Japan fascinates me. Not because of the cherry blossoms my sister is dying to see when she travels to that country soon. I respect Japan for its efforts to preserve its heritage. I am awed by Japan for its rich literature and equally rich cuisine. I’m rendered speechless by some of their good no-nonsense dramas and historical movies, including one of my favorites, A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story.
I like Japan very much, even though I haven’t been there yet, even though hordes of its people occupied my country in the past in the most brutal way. While I have my share of painful family stories that happened during that dark period in Philippine history, I am more interested, if not comfortable, in exploring Japanese literature, which I regrettably have limited knowledge of.
I just started with the cluster I enjoy the best: folktales. So I turned to Project Gutenberg that I learned about from Nina of Multo (Ghost) a long time ago and found an epub of Tales of Old Japan, a compilation of short stories gathered by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, Lord Redesdale, formerly Second Secretary to the British Legation in Japan.
I read the first story of the book titled The Forty-seven Ronins without expectations. First story in and I was already able to appreciate Mitford’s fluid writing, whose purpose of drawing a picture of what kind of people the Japanese is is clear in the stories he compiled. He wrote,
I fear that the long and hard names will often make my tales tedious reading, but I believe that those who will bear with the difficulty will learn more of the character of the Japanese people than by skimming over descriptions of travel and adventure, however brilliant.
The Forty-seven Ronins tells of the plight of 47 masterless samurais who are bent on exacting revenge on a well-protected, well-connected man named Kira Kôtsuké no Suké who has wronged their master. Kira Kôtsuké no Suké keeps on insulting Takumi no Kami, the Lord of the castle of Akô, in the province of Harima, the ronins’ master. One insult after the other leads Takumi no Kami into a fit and into an impulsive attempt to take Kira Kôtsuké no Suké’s life. He fails and is convicted by the government that wills him to commit harikiri (seppuku), a Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment.
Now amongst these retainers was his principal councillor, a man called Oishi Kuranosuké, who, with forty-six other faithful dependants, formed a league to avenge their master’s death by killing Kôtsuké no Suké. This Oishi Kuranosuké was absent at the castle of Akô at the time of the affray, which, had he been with his prince, would never have occurred; for, being a wise man, he would not have failed to propitiate Kôtsuké no Suké by sending him suitable presents; while the councillor who was in attendance on the prince at Yedo was a dullard, who neglected this precaution, and so caused the death of his master and the ruin of his house.
Apart from the suicide order, the government also seizes his castle and ruins his family. Some of Takumi no Kami’s retainers, 47 distressed ronins being led by Oishi Kuranosuké, swear to avenge their master’s death. Before they carry out their revenge plan, they decide to be cautious, resourceful, meticulous, and patient, waiting for their target to be complacent and for his security to loosen. When the right time comes, they attack Kira Kôtsuké no Suké’s house, kill his men and behead the master of the house.
Thus, in consideration of the high rank of Kôtsuké no Suké, the Rônins treated him with the greatest courtesy, and over and over again entreated him to perform hara-kiri. But he crouched speechless and trembling. At last Kuranosuké, seeing that it was vain to urge him to die the death of a nobleman, forced him down, and cut off his head with the same dirk with which Asano Takumi no Kami had killed himself.
They bring his head to the tomb in Sengakuji where their master Takumi no Kami is buried to complete their mission of revenge. They then wait for their conviction. They are all sentenced to harakiri. Their bodies are buried around their master’s grave, a decent burial that Oishi Kuranosuké requested from the abbot of Sengakuji.
Then Kuranosuké, having given all the money that he had by him to the abbot, said—
“When we forty-seven men shall have performed hara-kiri, I beg you to bury us decently. I rely upon your kindness. This is but a trifle that I have to offer; such as it is, let it be spent in masses for our souls!”
And the abbot, marvelling at the faithful courage of the men, with tears in his eyes pledged himself to fulfil their wishes.
This particular tale tells of bloody heroism. Yet, to me, it sheds a bit of light on Japanese character. Based on this story alone, I learned that they are the kind of people who know how to plan and plan thoroughly before execution. And they stick to the plan during implementation with solemn consideration of the time. They are dedicated to what they do. They seriously embark on matters that are contributory to the accomplishment of their goal. They are fiercely loyal and they respect their elders and those superior in rank. And they care for the dead.
Have you read this tale? What have you learned?