Travels: The Graves of the 47 Ronin
By Skywing Knights // July 27, 2023
This article contains sensitive topics including violence and suicide.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, PLEASE reach out for help at:
Your life is precious to a degree beyond your comprehension, both to yourself and others.
We need you in this world. Please do not choose to end your own life.
Ah, the sweet bliss of finally returning to Japan. Truly it was a touching experience landing in Narita Airport (成田国際空港) during this past trip of mine. (Especially after having to wait two EXTRA years to do so because of COVID, might I add). Then I got over the touchdown and immediately went out fulfilling my “to-do” lists. Because um, yes, you better believe I had a lot to do while there!
I’m at the point where I go to Japan more often than not to “get things done”. I run errands, I take photos, I’ll take video if I can. In fact, it’s been 10 years now since my first trip to Japan. But that doesn’t mean that the spark and excitement of Japan is gone. Far from it. There are still plenty of things to do in Japan that are fascinating, unique, and different for me. And thus every time I go now, I try to do at least a few things that I haven’t before. These adventures typically turn into finding hidden gems and off the beaten path explorations – the places tourists don’t normally go. For me, these are the reasons to love those types of adventures because they’re different, quiet, and usually uncrowded!
And boy do I love it as it can lead me to uncovering incredibly unique and intriguing locations. (Especially when I have my camera with me. This is what allowed me to create my newest album from this adventure linked below!)
History Made Legends
As I was unable to go to Japan for two years longer than usual, I ended up doing a bunch of extra reading on Japanese history. Some of it was new to me. And some of it was related to stories I knew of, but wasn’t as familiar with regarding the details. So for this trip, I wanted my off the beaten path adventures this time around to include a number of locations related to historic events (shocker). One of those locations included the resting places of the 47 Ronin (浪人). Yes, those 47 Ronin. The ones you’ve heard of that sounded like fictional characters “out to get revenge for their samurai leader”. While their story has largely been bloated by romanticism in retellings, there were in fact 47 Ronin. Yes, they were real and their graves are right in downtown Tokyo (東京).
And yes, I did in fact take the time this past December to go to their graves.
Discussing the Legend of the 47 Ronin
That’s why today, we’ll discuss how to visit their graves and their history. What was fact, fiction, or in the indeterminable category of their story. All of that said, I do want to emphasize that for as legendary as these men and their story have become, they were in fact real people. They had friends, families, and lives that they built for themselves. And while both their “true” story and the ensuing re-tellings have been the subject of controversy, it is important to remember them as just that. Real people, whose thoughts and opinions are rather unknown due to a lack of records.
It’s easy to make snap judgements as we discuss this heavy topic. But I hope that as you read, we can refrain from condemning these men, who really lived and were family members to others, since often we can only speculate as to their motives and the amount of truth in their legends. I hope this article will shed light on why the legend of the 47 Ronin persists to capture the minds of people around the world in a thoughtful manner. And of course, I hope that by detailing my experience, I can also give any who wish to visit their graves insight as to what they are seeing as they proceed through the graveyard.
So, let’s first talk about their end of their story – their final resting place: Sengaku-Ji (泉岳寺).
Located just north of Shinagawa station (品川駅) and a mere 2 minute walk from the station that takes its name after the temple itself lies Sengaku-Ji Temple. This temple is the final resting place of the 47 Ronin and their Daimyo (大名), Asano Naganori (浅野 長矩). It’s a quiet little area, just inside the Yamanote (山手) ring. However, it’s not particularly near any big sightseeing locations or tourist spots. The closest areas of note for most tourists include several hotels.
Walking up to the temple on my trip, I found it mostly vacant. A delivery car drove past me and up to the side of the temple. I watched as they interacted with those operating the temple, kindly bowing and greeting one another. It was so unlike places such as Asakusa’s Sensou-ji (浅草の浅草寺), where there is so much hustle and bustle that you almost have a hard time remembering that it’s a religious location. Rather, Sengaku-ji is silent, calming, and has a way of clearing the mind. So much so that even simple interactions like this or even the sound of my boots on the stone pebbles easily garner notice.
Upon arrival, I glanced around and quickly noted signs pointing towards the “Ako Gishi Graves” (赤穂義士墓所) (another term for the 47 Ronin). Following the signs by turning to my left, I quickly found the small graveyard. Paying 300 yen for a package of burnt incense sticks, I thanked the lady at the front and walked into the small, unsuspecting graveyard.
