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CHAPTER FOUR: The Attack
Autumn came. The leaves turned yellow and gold, and fell from the trees. Oishi sent messages to the ronin, and one by one they began to arrive in Edo. They travelled at different times, and went to different ‘safe houses’ in the city. Oishi made the journey in November 1702. When he arrived in Edo, he called a meeting in a room above a noisy restaurant.
‘Now you must decide, for the last time,’ he told his men. ‘Do you want revenge for Lord Asano, or not? Some of you, I know, have young children, or very old parents. Do those men want to leave the league? You can go with honour.’
Eight men left. There were now forty-seven ronin in the league. There were young men and old men – the youngest was Chikara, now aged sixteen, and the oldest was seventy-six. There were brothers, and some fathers and sons, like Oishi and Chikara.
In the weeks before the attack, many of the ronin wrote letters home to their wives and families – to say their last goodbyes.
They began to get ready. One ronin had a ground plan of Kira’s mansion, and Oishi studied this very carefully. There were high walls around the house – 132 metres on the long side and 61 metres on the short side. There were two gates, one in the east wall and one in the west wall. Inside the walls, there was a long building, with courtyards and gardens all around it.
‘We need to go in at both gates at the same time,’ said Oishi. ‘We must have two groups of men, one to attack the front gate and one to attack the back gate.’
‘Yes,’ Yoshida said. ‘And we must stop any servant from leaving the mansion. We don’t want them to run across the river to the Uesugi and call for help.’
There were high walls around the mansion.
‘How many people are living in Kira’s mansion?’ asked Hayami. ‘And how many of them are samurai?’
‘There are more than a hundred and twenty people inside those walls,’ said Okuda. ‘Perhaps about fifty of them are guards… We don’t know how many samurai.’
‘What about our weapons?’ asked Oishi, looking at Horibe.
‘The weapons are ready,’ Horibe said. ‘Everybody has their swords. We have spears for everybody too, and many bows and arrows. And we have amour.’
‘Good,’ said Oishi. ‘So now we wait for the right time, when Kira is at home.’
The right time came on December 14, 1702, a dark night with snow falling from the sky. The people of Edo slept quietly, warm in their houses, but the ronin put on their armour, took their weapons, and waited for midnight.
Before they left, Oishi spoke to his men.
‘At last we can finish our work for Lord Asano, and take revenge for his death, now nearly two years ago. We are here to kill Lord Kira Yoshinaka. We must fight his guards and his samurai, yes, and kill them, but do not kill women and children. We are not here to do that. And remember, you all have a whistle. When you find Lord Kira, blow your whistle.’
Then the forty-seven ronin went silently through the snow to Lord Kira’s mansion. Oishi and Hara took their group to the front gate, and Yoshida with Oishi’s son Chikara took their group of men to the back gate.
Outside the mansion they put signs in the streets:
WE, THE RONIN FROM AKO CASTLE, ARE TAKING OUR REVENGE ON KIRA YOSHINAKA TONIGHT, FOR THE DEATH OF OUR DAIMYO, LORD ASANO NAGANORI. WE ARE NOT NIGHT THIEVES AND DO NOT PLAN TO ATTACK OTHER PEOPLE. YOU ARE SAFE IN YOUR HOUSES.
Later, when the neighbours came out into the streets, they saw the signs, and went back into their houses. They did not like Lord Kira, and so did nothing to help him.
At the front gate, four men climbed over the wall, and went silently into the guardroom. They fought the guards and tied them up. Then they broke down the gate from the inside, and Oishi and his men came into the courtyard. At the same time, at the back gate, Yoshida and Chikara and their men climbed over the wall into the back courtyard. They tied up the guards there; then waited quietly in the snow.
Before the attack began, Oishi sent four men up onto the walls with bows and arrows. The great mansion was still dark and silent, and Oishi whispered his orders.
‘Lord Kira’s servants are going to try and run away to get help,’ he said. ‘Watch carefully, and shoot them down at once. Nobody must leave!’
Now everything was ready, and Oishi beat his drum loudly. The sound of the drum told the men at both gates to start the attack at the same moment. The ronin ran through the courtyards and gardens, and broke into the house at the front and the back.
