The 47 Rônin are Introduced
to the World
A. B. Mitford
by Makiko Arima
A. B. Mitford, "The Forty Seven
Ronins" in Tales of Old Japan (1871), pp. 15-41.
[Insert scanned image
Whoever told A. B. Mitford the story
of the forty-seven rônin clearly told a different version from the one
told to Alcock. Mitford might have translated a Japanese version of
the story. In his retelling, Mitford ends the story by stating that
the legend paints a "picture of fierce heroism which it is impossible
not to admire" (Mitford 37). He begins his account of the forty-seven
rônin with a description of Sengakuji, where the forty-seven and Asano
are buried. Mitford then proceeds to tell the story of Chûshingura in
great detail. He begins from the situation that Asano was in, with the
Imperial ambassadors visiting Edo, and proceeds to tell the rest of
the story fairly accurately as well. He ends with an in-depth follow-up
to the seppuku of the forty-seven retainers. He conveys a legendary
aspect of the Akô incident, not a historical account, but merely repeating
what he had heard in the oral tradition.
Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford came
from a distinguished British literary family. From the time of his birth
in 1837, Mitford moved from country to country as his parents lived
in various European countries. In 1865, he took up a post in Beijing
and began his studies in Chinese. He became an attaché in the British
legation to Edo from 1866 to 1870. The time of his arrival coincided
with the Meiji Restoration upheaval, which he witnessed and experienced
during his stay. Mitford also began studying Japanese upon his arrival
in Edo under Sir Ernst Satow. In 1873, he retired from the Foreign Office.
He is most famous for his Tales of Old Japan (1871).
Comparison to actual history:
Mitford's attempt to retell the story as accurately as he understood
it is apparent. He most likely believed everything he was told as factual,
for he takes bold stances on some ambiguous aspects of the story. For
example, he states that Kira "conceived a great hatred" against Asano
and the other appointed daimyo (Kamei Sama) due to their "mean and unworthy"
presents (Mitford 20). He, therefore, made "laughing-stocks" out of
them in their duties welcoming the imperial envoys, instead of teaching
and guiding them, as the story of Kira's making Asano tie "the ribbon
of a sock" (Mitford 23). This "sock incident" is the final push that
forces Asano to draw his sword. This is an aspect of the legend that
has no factual basis, but Kira's greedy nature is well known. Mitford
also adds an anecdote on Kamei Sama's intentions to kill Kira before
Asano. He most likely retrieved this part of the legend from the third
act of Kanadehon Chûshingura, in which the daimyo Wakasanosuke and his
retainer Honzô take the same actions as Kamei Sama and his councilor.
Similar to the legend of Kamei Sama, Mitford infuses the legend of Murakami
Kiken into his retelling of Chûshingura. Kiken appears in Mitford's
account as a "Satsuma man." The man from Satsuma first appears as an
angry critic of Ôishi's. The man cursed and spat into the face of a
drunken Ôishi, lying on the street. The "Satsuma man" called Ôishi a
"faithless beast" that was "unworthy of the name of a Samurai" (Mitford
25). After the attack, the "Satsuma man" goes to Sengakuji, and performs
seppuku in front of Ôishi's grave in apology for what he had said before.
According to James Murcoch, a man from Satsuma actually did erect a
stone in honor of Hayano Sampei, who killed himself over serving another
master nearly a year prior to the night attack. (Murdoch, James.
A History of Japan. Vol. 3. London: Paul, 1926. 226.) This is legend
of Murakami Kiken is well known in Japan, and Mitford must have heard
it from someone, and included it in his retelling.
Mitford also creates a dramatic ending to Kira's life, as he adds a
battle between Kira's top swordsmen and Ôishi's son Chikara after Kira
is discovered in his hiding place. The battle is won by the rônins,
and the forty-seven proceed to show respect for his high rank by allowing
him to commit seppuku. However, Mitford depicts Kira as a coward unable
to kill himself, and so Ôishi finally avenges his lord by cutting off
Kira's head. Such dramatization adds to Kira's villainous nature and
the virtuosity of the forty-seven rônin that makes for a better heroic
Story vs. History:
Mitford over-dramatizes climactic parts of the story of the forty-seven
rônin, but he gives a very detailed account of the Japanese legend.
He provides background information on Japan's society, and the social
and political climate of Japan while he is writing his account. He gives
accurate descriptions of the geography, places the events in historical
context, and names every significant character's name, each city, and
province. His attention to detail reflects his attempt to retell the
story as was told to him, and as close to the actual course of events--as
he understood it--as possible, which results in a fairly accurate account
of the Akô incident, embellished by famous legends as the story of Kamei
and Murakami Kiken. Mitford also seems genuinely interested in the story
of the loyal retainers, as he visits Sengakuji (which he actually lived
near during his years in Japan), and examines relics pertaining to the
forty-seven retainers. He even transcribes actual documents that the
retainers had on them when they committed seppuku at the end of his
account. These documents are statements by the loyal retainers on their
reasons for their attacking and killing Kira. Mitford also realizes
the significance of Sengakuji to the Japanese, as he observes citizens
paying homage to the 47 rônin's graves. One should also take note of
his opening his retelling with a scenic description of Sengakuji, and
ends with personal accounts pertaining to Sengakuji.