“Tales of Old Japan” by Lord Redesdale is a collection of classical Japanese stories that paint a vivid picture of Japan’s culture, traditions, and societal values during the Edo period. Published in 1871, these tales were among the first to introduce Western audiences to the rich folklore and historical narratives of Japan. The collection includes various stories of heroism, revenge, love, and supernatural occurrences, providing a unique glimpse into the lives and beliefs of the Japanese people of that era. One of the most renowned stories in this collection is the tale of the Forty-seven Rônins, which exemplifies the themes of loyalty and honor deeply ingrained in the Samurai code.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

At the dawn of the 18th century, in the land of the rising sun, there lived a noble lord named Asano Takumi no Kami. Asano was the revered daimio of Akô, a man of honor and integrity. One fateful day, an Imperial ambassador was sent from the court of the Mikado to the Shogun’s palace in Yedo, and Asano, along with another noble, Kamei Sama, was appointed to receive and entertain the envoy. Their instructor in the complex and demanding court etiquettes was Kira Kôtsuké no Suké, a high-ranking official known for his avarice and spite.

Kira, dissatisfied with the modest gifts he received from Asano and Kamei, began to humiliate them openly. While Kamei was able to appease Kira’s greed through a substantial bribe arranged by his wise councillor, Asano, governed by his strict sense of duty and honor, bore the insults with quiet dignity. However, the persistent mockery took its toll, and on one particularly humiliating day, Kira’s jests became unbearable. In a moment of uncontrollable rage, Asano drew his dirk and attacked Kira in the Shogun’s palace. The injury inflicted was minor, but the act of drawing a weapon within the palace was a grave offense.

Asano was promptly arrested, and despite the circumstances, he was sentenced to commit hara-kiri, the honorable ritual suicide. His lands were confiscated, his family dishonored, and his loyal retainers were cast adrift as rônins, masterless samurai. Among these rônins was Oishi Kuranosuké, Asano’s chief councillor, who was determined to avenge his lord’s unjust death.

Kuranosuké, along with forty-six other loyal retainers, secretly vowed to avenge Asano’s death by killing Kira. They dispersed and adopted various disguises to avoid suspicion. Oishi himself feigned a life of debauchery in the pleasure quarters of Kiôto, drinking and consorting with courtesans to throw Kira’s spies off their trail. His convincing act of dissolution made even his closest family believe he had abandoned his quest for vengeance.

As the months turned into years, Kira, believing himself safe from retribution, began to relax his guard. This was the moment Oishi and his men had been patiently waiting for. On a cold, snowy night in December, the forty-seven rônins assembled in Yedo. They divided into two groups: one led by Oishi to attack the front gate of Kira’s mansion and the other, led by his young son Oishi Chikara, to storm the rear.

With meticulous precision, they struck. The rônins overpowered Kira’s guards, who were taken by surprise in their sleep. As the snow fell silently, the once peaceful mansion turned into a battlefield. The rônins searched the house, fighting off the remaining guards with fierce determination. Eventually, they found Kira hiding in a charcoal shed, cowering in terror. Respecting the samurai code, Oishi offered Kira the chance to die honorably by committing hara-kiri. But Kira, paralyzed by fear, refused. Oishi then decapitated Kira with the same dirk that Asano had used to end his own life.

With Kira’s head in their possession, the rônins began their solemn march to Sengakuji Temple, where Asano was buried. As dawn broke, the sight of the forty-seven bloodstained rônins carrying their grim trophy attracted the attention and admiration of the townspeople. They arrived at Sengakuji and placed Kira’s head on Asano’s grave as an offering. Their mission accomplished, they awaited their fate with calm resignation.

The rônins were soon summoned before the Shogun’s court. Their act of vengeance, though illegal, was understood within the context of their unwavering loyalty and adherence to bushido, the samurai code of honor. The Shogun, while recognizing their honor and bravery, had no choice but to sentence them to death. They were ordered to commit hara-kiri, a fate they accepted with dignity. Divided into four groups, each under the watch of a different daimio, the forty-seven rônins met their end with the same resolute courage that had defined their quest.

Their bodies were interred at Sengakuji Temple, next to their beloved lord. The graves of the forty-seven rônins became a place of pilgrimage, where people from all over Japan came to honor their memory. Their tale of loyalty, sacrifice, and the relentless pursuit of justice became legendary, embodying the essence of the samurai spirit and the timeless virtues of honor and fidelity.

Main Characters

  • Asano Takumi no Kami: The honorable lord of Akô whose unjust death spurs his loyal retainers into action. His sense of duty and honor are pivotal to the story.

  • Kira Kôtsuké no Suké: The antagonistic high official whose greed and malice lead to the conflict with Asano. His eventual death at the hands of the rônins fulfills their quest for justice.

  • Oishi Kuranosuké: The principal councillor of Asano, who masterminds the plot to avenge his lord. His patience, leadership, and unwavering loyalty drive the narrative forward.

  • Oishi Chikara: The young and brave son of Oishi Kuranosuké, who plays a significant role in the attack on Kira’s residence, embodying the next generation of samurai honor.

Themes and Motifs

  • Loyalty and Honor: Central to the tale is the concept of bushido, the samurai code of honor, which dictates unwavering loyalty to one’s lord and the duty to avenge any wrongs against him.

  • Revenge and Justice: The meticulous planning and execution of Kira’s assassination reflect the importance of avenging dishonor and achieving justice, even at great personal cost.

  • Sacrifice: The rônins’ willingness to sacrifice their lives highlights the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater cause, demonstrating their dedication and integrity.

  • The Transience of Life: The fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death are underscored by the rônins’ acceptance of their fate, reinforcing the Buddhist influence on Japanese culture.

Writing Style and Tone

Lord Redesdale’s writing style in “Tales of Old Japan” is both descriptive and immersive, capturing the essence of Japanese culture and the intricate details of the samurai’s world. His narrative technique blends a factual recounting of events with a storytelling approach that brings the characters and their emotions to life. The tone is respectful and reverent, reflecting the gravity of the samurai’s actions and the cultural significance of their story.

Redesdale employs a straightforward yet eloquent prose that allows readers to visualize the scenes vividly. His careful attention to cultural and historical accuracy adds depth to the stories, making them not only engaging tales but also informative glimpses into Japan’s past. The use of traditional Japanese terms and references enhances the authenticity of the narrative, providing readers with a rich and textured reading experience.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer (if any)

When I am not working/watching movies/reading books/traveling, you can reach me via my Twitter/LinkedIn or you can contact me here

Categories: Book Summary