The Ako Gishi Graves
Immediately, this graveyard struck me as different to the one I’d been to earlier in the day. (I’ll write on that trip soon too, don’t worry). Most graveyards in Japan are very crowded, some would say even packed. Japanese graves tend to be filled with family graves, not those of individuals. This is due to the lack of space available within the country for graves. Despite this, they still often remain tightly packed. This already made the graves here different, as each was for an individual person.
The first graves I passed were of Asano Naganori and his wife, Lady Asano, or Yozenin (瑤泉院). Notably, Asano Naganori’s grave is reputed to be where the 47 Ronin delivered and placed the decapitated head of Kira Yoshihisa (吉良 義央). Thus they “fulfilled their duty” to avenge their Daimyo. Passing the graves of the Naganoris though, one enters up a flight of steps to the graves of the 47 Ronin. Or in Japanese, the Shijushichishi (四十七士).
“An Embodiment of Values”
Walking past each grave, guests are able to place a stick of incense down in front of them. When I arrived, only a young man and professor stood discussing the history behind these graves. But soon after, a group of local Japanese visitors came to visit and show their respects. Being only a week after December 14, when the temple commemorates the events of the Ako Incident (赤穂事件 or Ako Jiken), which made the 47 Ronin famous, with a festival, it was safe to assume that these visitors were those who either were unable to attend or wished to further come to pay respects to the deceased there.
The tale of the 47 Ronin is one that very clearly highlights, or perhaps delineates, moral and honorable behavior as determined historically by the Japanese. Thus, standing, watching people who never knew any of these men in person still paying respects to them just over 300 years after the incident, was a testament to this embodiment of Japanese values, many of which still persist to this day. And all of these values, it seemed, could still be sensed in this graveyard. It isn’t so much that the guests I believe had a personal connection, so much as a connection through their beliefs and values that the 47 Ronin are said to have exemplified.
The Events Leading to the Ako Incident
According to historians, the events of the Ako Incident or “The Revenge of the 47 Ronin”, began to unfold in 1701, during the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府), or Edo Period (江戸時代 or Edo Jidai) of Japan. Records from Sengaku-ji indicate that Asano Naganori, the Daimyo of the Ako Domain (赤穂藩 or Ako-han), now part of the Hyogo prefecture (兵庫県) of Japan, and Kamei Korechika (亀井茲親), Daimyo of the Tsuwano Domain (津和野藩), now in Shimane prefecture (島根県), were ordered to arrange a farewell ceremony reception for the Emperor of the day at the castle in Edo (江戸) (modern day Tokyo). Kira Yoshihisa (the master of ceremony for the castle), was to give the two daimyo instructions on the proper etiquette for such an event and was said to have become frustrated with the two.
It’s not particularly clear exactly as to why this was the case. Some narratives state that Kira did not believe the two daimyo sufficiently presented him with gifts to thank him in advance for his instruction. It was also said to be possible that he expected bribes from the two and received none.
***However, it is important to keep in mind that this story has been retold countless times, each of which have embellished the tale. Not to mention, even “reputable sources”, such as Sengaku-ji itself, may have had ulterior motives for including details such as this to keep the legend (and thus additional income) afloat. As a result, it is hard to know which of these details and those that I mention that follow are true and which were added after the fact, unless otherwise noted.***
Whatever the case, it seems that Asano believed that Kira did not prepare them sufficiently to fulfill their specific duties and both Asano and Kamei came away from the event insulted and humiliated. Again, some stories state that Kamei resolved these ‘ill feelings’ with bribes, but Asano did not. This may have furthered the ill feelings between Kira and Asano, but we cannot be sure.
The Consequence of Committing Taboos
What we do know for certain is that eventually, Asano lashed out and attacked Kira inside Edo Castle (江戸城). Though not mortally wounding Kira, Asano was ordered to atone by committing seppuku (切腹), or ritual suicide. This was for the offense of removing his blade within the confines of Edo Castle and drawing blood. These were two taboos at the time as they defiled the sanctity and purity of the Castle, which housed the Emperor. This is because the Emperor was and is said to be descended from the Shinto (神道) Goddess Amaterasu (天照).
