Ukiyo-e Tales: The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers or "47 Ronin"

March 17, 2019 6 min read

Ukiyo-e Tales: The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers or "47 Ronin"

The story that we now know as "the 47 Ronin" recounts the Ako Incident, a series of historical Japanese events occurring between 1701 and 1704.

A tale that fully embodied the principles of bushido to their fullest effect, it soon became a Japanese cultural symbol, exemplifying core bushido values of loyalty, honor and heroic courage. It would go on to inspire countless plays, poems, and artworks.

During the Edo period, the story regained popularity in 1748 with a new rendition, known as the Kanadehon Chushingura. The new interpretation highlighted the triumph of honor and loyalty over a corrupt government system. This version inspired Kuniyoshi to create a stunning print series celebrating the lives of the 47 loyal samurai retainers.

The Chushingura moved the nation with its unique representation of the commitment to bushido values and the dramatic show of loyalty, no matter the circumstances, nor the personal cost.

The fate of the 47 Ronin was put in motion by "the Ako incident" - a violent clash of personalities involving their master, the young Lord Asano, and the Shogun's Master of Ceremonies.

Lord Asano supervised the training of the feudal lords in court etiquette. In 1701, he and Lord Kamei oversaw the organization of the reception that was to receive imperial envoys at the service of the Shogun.

During the reception, a powerful government official Kono Musashi-no-kami Moronao, the Shogun’s Master of Ceremonies, offended the two young lords. Asano and Kamei had offered a gift to him, but he saw them as inadequate and treated them with contempt. Kamei became visually upset at the degrading comments and treatment, while Asano remained composed.

As the verbal offenses piled up, Kamei’s murderous intent became apparent. Reading the signals, his retainers bribed Moronao into moderating his verbal provocation towards their lord, trying to put a stop to the escalating situation.



[left: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Enya Hankan Takasada, #39 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series. right: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kono Musashi-no-kami Moronao, #38 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

However, this made Moronao taunt Asano even more— continuing until Asano could no longer restrain himself. As Moronao referred to him as a “country bumpkin without manners”, the furious young lord drew his sword and struck Moronao in the face.

Failing to kill him, he merely left Moronao with minor injuries and an unsightly scar.

During this period, the act of drawing a sword in the palace and striking a member of the court was punishable by death. The consequences of Asano’s actions were fatal, and he received a sentence of seppuku—ritual suicide by self-disembowelment.

He dutifully carried out the sentence.

Following the death of Asano, the government confiscated his properties—his estates and castles. Moreover, his 320 warriors were ordered to disband.

Nevertheless, 47 of the warriors, under the leadership of Asano’s principal retainer, decided to remain loyal and effectively became "ronin"— that is, samurais with no master.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Oboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio, #1 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

Asano’s principal retainer, Oboshi Yuranosuke Yoshio, along with 46 of his companions vowed to avenge the death of their master—the only action they saw fit to fulfill the demands of their code of honor. The 47 of them knew that by swearing an oath of revenge the only outcome of their plan would be death. However, this did not deter them, and they advanced their plan with unfailing loyalty.

Moronao feared revenge and subsequently had his home fortified. However, the ronin planned to wait for the right moment to attack—to wait for a time when Moronao's vigilance would wane, and he no longer suspected a revenge plot.

To successfully deceive Moronao and disguise their vengeful intentions, the 47 ronin took on new identities and played new roles in society. To avoid suspicion they scattered themselves across different domains and took menial jobs, such as merchants or laborers. Others took on roles that would allow them to infiltrate their enemy's ranks and defenses.



[left: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Okano Ginemon Kanehide, #11 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series. right: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Yoshida Sadaemon Kanesada, #6 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

For example, Okano Ginemon Kanehide, married into the family that built Moronao’s mansion and its fortifications. By doing so, he had access to the mansion’s blueprints which he passed on to his fellow ronin to prepare the attack.

Similarly, Yoshida Sadaemon Kanesada disguised himself as a servant and was able to scout out Moronao’s property.



