The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were the height of the Tokagawa Shogunate in Japan, and were characterized by self-sufficiency, foreign isolationism, and strict social order. It is personified by the samurai, the warrior caste of the land. In 1701, one of the 300 daimyo (samurai lords) of Japan, Asano Naganori, was grievously insulted by a minor bureaucrat of the shogunate, Kira Yoskinaka, and in his rage, attacked him (Kira called him an ill-mannered country boor for not bribing him enough). Kira survived and, backed up by the power of the shogun, ordered him to commit hari kari or ritual suicide. Asano, as a matter of honor, did so on 6 February, 1701.
As a result, his lands and retainers immediately became forfeit. His samurai became ronin, literally “wave riders” or masterless, and they were expected to die trying to avenge their master. Many tried and were slain, but 46 banded together with one of Asano’s junior councilors, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio.
Oishe was determined to kill Kira despite what was expected of former samurai to a disgraced master, i.e. to die immediately. Kira was heavily guarded, expected an attack, and Oishe knew their death would serve no purpose. He became a drunk, and over the next year many others took inconspicuous jobs as servants, merchants, or artisans. The Forty Seven were despised by society for lacking the honor to die trying to avenge their master.
But Oishe convinced the others to bide their time: it was all part of the plan to lure Kira into complacence. In the course of their new employments, the 47 Ronin infiltrated Kira’s household: they delivered his food, cleaned his stables, and one even married the daughter of his butler. One evening in December of 1701, Oishe and the Forty Seven Ronin attacked Kira’s compound and slaughtered his retainers, sparing only the women and children. They initially could not find Kira, who was hiding in a closet, but eventually he was recognized by the scar left by Asano. Kira, in a great disgrace, refused to commit hari kari, so Oishe beheaded him. The Forty Seven took his head to their master’s tomb and laid it reverently outside. They then awaited their fate.
The shogun could not tolerate the death of one of his officials, even one as minor as Kira, so he ordered the Forty Seven to commit suicide for their crime against his rule.
Without hesitation they committed hari kari, and all were buried outside of their lord Asano’s tomb.
Today, they are emblematic in Japanese culture of dedication, loyalty, sacrifice, and honor.