After Asano’s death, the Ako region’s wealth was usurped and the family dishonored. And notably, all of the samurai who reported to Asano, about 270 in total, became ronin, or masterless samurai.
Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshitaka, Leader of the 47 Ronin
Within the confines of the plot that holds the graves of the 47 Ronin are two larger grave markers. The first belongs to Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshitaka (大石 内蔵助 良雄), sometimes known as Oishi Yoshio or Ōishi Kuranosuke (大石内蔵助). The second belongs to his son, Oishi Yoshikane (大石 良金), also called Oishi Chikara (大石主税). (I have found that the latter name is used more often in English.) Oishi Yoshitaka was second in command after Asano prior to his death. Out of the many of the samurai under Asano, most dispersed, but 47 remained, with Oishi Yoshitaka taking up leadership over the group. Though revenge was legally prohibited, the 47 Ronin determined they could not let their Daimyo go unavenged. As a result, they developed a plot to kill Kira, knowing the punishment for doing so would be their deaths.
Yoshitaka in particular was said to be under heavy scrutiny by Kira’s men, who suspected a revenge plot, knowing Yoshitaka’s reputation. To throw off suspicion, it is said that Yoshitaka traveled to Kyoto. There, he is said to have drank and acted in ways unbefitting of a samurai for over a year and 6 months. You can still visit (at least the outside of) one of the teahouses that Yoshitaka was said to have frequented today. The teahouse is the Ichiriki Chaya (一力茶屋), a stunning structure near the entrance of Gion’s Hanamikoji in Kyoto (京都). He also separated himself from his wife and children during this time. Though he gave his son, Chikara, the option to leave with his mother, Chikara opted to follow his father. Meanwhile, other members of the 47 Ronin secretly entrenched themselves into the inner workings of Kira’s estate.
“The Revenge of the 47 Samurai”
When suspicions were finally off of Yoshitaka, he and his son led an attack together on the Kira estate. With Chikara leading a group attacking the rear and Yoshitaka attacking the front, they soon overcame Kira’s men. The Ronin are said to have spared the innocent, giving them the option to run and notice to avoid danger. They are also said to have eliminated fires that might have caused further harm to neighbors. Eventually, after giving Kira the option to kill himself on his own which he did not do, Oishi Yoshitaka ordered his men to behead Kira, ending his life.
The group of Ronin then took Kira’s head. Eventually, they placed it on Asano’s grave (though it was later removed, of course). As a consequence for their behavior, the 47 Ronin were legally speaking supposed to be killed for their actions. This was in spite of following what would be deemed the proper practices of the samurai code. This, possibly along with some public support for the Ronin’s actions, played into the order that the 46 present Ronin of the 47 (one was for unclear reasons was back in Ako) were to also commit seppuku. Chikara, the youngest, was only 15 years old. But he followed through with the orders from the bakufu (幕府) like his father and the others.
Historical Accuracy and Disputes
As mentioned above, details recounting these events are enclosed within documents housed in Sengaku-Ji. However, the documents are not without dispute regarding total accuracy. The 47 Ronin and their story are far from being without their critics. For instance, one of the harder to believe aspects of the story is that of the 47 Ronin avoiding unnecessary bloodshed during the attack. Could it have happened? Of course, it could have. But it does seem like an altruistic, idealized version of a group of protagonists in a legend. And were all of the Ronin truly doing all they did out of devotion to their Daimyo and the Ako Domain? It’s really impossible to know. But saying they all were certainly makes the story more compelling.
But while there are disputes as to the exact details of the events that took place, perhaps the events don’t need to be one hundred percent known to understand that the story of the 47 Ronin as a whole exemplifies key values held by the Japanese people, both historically and even today.
Emphasizing Loyalty and Duty
The story embodies the honorable values of loyalty and duty. Loyalty to leaders and family. Duty to one’s community. It places great value in moral retribution and justice as well as the responsibility of owning one’s behavior. Asano pays for his behavior with his life. Yoshitaka acts as a vigilante of sorts, ignoring the law to pursue justice for his Daimyo (Batman vibes, anyone?). Yoshitaka’s son remains with his father. He then pursues revenge with his fellow 47 Ronin out of loyalty to his father and to his community.
