Chushingura Revisited

I try to find time once a year or so to visit Sengakuji, the Tokyo temple where the 47 samurai of the Chushingura saga are buried.
It’s a 300-year-old story that holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese.
I’ve often heard the comment on how odd Japan must be for admiring such brutality.
You can still see at the temple the well where the ronin washed off the chopped off head of their target Kira.
You can also see the big rock still stained with the blood of Asano Takuminokami, who was forced to disembowel himself in the ritual of harakiri as punishment for his assault on Kira.
But the appeal of Chushingura isn’t about violence for revenge.
It is about the fight for justice.
The ronin withstood ridicule and ostracism, and took great risks as individuals sticking to what they thought was right, to say, “No,” to the abuse of power.
That is so different from the stereotype of Japanese as conformists who bend to the hierachy.
When the samurai march through the streets of Tokyo, Kira’s head dangling from a spear, the crowd comes out to cheer them on as heroes, even though they are outlaws.
I love this scene.
And I love that hyperactive Edo-era reporter with his notebook and brush-pen yelling out his “Extra” about the ronin’s surprise attack on Kira’s estate.
Everytime I go to Sengakuji, I am amazed at how there is a constant trail of visitors.
The incense is burning _ always _ before the stone graves of the ronin, lined up next to each other, as though their death was just yesterday.
The visitors aren’t all old as you’d expect.
One time, I saw a young woman, perhaps a teen-ager, putting a bouquet in front of one of the graves, and I could be mistaken but she wore a cap to hide her loss of hair for chemotherapy.
The visitors always comment on how young the ronin were when they committed harakiri, their punishment for revenge-murder, a violation of Edo law.
The carvings on stone give their names and ages _ Chikara, the son of leader Oishi Kuranosuke, was 16.
But I’m also struck by how some of the warriors were in their 50s, even 60s.
Told again and again in Kabuki and Bunraku plays, countless remakes of movies and TV shows, the characters and their sidebar anecdotes are as real to us as stories about our relatives.
The Chushingura story speaks to us today because it’s not merely about an outdated repressive samurai code or worship of madness-like loyalty as some would have us believe.
It’s a more universal story about individual choice: How to live _ and especially how to die.
It’s a testament to how modern and merchant-dominated Edo society had already evolved.
And so its values were more about human choice, not feudalistic fate.
Precisely because Japan is such a conformity-driven hiearchical political society, even today, the brave men who took a stand will be remembered for having shown individualistic honor and the courage of conscience in a sadly group-minded world.