The Ack What Incident? – It Happened Today, February 4, 2017

Apparently February 4 is a day to be proud of in Japan because 46 guys killed themselves as a reward for a good deed. I have to say it’s not my idea of a red-letter day.

The story is that in 1703 in what is now Tokyo and was then Edo, all but one of the "Forty-seven Ronin" committed seppuku not because they had failed to avenge their master’s death but because they had succeeded. The "Akō incident" became a "national legend" in Japan, even the national legend, a shining example of the samurai code of honour. And yes, I do have to explain it if you’re not Japanese. Or rather describe it. I do not think it can be explained in the sense of being defended.

We’re not sure the details as it was not written up in reliable detail for nearly a hundred years thanks to censorship laws. But the basic story is as follows: These samurai were left leaderless, or "ronin," after their lord Asano Naganori was forced to kill himself for attacking a wretched court official named Kira Yoshinaka. So the ronin spent a year working out a plot to kill Kira, after which they had to kill themselves because of the shame of committing murder.

As you already sense, I find the whole thing unspeakably weird. It begins with the key fact that Kira was abusive and corrupt. Two hapless local officials, Lord Kamei and Asano himself, were ordered to prepare a reception for the Emperor’s envoys and were given etiquette lessons by Kira. But they didn’t give him sufficient bribes so he abused them so badly that while Asano kept his cool Kamei lost his and was going to do Kira in.

To save Kamei’s life, his own advisors quickly hustled up a major bribe for Kira who then began treating their master better. But he kept taunting Asano and when he ridiculed him as an ill-mannered rustic, Asano snapped and went after him with a dagger, giving him a minor scratch on his face. (Not exactly what one would hope from a samurai, I note in passing; I thought these guys could kill you with a greeting card.)

Despite the feeble nature of the attack, the very fact of drawing a weapon within Edo Castle was fatal and Asano had to kill himself, his family lost his possessions and lands, and his followers were made outcasts. And so everybody went along with it because I mean what’s blatant injustice when honor is involved or something.

Except there was this group of 47 who took a secret oath to get revenge even though they’d been ordered not to. They went underground as traders, laborers or drunken debauchees. And after several years they managed to infiltrate and storm Kira’s home, overcome his retainers abetted by the silence of his neighbours who all hated him, caught him and respectfully besought him to kill himself like a true samurai.

He chickened out, wuk wuk, betrayer of the code, so the ringleader sawed off his head with a dagger. Then the ronin carefully extinguished all lamps and fires so the neighbours’ houses were not in danger from a general conflagration, and left with the head.

One of the ronin was either sent to report the success of their mission to Asano’s old domain of Akō or else ran away. Either way he apparently came back much later, was pardoned, and lived to a ripe old age before being buried with the others. The rest went to the temple where their master was buried, washed the head carefully, then put it and the dagger on his grave, offered prayers, left the abbot money for their own funerals, and turned themselves in.

The situation was awkward for the shogun, given general approval of their deed plus its fairly obvious justification under almost any meaningful moral code. So he couldn’t just execute them. Instead he ordered them to execute themselves and they did.

So popular is this tale in Japan that the temple where the ronin’s remains are interred holds a festival every December 14, the successful attack having occurred on the 14th day of the 12th month in the old Japanese calendar. But it was on the 4th day of the 2nd month that they all cut out their guts and had a second behead them, the final and apparently crowning act of the drama. And one I flatly admit I cannot sympathize with or support.

Were the ronin right or wrong to kill Kira? And if they were right, why celebrate their being put to death for it? Surely they should have gone down fighting. It is simply not possible to imagine the surviving Magnificent Seven ending the film by simultaneously raising their revolvers to their heads and blowing their brains out in unison and making the classic American film in the process.

"The 47 Ronin" a beautiful and picturesque story, to be sure. And apparently Asano’s brother did get his title and a bit of his land back. But it’s also very disturbing. And not least because ordering them to commit suicide, when they apparently had or felt they had no choice, is not an alternative to executing them. It’s just a hypocritical fiction, a way for the shogun to be, as Orwell put it, somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

Even more baffling to me, in a moral sense, is the lack of concern with right and wrong, indeed the failure to see them as necessarily separate and opposite qualities. The whole story seems to hinge on the ronin’s actions being simultaneously both right and wrong.

I think they were just right. The guy who taunted their lord was no paragon of virtue attacked by mistake. He was a crooked wretch who deserved to be horsewhipped on the steps of his club or gunned down by John Wayne in a classic Western quick-draw showdown. And there’s no suggestion in the story of a kind of Shakespearean scenario in which Asano had a better course of action. Kamei’s men you recall had simply bribed Kira. The emperor or shogun was not, one feels, likely to render justice.

So where’s the vindication of right conduct? Instead there’s something fatalistic, even fey, about a group of such dedicated men bent on making a ritually beautiful bad end for doing a good deed.

To me this story makes no sense. If a particular act of revenge is wrong, don’t do it. And don’t later celebrate those who did. But if it is right, stand by it. There is a weird excluded middle here, where an act is simultaneously right and wrong and ritual rather than moral judgement determines action.

It is not a direct line from the "Akō incident" to Pearl Harbor. But the two are connected by a peculiar, ornate, gorgeously perverse refusal to put individual conscience ahead of "the code", a determination to reject principle on principle.