Meanwhile, the “villain”, Kira, acts dishonorably throughout in retellings of the events all the way up until the very end, where he refuses to take his own life to atone for his actions. The 47 Ronin accept the legal ramifications for their behavior willingly. Chikara does not use his youth to excuse himself from taking responsibility for his involvement. Indeed, the entire legend sees the protagonists exemplifying great loyalty to many different parties, from their families, their communities, and their leaders all the way to their own individual duties and moral obligations.
Critical Observations on the Extremes
It is easy to praise the 47 Ronin’s behavior, particularly if one is discussing the more legendary retellings. However, it would be irresponsible to ignore critics, who point to the dangers of extolling such extreme behaviors. Notably, many are critical of holding such a story in which the protagonists end up committing suicide in such high regards. And this is especially so as it is done so within a culture that currently has a high suicide rate. Essentially, many argue the story encourages the problem – not a light criticism in the slightest. Additionally, there is no denying that some retellings sadly glorify suicide, which is incredibly destructive and detrimental.
For that reason, those arguments absolutely have their merits. But it is still too simplistic of an explanation. And it is rather irresponsible to not account for or consider other contributing factors within Japan. Intense workloads, the societal pressure to conform to a certain mold, and the lack of grace given or help easily found for those with mental health issues must also be examined for their contributions to the problem in Japan. In short, it cannot be merely attributed to culturally historic stories and legends.
The Universal Understandability of Chūshingura
Why then, even with these criticisms, does the story of the 47 Ronin still capture the attention of so many around the world? The answer I believe is due to the fact that their legend demonstrates the extreme value that the men placed on loyalty, duty, justice, and personal responsibility. These are heavily emphasized in many of the romanticized retellings of the 47 Ronin, an entire genre known as Chūshingura (忠臣蔵), or the Treasury of Loyal Retainers).
Additionally, while the story ends with their suicide, one might also point out that in their case, the stories simply end in their death as a result of their convictions as soldiers to being loyal, dutiful, and bringing about justice for their Daimyo, families, and community. In this way, they are not unlike many people all around the world who do the same when they go to war for their countries. In short, this makes the story rather universally understandable.
The Conviction of the 47 Ronin
Whether the 47 Ronin were in fact heroes, villains, or vigil-antis is not really worth the debate, as we likely will never know the full story. What is important is that in the legend that grew from their actions at the very least, these men showed conviction and faith in the importance of their values, something not often seen today.
I would venture to state that perhaps that’s why, even in the face of the problems they face today, the Japanese continue to honor these men. They are honored for their convictions to the time-honored and proven moral values. Values of duty, loyalty, and responsibility that make for productive societies, strong families, and the moral growth of individuals.
Or perhaps the fantasy of it all just keeps it alive. Who knows?
Off The Beaten Path, But Worth It
While standing in the graveyard, I couldn’t help but find myself considering all of this and what these men represent. To ask if I enjoy the story of the 47 Ronin and if that’s why I went to their graves is a bit of an irrelevant question to me. Because enjoyment isn’t why I went. Nor is it what I sought when I read about and studied the 47 Ronin. I went because I appreciate the story for what it teaches us about Japanese history and culture. And I went to pay respects to the real men behind the legend. Because, no matter what they truly did in life – they were people. And their lives and actions have inspired and shed light on a critical, key part of what makes us all human beings – the ability to show conviction to justice in the face of adversity.
One thing I do know is that for an off the beaten path adventure, I greatly appreciated my time in the presence of the 47 Ronin and their Daimyo. They and their memorials absolutely embody key aspects of the Japanese spirit. And that’s one of the things I look for in an off the beaten path adventure. Pieces of what make Japan and its people so incredibly strong and unique.
So if you’re looking for something different to do while in Japan, consider visiting the final resting places of these men. It’s not too far out of the way. And it makes for a very unique opportunity to visit the graves of some of Japan’s most legendary men.
How to Visit the 47 Ronin
Sengaki-Ji can be found about a two minute walk away from Sengaki-Ji Station, which serves the Toei Asakusa Line (都営浅草線) and the Keikyu Main Line (京急本線). By way of the latter train line, it is one station away from Shinagawa station which can be reached via the Yamanote Line (山手線). For more information on Sengaku-Ji, you can visit the following websites:
Additionally, you can see my full album of the graveyard here:
For those who have read through this VERY heavy article, thank you. I promise my next adventure in Japan will be a little more lightweight. Emphasis on “light” – like a flashlight. 😉
Until then my loves, stay true to yourselves and love yourself each and every single day,