûshingura shows every December\versus an average of 1.2 shows each of the other months.[39] It seems clear that it has been primarily the medium of television that has ingrained Chûshingura into the year-end seasonal consciousness of the Japanese nation. As the historian Miyazawa Seiichi has noted, Chûshingura has become an gannual celebrationh (nenjû gyôji), as though reliving the story of the revenge of the Akô Gishi at the end of the calendar year might provide a cleansing and cathartic effect that is appropriate to the season.[40]

            It seems therefore best to think now of Chûshingura in 21st-century Japan as more of a national ghabith 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

Note: When originally prepared in 1990, this list contained thirty titles. Since then, new bibliographies and electronic resources have enabled the more complete list below of fifty-six titles, which is still selective, excluding about two dozen books considered too marginal or narrow. Reprints or anthologies of older works have also been omitted. The books below are classified into six types: D (drama, excluding TV scripts), F (fiction), G (general), H (history), K (kabuki-related, including ukiyo-e), and L (literature other than joruri and kabuki, mostly Edo senryu and novels). For many more Chûshingura-related short stories, plays, and TV scenarios that were published singly in journals or anthologies, see the bibliography of novels and plays in Akô-shi Sômubu Shishi Hensanshitsu, ed., Chûshingura, vol. 6 (1997), in which pp. 399-408 cover the 1980s. For a chronology of about 240 Chûshingura-related television programs (excluding repeats) shown in the 1980s, see Akô-shi Sômubu Shishi Hensanshitsu, ed., Chûshingura, vol. 5 (1993), pp. 854-76.


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. Shunfyôdô 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]

1982.11     Kayahara Teruo. Kôshô Akô jiken: Bohi tanbô I. Osaka: Tôhô Shuppan. [H]

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 gChûshingurah.  Exhib. cat. [G]

1984.03     Suwa Haruo, ed. Akô jiken ni kansuru bungei to shisô.  Gakushûin University. [L] 

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]

1985.12     Komuro Kinnosuke. Chûshingura no jikenbo. Tokyo Shoseki. [H]

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     Akita to Ikumi to Tamiko-chan. eHeh, Chûshinguraa, nanda sore?f to iu kata ni pittari no Chûshingura desu. Gogatsu Shobô. [G]

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]

1989.03     Yagi Seiichi. Chûshingura, vol. 1. Akô City. [H]

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 (Hiroshigefs Chûshingura prints).

2     In actual fact, the term gChûshingurah 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 jikenh 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     Kirafs name is read by some as Yoshihisa.

5     John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and Albert Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1973), p. 411.

6     Paul Varley, Japanese Culture, 3rd ed. (University of Hawaii Press, 1984), p. 184.

7     Jordan Sand, gChûshingura as a Media Event: Reporting and Documentation of the Akô Incident,h seminar paper, Columbia University, 1989.  

8     Kôsaka Jirô, Genroku o-tatami bugyô no nikki: Owari hanshi no mita ukiyo (Chûkô shinsho, 1984), pp. 180-183. [Update: I now believe that Kôsaka was wrong, since he failed to notice that Asahi Bunzaemonfs 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 related to the Akô incident. I may have underestimated the degree to which information about the night attack spread quickly throughout Japan, although I remain doubtful that the response was uniformly positive.]

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.

11    Shively, op.cit., gives a detailed summary in English. The seminal work in this area was Yuda Yoshio, gKanadehon Chûshingura seiritsushi,h Kokubungaku: Kaishaku to kanshô, December 1967, reprinted in Yuda, Jôruri shi ronkô (Chûô kôronsha, 1975), pp. 359-370.

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.

14    This and three other kibyôshi parodies were the topic of the seminar paper by Iori Joko, gChûshingura Parodies in Kibyôshi,h seminar paper, Columbia University, 1989. Anadehon Chûshingura appears in an annotated edition in Koike Masatane, et al., eds., Edo no gesaku ehon, zokkan 1 (Shakai shisôsha, 1984). [Update: A kibyôshi dating one year earlier than Anadehon Chûshingura appears in a list of forty-three Chûshingura-related kibyôshi in Sawada Michiko, geChûshingura-monof no kibyôshi,h Aoyama gobun 9 (March 1979), pp. 65-66.]

15    Satô Tadao, Chûshingura: Iji no keifu (Asahi Shinbunsha, 1976), p. 88.

16    It might be argued that the two words gKanadehonh and gChûshingurah 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 girohah and gshijûshichih) 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    Mayamafs 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 Mayamafs 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. Mayamafs Genroku Chûshingura served as the basis for Mizoguchi Kenjifs 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.

22    Akutagawafs story was translated and analyzed by Michael Ainge, gNogami Yaeko and Akutagawa Ryûnosuke: Two More Voices Join the Chûshingura Legend,h seminar paper, Columbia University, 1989.  

23    The work is mentioned in Matsushima, op.cit., p. 223, as having appeared in, 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 kagaku no 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 crisis in the feudal class of the Genroku period that led Tsunayoshi to put increasing pressure on the daimyo through forced confiscations and by using pawns like Kira to exact bribes. He saw the rônin avengers as reacting out not from concern for their real interests, which would have led to a revolutionary alliance with the unpropertied classes, but from ideological distractions with high ideals. Hani doubtless considred the Akô affair to have lessons for Japan of the late 1920s, when the state was increasingly oppressive and many intellectuals were unemployed.]

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 Asanofs 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 panich 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 gPokemonh that had bright flashing lights.]

28    Kira was studied by Sue Kawashima, gKira Yoshihisa, A Tragic Hero: A Neglected Perspective,h seminar paper, Columbia University, 1989. [Update: The real grave of Kira is at the temple of Manshôin in Nakano-ku, Tokyo; the one in Kira-chô is a secondary grave.]

29   Inoue made these points in a taidan with Morimura Seiichi, Shûkan Asahi, May 21, 1982.

30    I rely here on the description of the play in Nawata Kazuo, geChûshinguraf 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.] 

34    The 1999 workshop was held in at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, under the generous sponsorship of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC), and the 2003 conference at Columbia University was supported by the Weatherhead Program Development Fund of the East Asian Institute, Columbia University. These efforts have resulted in a series entitled gThree Hundred Years of Chûshingurah that began in the journal Monumenta Nipponica with issue 58:1 (Spring 2003) and will continue into 2004.

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).

36    The great majority of web sites about Chûshingura are (like web sites about anything) amateurish and of no interest, but two in particular stand out as serious efforts (albeit by amateurs) to engage in online history. Particularly impressive is the site of Tanaka Mitsurô (born ca. 1960), called gLong Ivyh (Rongaibi / Nagatsuta) after the area of Yokohama where he lives. Also of use and interest is the gAkô Gishi Shiryôkanh site of Satô Makoto (, who is a bit younger than Tanaka.

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 gishih 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 eChûshinguraf gensô (Aoki Shoten, 2001), p. 8.