47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the
47 Ronin from Akō
by Thomas Harper
history / japanese history
Official Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Leete's Island Books
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Further resources available here.
This is the story of a few men who valued justice more than life. They were members of the large Corps of Samurai in the feudal domain of Akō in western Japan. But when their lord committed the crime of drawing his sword within the castle of the Shogun, the law decreed that he should be sentenced to death, that his heir would not inherit the domain, and all of his vassals would become ronin, dismissed from employment, evicted from their homes, and deprived of their income. All 308 samurai in Akō knew the law and accepted it. And if their lord had succeeded in killing the man he attacked in the castle that would have been the tragic end of this episode. But their lord was subdued and failed to kill his enemy; which meant that yet another law came into play: the Principle of Equal Punishment. 47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akō tells the harrowing tale of how all this was argued, what was decided, what the results were, and what ultimately became of those 47 men who remained. 47 tells the tale in immense detail—with maps, graphics and gorgeous illustrations. It provides a richer and more in-depth picture of the Samurai than readers will find in any other medium, offering a comprehensive picture of a tale of justice, honor, politics, and the law of equal punishment. The Shogun, however, decided to pardon the other party to this quarrel instead of punishing him. This was a clear violation of the law, and rightly enraged the samurai in Akō. 47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akō tells the harrowing tale of how this case was argued, what was decided, and what ultimately became of the 47 samurai who remained determined to right this injustice to their lord -- complete with maps and gorgeous illustrations.
about the author:
Thomas Harper is retired from the Centre for Japanese and Korean Studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, where his academic specialty was The Tale of Genji and its readers. In 2015 he and his co-compiler Haruo Shirane published Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium (Columbia University Press), prior to which he had written several scholarly articles on this subject. He is also the translator of Tanizaki Jun'ichirô's In Praise of Shadows, published by Leete's Island Books.
For the past thirty years, however, he has also maintained a deep interest in a very different corner of Japan, the vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akō (1702). As it happens, this famous event is one of the best documented episodes in Japanese history. Harper has spent years, first collecting these materials, and then writing the story as they tell it, rather than as legend tells it. This book is the culmination of that work, and the first time all of these documents have been used to tell the complete story of the Akō vendetta in English.
on writing 47:
The preeminent partner in this pairing is the story and not the writer. But since those who read it may be curious how we two came together, I'll say a bit about how I happened to write this version of the story and what I hoped to accomplish in doing it as I have.
I am an ordinary academic working in the field of Japanese literature, trained in the subject at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Tokyo. My first (and continuing) interest was The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari, ca 1008), and particularly what early readers of this novel thought and said about it. Some of the fruits of this endeavor were published as Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium (Columbia University Press, 2015). I have also translated In Praise of Shadows (Inei raisan; Leete's Island Books, 1976) and other essays by Tanizaki Jun'ichirô. In the meantime, I made my living teaching Japanese language and literature at Yale University, the Australian National University, and the University of Leiden.
In 1986, however, when my wife was a graduate student at Japan Women's University, she took me to see a rare performance of the complete Kabuki version of Kanadehon Chûshingura, spread over three months, at the National Theatre of Japan. It was this experience that piqued my curiosity as to what really happened in that vendetta. Fortunately, the first book on the subject that I found was Kaionji Chôgorô's Akô gishi. Kaionji was a historical novelist, but this book was pure history with no admixture of fiction; and his brief bibliography proved an excellent guide to further reading and documentary sources. This was the beginning of what would become a thirty-year obsession. The more I read in the multitude of sources, the more I realized that they contained riches no dramatist, novelist, or historian had yet touched. And at some point in the process I decided I had to pull together as much of this material as I could and attempt to write the full story of the Akô vendetta. At first I thought of myself as writing a historical novel. But before long I realized that the facts were far more interesting than anything I could make up. So now the samurai-turned-journalist who narrates the tale is all that remains of the novel; but even he is a real person. Nothing else is invented.
I began work by translating some of the more crucial and interesting documents, and then moved on to sketch individual episodes that required reference to multiple sources; all the while adding constantly to my day-by-day data base, without which I could no longer keep track of the plethora of materials as they piled up. Since 2008-9, I have been writing chronologically, and just after Christmas 2016, reached the limit I had set for the project: my 47 friends dead and buried (I miss them), the aftermath of their lives played out. In 2016-17, the National Theatre again staged a complete, three-month Chûshingura Kabuki.
It would greatly please the 47 ronin to know that they have created a national myth that still captivates Japan; that every year around the anniversary of their attack on the Kira mansion (14 December) there is bound to be a spate of new movies, television dramas, and books about them. I wonder, though, how pleased they would be to see that their myth -- like all myths -- has become more a reflection of current tastes than of their lived reality. In this book, I have tried to push back against this trend and retell their story as fully as I can, based upon sources made up in large part of their own words and the words of those who actually knew them.
~ Thomas Harper, author