Sengakuji and the graves of the 47 ronin

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Το Σενγκάκουτζι και οι τάφοι των 47 Ρόνιν

Είναι μια συννεφιασμένη, αλλά όχι βροχερή, μέρα στο Τόκυο. Επικρατεί μια γενικευμένη βαρεμάρα. Τις προάλλες διάβαζα ένα άρθρο για τους 47 ρόνιν, ανακαλύπτοντας ότι οι τάφοι τους βρίσκονται στο Τόκυο και είναι επισκέψιμοι. Ποιοί είναι αυτοί οι 47…

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It’s a cloudy, but not yet rainy day in Tokyo. The other day, I was reading an article about the 47 ronin and realized that they are buried in Tokyo. Who are these 47 you ask? They are the reason why you know the word ‘harakiri’ and ‘samurai’, they are the ideal of the honor code of bushido (武士道 = the way of the samurai). Let’s visit Sengakuji temple, the Buddhist cemetery where the 47 masterless samurai are buried next to their ex-lord.

Some of the graves of the 47 ronin in Sengakuji temple

The aforementioned Sengakuji temple is located in Minato district, the business district of Tokyo. Although it is traditionally accessed via a train station with the same name, it is quite close to the newly built station of JR Yamanote line, Tanakawa Gateway, which opened in 2020 in light of the Tokyo Olympics. The official name of the temple is Soto sect Edo Sangakuji Temple Manmatsuyama Sengakuji Temple (曹洞宗 江戸三ヶ寺 萬松山 泉岳寺) and belongs to the Soto sect of Buddhism.

I went the opposite way, I reached the temple from the side of Shirokane Takanawa station. As I got out of the train, after climbing flocks of stairs, I arrived in front of a magnificent tree. It is an oak tree, what is left from the old residence of lord Hosokawa. This feudal lord used to govern Kumamoto domain, at the sourthern island of Kyushu. His garden was the location where 17 out of the 47 samurai of Ako died by ceremonial suicide in the year 1703b.c. Moving further, I pass by a location with the elongated name “the site where Oishi Yoshitaka and 16 others demonstrated unswerving loyalty”. The guy mentioned supposedly committed suicide under the tree mentioned before, so how did he show his loyalty even further? Now, you are probably asking, why did they die by suicide, how did they preserve their honor and what the hell is Ako? I will explain.

The large oak tree in Hosokawa garden
Small jizo statue in Hoanji temple

Sengakuji temple is related to an incident known as “Ako incident” or the Chushingura (忠臣蔵) revenge. The Chinese characters describe the core of the story, mentioning the loyalty of the retainers of lord Ako. The story of Chushingura became a theatrical memorial of their honor even from the year 1748, a frew decades after their death. The then-lord of Ako was Asano Naganori (with title Takumi-no-kami) and his domain was in central Japan, close to present-day Kobe. The official story goes as this: lord Asano was responsible for hosting some shogunate representatives that were visiting Edo, the old Tokyo. He was supposed to receive guidance from Kira Yoshinaka, a superior with whom the relationship was strained. Being a Kozuke-no-suke, Kira was an official administrator of the Shogunate, charged with supervising the feudal lords. Kira allegedly hated Asano and was treating him in a way not fitting to a samurai. Asano soon lost his patience, and being a human that he is, decided to take his dagger and kill Kira inside Edo castle (the current imperial palace). He was kinda goofy and failed to wound him seriously, save from some scratches. Of course, the murder attempt on Kira would not remain unanswered, considering that he dared to pull out a weapon inside Edo castle, where it was prohibited. Although there was a law dictating that both parties involved in a brawl receive equal punishment, it seems that Kira had the proper connections to avoid any punishment, while simultaneously Asano was sentenced to death by seppuku. Seppuku is the proper name of what is known to most people as ‘harakiri’, namely suicide by plunging a sword to the belly. In order to be fitting of a dishonored lord, the ritual must take place inside the garden of another lord. While lord Asano could regain his honor by performing seppuku, his estate was confiscated and his clan stopped having any rights to lordship. The retainers of lord Ako were visibly unhappy with the decision and petitioned for the family title of lord to be reinstated, but their demand was discarded. Since there was now no lord to guide them, they were demoted to ronin, masterless samurai, but didn’t stay put long enough. They created a plan, by which for almost two years they were going to pretend to be drunk, succumbed to vices, forgotten by life dishonored samurai. If it were me, I would call it summer break, but it is not time to start fighting with historians. The 2 years pass and the 47 ronin of Ako meet in Edo in order to avenge their master. Their leader was Oishi Kura-no-suke Yoshitaka, who on 14th December 1702 led the rest to Kira’s residence. They caught him by surprise and killed him, successfully giving a righteous punishment to Kira. Afterwards, they proceeded to inform lord Asano of their deed and walked until his grave in Sengakuji temple, bringing Kira’s head with them to leave it at his grave. Recognizing that they committed murder, they surrendered to the shogunate. As punishment, they were asked to perform seppuku on 4th of February 1703. In the end, they were all burried in Sengakuji, next to their beloved lord Asano.

