The true story of the 47 Ronin is perhaps the most celebrated tale in Japan, exemplifying the samurai code of honor, loyalty, perseverance and sacrifice. As early as 50 years after the incident, the story became a legend and inspired playwrights, novelists, poets and numerous ukiyo-e artists. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) is considered the most famous for producing eleven complete series and over twenty triptychs on the subject.
In 1701 two samurai, Asano Naganori, a young feudal lord from Ako, and Lord Kamei from Tsuwano, were ordered to arrange a reception for the shogun, or military ruler of Tokugawa Japan. They were instructed in court etiquette by Kira Yoshinaka, a rude and arrogant official who often meddled in corruption. These personality flaws upset Asano, who strictly followed the noble laws of the samurai known as bushido. Kira mocked and goaded Asano until the samurai's patience snapped. Asano drew his dagger and struck Kira. Though Kira’s wound was no more than a cut, drawing a blade in the shogun's palace was a capital offense and Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, the samurai’s ritual suicide. Asano's lands were confiscated, his family ruined and his followers made ronin, or masterless samurai.
Upon receiving the devastating news, Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano's principal counselor, took command. He moved the Asano family away and surrendered the castle to the agents of the government. Though acting compliant, Oishi and forty-six of Asano's most loyal warriors vowed to avenge their master despite knowing revenge was prohibited by law and they would be severely punished for killing Kira.
To ease Kira's initial suspicions, Oishi commanded his men to disperse and become laymen and monks. Oishi himself divorced his loyal wife of twenty years so she wouldn't face the repercussions of his actions. He then spent two years in Kyoto, frequenting brothels, drowning in alcohol and acting obscenely in public. Kira's agents reported all this to Kira, who finally let his guard down. Gradually, the faithful ronin trickled into Edo and infiltrated Kira's house as workmen and merchants, all according to Oishi's plan.
Early in the morning of January 30, 1703, Oishi and the ronin attacked Kira's mansion. After a fierce struggle, Oishi's men overpowered and subdued Kira's guards but they found no sign of Kira. As they searched every corner of the house they finally found an entrance to a secret courtyard hidden behind a large scroll. There, in a small shed used for storing charcoal and firewood they found Kira, hiding in terror. Oishi explained they were there to avenge Asano's death as true samurai should. In consideration of Kira's high rank, Oishi offered him the dignity of performing ritual suicide but the official could do nothing more than cower and tremble in speechlessness. Seeing it was useless, Oishi killed him with the same dagger Asano had committed seppuku with. The ronin placed Kira's head as an offering before Asano's tomb and then turned themselves in.
The shogunate officials were in a quandary. The ronin had followed the bushido code of honor by avenging the death of their lord but they had also defied shogunate laws. The Shogun resolved the issue by allowing them to die as warriors by committing seppuku rather than having them executed as lowly criminals. Each of the ronin chose to end his life in a ritualistic, honorable fashion. Through their actions, the Asano clan was restored and cleared of their disgrace and the 47 Ronin were venerated as a legend.