By now, everybody in the mansion was awake, and Lord Kira’s men, still in their nightclothes, came running with swords and spears and knives. Suddenly, the night was full of noise – men shouting, the sound of sword against sword, the cries of women and children…
In the great front room of the mansion, the fighting was very fierce. Three of Kira’s samurai, all famous swordsmen, fought for a long time, and Oishi’s men could not get past them into the rooms behind. But the ronin fought hard too, and in the end Hara and two other ronin killed the three samurai. Then Oishi’s men moved on into the next rooms.
At the other end of the long mansion, the fighting was also fierce. One of Kira’s samurai attacked Yoshida, and jumped in under Yoshida’s sword arm with his knife. Yoshida fell back, but Horibe was right behind the samurai, and cut him down with his long sword. Then the two ronin moved on into the next room.
Soon there was fighting in every room. Lord Kira’s men fought bravely, but the ronin were fierce and deadly. Many men died, and some were hurt, but not one of the ronin died that night.
In every room Oishi and his men looked for Lord Kira, but he was never there. At last the two groups of ronin met in the middle of the mansion, and the fighting came to a stop. Seventeen of Kira’s guards and samurai were dead, and the others ran away. Women and children sat in the corners of rooms, crying.
Oishi called out to Yoshida, ‘Kira? Where is he?’
‘I don’t know,’ called Yoshida. ‘He wasn’t in the rooms at the back of the house when we came through.’
‘What about the family living rooms?’ called Horibe. ‘Let’s look in there again.’
‘We can’t lose Kira now!’ shouted Okuda. ‘Come on!’
The ronin began to feel afraid. Where was Lord Kira? Was he still in the mansion somewhere? Or did he escape when the fighting began? They ran through the family rooms, looking everywhere. In Kira’s sleeping-room Oishi put his hand on the bed-clothes.
‘They’re warm!’ he shouted. ‘The bed-clothes are still warm – he was here not long ago! Find him!’
CHAPTER FIVE: The Revenge
Oishi sent his men, in four groups, to look everywhere – in the house, the kitchens, the gardens, the courtyards, the guardrooms, under the floors…
In the courtyard by the north wall, three of the ronin found a wood store. One of them, Hazama, went inside, and pushed his spear deep into the wood. There was a sudden cry, from under the wood. Immediately, the three ronin began to pull the wood out, and very quickly they found an old man, dressed in white nightclothes.
‘Old man, what is your name?’ said Hazama.
The old man said nothing. He sat on the snowy ground, with his hands over his face.
‘It’s him,’ said one of the ronin. ‘Quick – blow your whistle.’
When they heard the whistle, all the ronin came running, with Oishi at the front.
Oishi carried a light, and held it near the old man’s face. ‘Yes, it’s Kira,’ he said to his men. ‘See – here, on his head, that old cut. It was a cut made by a sword… Lord Asano’s sword. It’s in the right place.’
Oishi stood up, and bowed deeply to the old man.
‘Lord Kira Yoshinaka, we are the samurai of Asano Naganori. We are loyal men, loyal to our master, and so we are here tonight to take revenge for his death. Lord Asano committed seppuku, and so we ask you, Lord Kira, to commit seppuku too – to die bravely, with honour.’
On the ground in front of Kira, Oishi carefully placed a long knife.
‘Here, Lord Kira, is a knife. Lord Asano’s knife.’
But the old man did nothing. He sat on the ground, shaking from head to toe, not speaking. Again and again, Oishi asked him to commit seppuku. Again and again, he showed him Lord Asano’s knife. But Lord Kira did not move or put out his hand to take the knife. He did not want to take the road to death with honour.
At last, Oishi Yoshio stood up. He bowed again to Lord Kira; then he drew his sword and cut off Lord Kira’s head. The ronin put a coat around the head and tied it to a spear. It was three o’clock in the morning, and their long wait for revenge was finished.
‘And now,’ said Oishi, ‘we must leave at once and take the head to Lord Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji. We must do this last thing for Lord Asano, and then we are ready for death.
‘But before we leave,’ he said, ‘we must put out the house fires. We don’t want to start a fire in the city.’ The house was full of dead bodies and crying women, and there was no one to take care of things. Edo was a city of buildings made of wood, and fire was a terrible danger.
