The 47 Rônin are Introduced
to the World
by Makiko Arima
Rutherford Alcock, Capital of the
Tycoon (London, 1863), pp. 357-9.
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Rutherford Alcock retells Chûshingura
hastily without going into much detail, but simply states the main events
of the famous Japanese legend. He does not give any background information
on the time period of the Akô incident, nor does he even mention a single
character's name. He simply starts with the palace incident, in which
a "small Daimio" has several feuds with a "Tycoon's Council of State,"
and therefore the daimyo decides to avenge himself. Alcock then briefly
goes over the subsequent events, in which the daimyo fails in his attacking
the Council, commits seppuku, and asks his retainers to take revenge
on his enemy for him. Alcock pays little attention to the forty-seven
rônin's backgrounds, and their preparation in avenging their lord's
death. He finishes his retelling of the story by reading into Japanese
society of the time, and critiquing their reverence of the violent forty-seven
rônin. He has a difficult time understanding the Japanese "character
and moral training" for creating heroes from Chûshingura (Alcock 369).
In addition, Alcock's retelling is the first account to introduce the
Akô incident to the West, and therefore, evidence that the Japanese
had been telling the story.
Born in 1809, Rutherford Alcock was the
first British minister to Japan. Alcock had much experience in Asia
before his appointment as minister to Japan, for he held various posts
as British consul in the southern coast of China, including Shanghai.
In 1858, he became British consul general in Japan, and arrived in Edo
the following year. Once he arrived, he pressured the Japanese to open
trade with the British, and also demanded protection for the Westerners,
who were in danger of attacks from Japanese anti-Bakufu radicals. In
1859, Alcock proceeded to become the British minister to Japan. He settled
in Tôzenji in Takanawa. His legation then experienced a frightful night
that would influence Alcock subsequently: Mito rônin attacked his legation
on July 5, 1861. In 1862, he returned to London and wrote about his
experience in Japan in The Capital of the Tycoon (1863), which
included the retelling of Chûshingura. The following year, in 1863,
Alcock sailed to Edo again, and gathered English, American, French,
and Dutch ships to attack and destroy shore batteries of the Chôshû
domain for their previous attacks on Western ships. In 1864, differences
with foreign secretary Lord Russell led him back to England. Alcock
spent the rest of his career, until his retirement in 1871, as the British
minister in Beijing.
According to a footnote in James Murdoch's History of Japan, Alcock
"took the very worst view of the character and disposition of the samurai
." ( Murdoch, James. A History of Japan. Vol. 3. London: Paul, 1926.
235.) He fervently disapproved of the samurai's tendencies to attack
unarmed men. Murdoch sympathized with him, for Alcock's legation was
the victim of two night attacks by a band of samurai.
Not only did Alcock dislike the samurai, but also the assassination
of Ii Naosuke (Ii Kamon -no-kami) by Mito and Satsuma rônin affects
his retelling of Chûshingura in The Capital of the Tycoon. Prime
Minister Ii Naosuke made trade treaties, and pushed these treaties through,
while receiving anti-foreign sentiments from Satsuma and Mito. After
Ii Naosuke pushed for these treaties, violence ensued. The Prime Minister
cracked down on these violent radicals, which is precisely when Alcock
became British minister to Japan. In 1860, a year after Alcock's arrival,
Ii Naosuke was assassinated. Ii Naosuke's assassination triggers Alcock
to retell the story of Chûshingura.
Comparison to actual history:
Alcock does not spend much effort in writing on the legend of Chûshingura,
but simply retells the basic outline of the story. The major flaw in
his retelling the legend as a historical account is that he does not
state any facts. He gives no years, names, or material evidence to back
his story. There are also minor differences in Alcock's version compared
to the historical incidents. The first noticeable difference is the
daimyo's (Asano) return to his own house after he failed to kill the
Council (Kira). Historically, a neighboring domain confined him. Back
in his own home, the daimyo made his own preparations to commit seppuku,
in front of all his retainers-including his secretary (Ôishi). The daimyo,
after cutting his abdomen open, hands his "short sword" to his secretary,
and asks him to avenge his death. Again, there are discrepancies between
Alcock's version and the historical incident, in which the daimyo did
not get a chance to talk to his retainers. Alcock then cuts out a time
span of roughly a year, and jumps to the night attack. Interestingly,
he goes into much detail on the search for the Council in his castle
on the night of the attack. He goes into depth on how the Council hid
himself and a friend in a secret chamber. He even goes into how one
of the vengeful retainers stabs him through the partition, but the Council
wipes his own blood off the spear when it is drawn out of his flesh,
so that the spear would not give away his hiding place. Eventually,
the loyal retainers discover the Council and his friend, and decapitate
the two. After they complete their mission, the forty-seven rônin commit
seppuku. This is different from the historical account, in which they
all wait for the Bakufu's decision on their faiths. The complete omission
of the Bakufu is a curious aspect of Alcock's version of Chûshingura.
Story vs. History:
Rutherford Alcock begins his retelling of Chûshingura with these words:
"A strange history--strange if true, and scarcely less so if invented.
Not less but more illustrative, perhaps, in the latter case." This opening
refers to Ii Naosuke's assassination. The Mito rônin assassinated the
Prime Minister at Sakuradamon-gai on March 3, 1860 to avenge their Prince
whom the regency under Ii Naosuke accused of murder and banished from
the capital. If "there be any truth in the popular version," The Mito
rônin took Ii Naosuke's head to their Prince, who spat on the severed
head, which the rônin then displayed in Kyoto for two hours as a traitor,
before finally tossing the head back into Ii's mansion.
This is the context in which Alcock starts retelling the legend of Chûshingura--almost
as another story exemplifying the fanatic loyalty shown by the Japanese
samurai toward their daimyos. The fact that he does not mention the
role of the Bakufu or any of the names of the historic figures in his
retelling also sheds light onto his perception of the legend; Chûshingura
is a story, not history. Alcock's aforementioned sentence on invented
history adds to his perception of the Akô incident as a mere "invention"
as well. But he also conceived invented history, as the story of Chûshingura,
as "more illustrative." He considers his observations on the role of
legends in assessing their influence on the "character, as well as the
habits of thought and action of a nation."