The garden in Hoanji
A well in the center of Tokyo

I continue walking and finally reach a small temple, called Hoanji (保安寺). It features a zen garden with a small pond and stone lanterns. I turn to the side, passing in front of a well, did you know that wells exist randomly in Tokyo? Turning in a claustrophobic alley, I pass next to a school and a graveyard. It is not the graveyard that I am looking for. There is a proverb saying “The Japanese are born in Shinto, married in Christianity and die Buddhists”, describing the customs that are dictating social practices at each stage of life. Consequently, graveyards generally belong to Buddhist temples and funerals are performed according to Buddhist tradition.

The main gate of Sengkuji temple, displaying its name

After moving like tetris in the alleys, I finally reach the main gate of Sengakuji. Back to the original topic, we don’t even know what happened and Kira spat with Asano. Maybe Kira was one more corrupt official, or Asano was easily offended. Somehow they ended with Kira calling Asano a villager and the rest is history.

A statue of Oishi Yoshitaka

Next to the wooden gate there is a statue of the leader of the retainers, Oisi. Kira’s security was on high alarm, as he waited for Asano’s followers to express their displeasure in one way or the other, but Oisi decided to take his revenge cold. He preferred to hide by pretending to be a drunkard, to the point where people started making fun of him and kicking him in the street. He endured all this theater in order not to catch Kira’s attention. The other ronin did the same, in fact it is said that one of them married the daughter of the carpenter of Kira’s house, in order to obtain the house plans to organize their attack perfectly.

Sengakuji temple

Although they looked like robbers, they did not behave like scum on the night they attacked Kira’s house. Yes, they killed several of the tenants, but they informed the neighbors that they have come for revenge and will not hurt anyone else. Searching the house, they finally found Kira hidden in a warehouse and politely asked him to commit suicide in the same way that Asano did, with the same knife. Kira had been brazen, so they finally killed him and beheaded him. Eventually, they took the severed head, instead of transporting the entire boy, they carried all over, and washed it in Sengakuji in a well, which is literally called ‘Kubi arai indo’ (首洗い井戸).

The well were Kira’s head was washed

Then they entered the cemetery and left Kira’s head on Asano’s grave. The mark with the 4 leaves that appears is the emblem of the house of Asano and his tomb is intact to this day. Right next to it is the grave of his wife, Akuri or Josein-yin, who supported the ronin in their murderd plot by giving them amulets.

The grave of lord Asano

When I entered the cemetery, a monk stopped me with obvious anxiety. When he realized that I spoke Japanese, he was relieved, because he was worried about how he would explain to me since he does not speak English. While in general there is not even a fence in cemeteries, in this case you have to leave 300 yen and receive aromatic sticks (senko). Then, you need to go in front of each tomb, of Lord Asano, his wife and the 47 ronin and leave 2-3 aroma sticks in front of each one as a sign of respect to their memory and their devotion.

The graves of the 47 ronin

The monk briefly explained the story to me, emphasizing the role that the then-priests played in the events. The priests received the ronin when they brought Kira’s head, gave them sake and took care of the procedures so that they could be buried next to Lord Asano. The priests then contacted Kiras’s relatives and returned his head, a fact for which there is written evidence in the temple records. Normally, the ronin should have been beheaded for their crime, but their devotion impressed the judges, and it was decided that they could have an honorable death with a seppuku ritual. The supervision of their death was given to 4 other lords, Hosokawa, Matsudaira, Mori and Mizuno, so the tombs are divided into 4 parts. Two tombs are cenotaphs, one for Kayano Sanpei who committed suicide before the attack on Kira’s house and one for Terasaka Kitsiemon who left earlier to bring the news of successful revenge to Ako. The tomb with the wooden cover in the corner is that of the leader, Oisi Yoshitaka, while at the adjacent corner there is the tomb of the youngest participant, Oisi Chiikara, who was only 15 years old. The monk told me to observe how small and narrow the tombs are. From what I understood, this is because the ronin were buried in an embryonic position, with their head resting in their lap.

Fragnance stick for the 47 ronin’s memory

Around the temple there are various historical sites, including a rock from the house of Tamura Ukyontayo, which was stained with Asano’s blood when he performed seppuku. There are three different plum trees, with names related to the story, the Chizome-no-ume, which also bears the blood of Lord Asano, the Chiikara-no-ume, which was transplanted from the garden where Oisi Chikara died, and Yochi-no-ume, in honor of Lady Asano. Finally, there is a small museum about Ako Gisi, i.e. the righteous samurai of Ako.

The bloodstained stone and tree after lord Asano commited seppuku

This was the story of Lord Ako who was avenged by his retainers. The themes of justice, perseverance, honor and loyalty continue to create strong feelings in the Japanese people. Many works of art have told the story, while it reached Hollywood as a film starring Keanu Reeves. Some criticize Oishi’s attitude, because he prioritized the success of the plan to assassinate Kira, despite avenging their lord on the spot regardless of failure. Such machinations do not befit a samurai. Eventually, their stance was interpreted by society as honorable, so I do not know how important these critisisms are. Even today, every year on December 14, the temple celebrates the revenge of the Ako samurai with a festival. On my way back, I picked up a new booklet for Goshuin stamps, which was depicting the 47 Ronin, the Asano emblem, and a large chinese character of the word ‘justice’. Despite the imposing atmosphere of the temple and the macabre story, it was a good day after all.

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