They put out the fires, and forty-six ronin left the mansion. The forty-seventh ronin, a young man called Terasaka, was now on his way to Hiroshima. Oishi sent him there to take the news of the attack to Daigaku, the brother of Lord Asano.
Two of the ronin carried the spear with Lord Kira’s head, and Oishi walked in front, with Yoshida on one side and Chikara on the other side.
They began their long walk to Sengaku-ji. And in the streets of Edo, people came out of their houses to watch.
CHAPTER SIX: The Punishment
The Asano family graves were next to the temple at Sengaku-ji, and it was a ten-kilometre walk there from Kira’s mansion. The ronin were afraid of attack from the Uesugi guards, so they kept away from Edo Palace and walked on the eastern side of the Sumida River until the Eitai bridge. Then they crossed the river. Oishi sent two of the ronin to Edo Palace, to take the news of the ronins’ revenge to the government.
In the first light of day more and more people came out into the streets – talking and whispering about the killing of Lord Kira and the revenge of the forty-seven ronin. The news ran like fire through the city.
And the people liked the news. ‘What brave men!’ they said. ‘What loyal samurai! These ronin waited nearly two years to take their revenge! That is the samurai code! They are true samurai, like in the old days.’
The ronin passed Zojo-ji temple, and began to climb the hill to Sengaku-ji. When they arrived at the temple, they washed Lord Kira’s head in the well (you can see the well to this day at Sengaku-ji).
Then, slowly and carefully, Oishi placed the head in front of Lord Asano’s grave. The forty-six ronin kneeled before the grave, and Oishi spoke these words: ‘For many years, Lord Asano, we served you, we ate your food, we lived in your castle. You tried to kill your enemy, but you lost your life. We could not live under the same sky as your enemy. Last night we finished your work, and took revenge for your death.
‘Young and old, we, the ronin of Ako, are your loyal servants. We serve you, by sword and by spear, in life and in death.’
For two days Kira’s head lay on Lord Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji. Then the temple priests took it away and sent it back to his family.
The Shogun’s officers arrested the forty-six ronin and took them to the mansions of four different daimyo. There, the ronin waited to hear their punishment. Oishi, with sixteen of his men, went to the Hosokawa mansion near Sengaku-ji. To honour them, 1,400 samurai walked with them through the snowy streets, and the people of the city watched.
Now came a difficult time for the Shogun and the government. Killing was a crime, and in those days the punishment for that crime was to cut off the head. But a death like that was a death without honour.
Many people said this: ‘The ronin are good samurai – brave men, loyal to their master. They were right to kill Kira and to take revenge for their lord’s death. They followed the samurai code of honour, so they must have a samurai death.’
But other people thought differently, and said this: ‘Lord Asano attacked Lord Kira in the palace, and Asano died because of this crime. Lord Kira did not kill him, so there was no need for revenge. This was not a revenge killing, and the ronin are just killers. So they must die a killer’s death.’
The government could not agree on the punishment. For weeks they talked and argued, asked this person and that person, talked and argued again. The ronin waited quietly in the four daimyo houses. They waited for death, one way or another.
At last, one day in March 1703, many weeks after the death of Kira, the order came from the Shogun’s palace. The ronin must die, but because of their loyalty to their lord, they could die the samurai death. They could commit seppuku and keep their honour as samurai.
That same day, in the four daimyo mansions, the ronin got ready for death. One by one, in the courtyards of the mansions, the forty-six ronin committed seppuku. Their bodies were put in graves at Sengaku-ji temple, close to their master, Lord Asano Naganori.
The forty-seventh ronin, Terasaka, arrived back from Hiroshima after the death of the other ronin. He went at once to Edo Palace, and asked for the same death as the other ronin. But he was a young man, and the Shogun felt sorry for him. So Terasaka did not commit seppuku. He lived to the great age of eighty-three, but when he died, he wanted to be with the other ronin. So his grave is the forty-seventh grave at Sengaku-ji.
Three hundred years later, people in Japan are still talking and arguing about the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin. Every year, on December 14, there is a festival at the Sengaku-ji temple to remember Lord Asano’s death and the revenge of his brave, loyal ronin. Thousands of people come every year to this festival. The way of the samurai is not forgotten.