Recently we see many fellow Hong Kongers are keen on topics such as karma, “those who accumulate evil will have superabundant misery”, and “one’s family shouldn’t get caught up in one’s misfortune, and these had me thinking about the Osaka Gishi Matsuri that happens regularly every year in December, which commemorates the 47 masterless samurais who avenged their master during the “Ako Incident of the Genroku Era”.
The Ako Incident was an important event during Japan’s Edo Period, along with the “Revenge of the Soga Brothers” and “The Duel at Kagiya no Tsuji”, are known as Japan’s three major revenge seeking incidents; the Ako Incident is a historic household tale passed down the generations, and had later been adapted to performances such as Kabuki plays and the movie Chuushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). It was even filmed as the unrecognizable western movie 47 Ronin.
Asano Naganori, Daimyo lord of the Ako Domain, injured the Koke and Hatamoto Kira Yoshinaka while trying to slash him with a sword inside the Edo Castle for a grievance (although the real reason is still much debated); for this he was ordered to commit ritual seppuku (suicide by disembowelment) on the same day by Tokugawa Shogun Tsunayoshi. During the feudal Edo Period, it was an established principle when presiding in judgement that “both parties lose” whereby both side of a fight are punished, regardless of who's right or wrong in the first place. Yet, while Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, the slightly injured Kira went unpunished which angered Asano’s retainers. Afterwards, the Shogunate decided to confiscate Ako Castle and confine Naganori’s brother Asano Nagahiro, thereby ending all hope of the House’s revival. With Ooishi Yoshio as their leader, the Asano family retainers began plotting their revenge against Kira Kozuke no suke (Kira Yoshinaka’s court title).
After a year of preparations, Ooishi Yoshio led a total of 47 former Asano family retainers to an assault on the Kira residence during the night, successfully assassinated Kira Yoshinaka and brought his head to their lord’s tomb at the Sengaku Buddhist Temple. The Asano family retainers had avenged their lord and public opinion in the aftermath was generally supportive of these loyal retainers. It was rumoured that Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, as head of the Shogunate, was in favour of issuing a pardon for these loyal retainers through the Emperor but the Koben Hosshinnou (Princely Priest Koben) however, advised him against it saying “while avenging their lord’s death is an act of loyalty to be praised, but if we pardon them, and should one of them later commits a crime, then their act of loyalty would be tainted. If we allow them to die this day on the other hand, their good name would be preserved for later generations; sometimes it is an act of kindness in allowing someone to die honourably.” Shogun Tsunayoshi agreed and decided to have the Ako Ronins commit seppuku, an honourable suicide.
In the aftermath, the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered that “Kira’s family retainers who cowered away during the assault should be beheaded”, “Uesugi Tsunanori (Kira Yoshinaka’s oldest son who was adopted by the Uesugi family) stood by and watched despite his father being in danger, will have his land holdings confiscated”, the entire Kira family was also banished and perished soon after without any heirs. As for the four hundred and more Ako Asano’s retainers, only 47 took part in the revenge plot, those who did not participate or cowered out at the last moment were shunned by many in the society.
One Ako retainer for example is Takada Gunbee, who dropped out of the revenge plot just several days before the day, he was kicked out of the house by his uncle; Matsudaira Tadateru, who was the older brother of Matsudaira Tadasato – a senior retainer of the Ako Domain with a stipend of 1000 koku of rice – having not participated in the revenge plot was condemned for being “the shame of the Sakurai-Matsudairu family, while his younger brother committed seppuku in anger. The retainers who didn’t take part even incurred public anger from surrounding areas, who said “we despise such unfaithful people, so much so that we will not sell our miso or soya sauce to them”. None of their children could hold government office again, and the dishonour brought on by their infamy proved to a disaster for their descendants for centuries to come.
The children of the martyrs on the other hand, while also banished for a time, they were eventually pardoned years later. The siblings and relatives of these martyrs were even welcomed by various lords and daimyo, and they were respected and consecrated by people even to this day. Every year on December 14th (the day when the night assault on the Kira residence took place), the Osaka Gishi Board would hold the Osaka Gishi Festival, held at Kissho Temple, also known as “Gishi no Tera (Temple of the loyal samurai), where Asano Naganori of Ako once established it as their family temple.
The temple contains the hairs and armour of these 47 samurai as well as their statues. On the day of the Gishi Festival, a commemoration ceremony would be held, as well as kendo competitions and a local parade of children dressed in the style of those samurais from the Edo Period. It is promoted as “a great opportunity to teach our children about duty and humanity”, Japan’s grassroot civic and moral education. As for Hong Kong, where it is still discussing whether or not traitors should die and should be pitied, forget it.