[left: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Sakagaki Genzo Masakata, #7 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series. right: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Kaida Yadaemon Tomonobu, #48 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

To further the deception, some ronin took up heavy drinking and frivolously spent their money on prostitutes and gambling. All to give the appearance of having lost their samurai way. Kaida Yadaemon Tomonobu pretended to be a playboy. This unsightly behavior was conveyed to Moronao, who believed the ronin were wasting their lives away, and not seeking revenge at all.

After almost a year of planning, the 47 ronin were ready to put their designs into action and finish what their master had started.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The mansion raid in Act XI]

On December 14, 1702, the 47 met and prepared to raid Moronao’s mansion. The youngest had the task of telling their story and would not participate in the raid.

A fellow ronin, he did not want to compromise his loyalty and filial piety, and committed seppuku before the raid. Prior to his death, he asked his brother to carry a spear with his name proclaiming his death in battle.

The remaining warriors warned the neighbors of their intentions before surrounding the house in two groups, one in the front and the other at the back. On that cold winter night, the ronin were ready with ladders, battering rams, and swords to fulfill their oath.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chushingura: yo-uchi no dzu. (The 47 Ronin gather for their night attack on Moronao)]

The ronin stealthily scaled the walls of the property, overpowered and tied the watchmen up.

Archers posted themselves on the roof to prevent any messengers from sending out distress signals or calling for help. At the sign of the drummer, the ronin started their full-scale attack.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Mase Chudayu Masa-aki, #44 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

The attack took Moronao and his samurai entirely by surprise as they were all sleeping. Waking up to the commotion, Moronao’s samurais rushed to fight in the snow, some were even barefoot.

The fight was a fierce one, and the 47 ronin fought violently and bravely, drawing from a common aim—avenging their master.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Aihara Esuke Munefusa, #26 from The Biographies of the Loyal Retainers series]

Ruthless fighting took place in the garden and spilled into the quarters of the mansion. Oboshi communicated the operations with the beat of his drum and successfully guided the ronin in their attack. With the blood of worthy opponents spilled and the force subdued, the ronin focused on finding the affair's antagonist.

Unlike his retainers that met the fight head-on, Moronao ran to hide in a storage area. The ronin searched for Moronao for over an hour before finding him in his undergarments cowering in a heap of coal. He was easily recognizable by the scar on his face. The scar Asano had given him.

Upon finding Moronao, Oboshi gave him the opportunity to die an honorable death by committing seppuku. However, Moronao was too scared to move, and after he declined the offer, Oboshi beheaded him.

With their mission over, the ronin reassembled in the mansion’s courtyard. All the raid participants were alive with only four of them suffering wounds.



[Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Gishi shijushichi-nin hommo wo toge (The forty-seven Ronin crossing Ryogoku bridge after carrying out their revenge, Yuranosuke is bowing to a mounted official on the near side)]

After fulfilling their vow of revenge, the ronin marched over to present the head of the enemy at their master’s grave. Tired from the fighting, they sat down and waited at the grave for their arrest, accepting that they would have to pay dire consequences for their actions.

Authorities did not know how to deal with the participants of the raid. On the one hand, they had acted in accordance with bushido principles. On the other, they had showed an open disregard for the authority of the Shogun.

Though their act embodied loyalty and honor, political expediency prevailed, and the shogun sentenced every last one to commit seppuku. The honorable suicide was fated - they knew they would most likely meet from the beginning.

The loyal retainers, after fulfilling their vow to avenge him, willingly carried out their sentence.

To honor and respect their dedication and sacrifice, they were put to rest beside their beloved master.

In honor of the undisputed master of warrior prints, Rising Sun is proud to release highlights from Kuniyoshi’s Biographies of the 47 Loyal Retainers as a 16 print collection.

Kuniyoshi’s work stands the test of time and Rising Sun Prints now honors his legacy as one of the last masters of ukiyo-e printmaking, and the leading model of Bushido values in Japanese art. We hope you enjoy our tribute to his mastery, skill and display of warrior virtue with our latest collection: "Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - The 47 Ronin"

Biographies of the Loyal Retainers - The 47 Ronin - By Utagawa Kuniyoshi - Print Collection


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