As you walk down the Hanamikoji-dori admiring the cherry blossoms, you may notice along the corner of Shijo the high, red walls of a very large and very exclusive teahouse. This is the Ichiriki chaya, perhaps best-known now as the setting of Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. But this teahouse is very, very old, and has many more stories to tell.
Had you come to Ichiriki-chaya one evening in 1702, you would have been greeted by the warm glow of candles in paper lanterns, the strumming of shamisen and the alluring laughter of the geiko within – and jarringly, the gruff, very drunken voice of a man shouting for more sake. Nevertheless you come in, for you have an invitation that took you weeks to wangle, and the lovely maiko who welcomes you at the door leads you inside.
Padding across the tatami mats, you catch a peak inside one of the private rooms through an open shoji and see the loud one there: cheeks crimson with sake, unshaven, his kimono rumpled and stained. In the far corner of the room are two swords: the man is a samurai, and by his disheveled state, a clanless ronin. The maiko who just slid the shoji open enters and begins to pour sake into the man’s outstretched cup, but he’s so soused he spills almost half. She makes a joke about it, and the drunken ronin slaps her bottom, making her squeal and laugh. Shameless! This must be the very ronin who was beaten up by a Satsuma samurai for being drunk on the road a few days ago, and couldn’t even draw his sword in defense. With a sniff at the disgrace you allow your maid to lead you to one of the farther rooms, hoping it will be far enough.
Because all your attention was on the drunken ronin, you never noticed the room opposite his had its shoji also opened a slit, nor did you note that the silent pair of samurai within were not drinking. Instead they were watching the ronin. They watch until past midnight, when the ronin finally passes out, and hurry back to their own quarters. By candlelight the senior samurai writes: “Oishi Kuranosuke has completely given himself up to a life of drunken debauchery. He is definitely no danger to our clan.”
How wrong that message would prove to be! Once Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio had been hittogaro, chamberlain, of the Ako Domain, and the right-hand man of Lord Asano Naganori himself. But after Lord Kira Yoshinaka publicly shamed him in Edo, Naganori committed the most unpardonable of all sins in the court of the Shogun; he drew his sword.
The Bakufu (military government) immediately ordered Naganori to commit seppuku and abolished the Asano clan, to the grief and rage of its samurai. For more than a year afterward, Lord Kira’s men watched Oishi Kuranosuke carefully, lest he gather the samurai of Ako, now all ronin, and lead them against the Kira.
But Oishi was leading a double life. Had you still been in Ichiriki after the Kira samurai had left, you might have seen the drunken ronin suddenly wake up, open a window, and have a short, eager conversation with some shadow outside. Something about having the builder’s plans to a certain mansion in Edo. A few months afterward, Oishi Kuranosuke would leave Kyoto on a mission of no return.
And on a snowy January night in 1703, Oishi led 46 other Asano ronin into Edo, where they surrounded Lord Kira’s townhouse and broke in. Oishi led half the ronin againt the front gate, while his son Oishi Chikara led the other half through the back gate. Exactly as planned, Kira’s retainers rushed to the front gate, allowing Chikara to get inside the mansion. Chikara’s team must’ve attacked the front gate defenders from behind, or distracted them enough that Kuranosuke broke through shortly after. Sixteen Kira samurai were killed in the fight, and another 22 wounded, but it took a long search before the ronin found Lord Kira. They eventually did, though, and took his head to Sengakuji temple where Lord Asano was buried, where they laid that grisly trophy upon Asano’s grave.
The exploit of the 47 Ronin put the Bakufu in a bind. On the one hand, the ronin had shown themselves exemplary followers of Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, by avenging their lord; but on the other hand, their raid had not been authorized as an officially sanctioned katakiuchi, or vendetta, so it was technically just murder. Oishi Kuranosuke and all his men were thus ordered to commit seppuku, which they did, and the Bakufu hushed the matter up.*
But all Japan still remembers how the forty-seven gave up their lives for honor, and how completely Oishi Kuranosuke, the drunken ronin of Gion, fooled his enemies.
*One of the ronin, Terasaka Kichiemon, had been sent immediately after the raid to inform Lord Asano’s widow of its success. By the time he returned to Edo, the other 46 had already committed seppuku. The Bakufu pardoned Kichiemon, so actually only 46 of the 47 ronin died in 1703.
By the way, if you imagined that drunken ronin to look like Toshiro Mifune, you’d have been right! Mifune did play the role of Oishi Kuranosuke in the Daichushingura TV series, which aired in 1971.