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The Forty-seven Ronin, A.B. Mitford’s Authoritative Account

Note: This account dates to 1871 and contains unconventional spellings for transliterations. For example, daimyo is spelled daimio. It also uses British-English spellings of words such as honour. I decided to retain these spellings and retain the old grammar rules to help you become used to these conventions. As you dig through old stories (the oldest English translations of most Japanese stories date to the late Tokugawa period and early Meiji period), you will encounter unusual transliterations. Western Japanese studies were in their infancy. With some translations, you will even encounter sections of Latin. You don’t have to worry about that with this account. Latin was used to represent imperial Japanese, the language of the imperial court during older periods of Japanese history. You will see Latin in the Kojiki and other documents that have gods and emperors conversing. Lafcadio Hearn, in particular, used this convention in his translations.

A ronin was a samurai who didn’t serve a lord. This story about a band of ronin remains a favorite in Japan. It represents the values of bushido, or the samurai code of honor. Forty-seven Ronin accounts a true event in Japanese history with a few flourishes, of course. The event is also known as the Ako incident or Ako vendetta.

While some of the details are questionable, scholars consider this account by A.B Freeman-Mitford  authoritative.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Samurais in Armour Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c600-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there lived a daimio, called Asano Takumi no Kami, the Lord of the castle of Ako, in the province of Harima. Now it happened that an Imperial ambassador from the Court of the Mikado having been sent to the Shogun at Yedo, Takumi no Kami and another noble called Kamei Sama were appointed to receive and feast the envoy; and a high official, named Kira Kotsuke no Suke, was named to teach them the proper ceremonies to be observed upon the occasion. The two nobles were accordingly forced to go daily to the castle to listen to the instructions of Kotsuke no Suke. But this Kotsuke no Suke was a man greedy of money; and as he deemed that the presents which the two daimios, according to time-honoured custom, had brought him in return for his instruction were mean and unworthy, he conceived a great hatred against them, and took no pains in teaching them, but on the contrary rather sought to make laughing-stocks of them. Takumi no Kami, restrained by a stern sense of duty, bore his insults with patience; but Kamei Sama, who had less control over his temper, was violently incensed, and determined to kill Kotsuke no Suke.

One night when his duties at the castle were ended, Kamei Sama returned to his own palace, and having summoned his councilors to a secret conference, said to them: “Kotsuke no Suke has insulted Takumi no Kami and myself during our service in attendance on the Imperial envoy. This is against all decency, and I was minded to kill him on the spot; but I bethought me that if I did such a deed within the precincts of the castle, not only would my own life be forfeit, but my family and vassals would be ruined: so I stayed my hand. Still the life of such a wretch is a sorrow to the people, and to-morrow when I go to Court I will slay him: my mind is made up, and I will listen to no remonstrance.” And as he spoke his face became livid with rage.

Now one of Kamei Sama’s councillors was a man of great judgment, and when he saw from his lord’s manner that remonstrance would be useless, he said: “Your lordship’s words are law; your servant will make all preparations accordingly; and to-morrow, when your lordship goes to Court, if this Kotsuke no Suke should again be insolent, let him die the death.” And his lord was pleased at this speech, and waited with impatience for the day to break, that he might return to Court and kill his enemy.

But the councillor went home, and was sorely troubled, and thought anxiously about what his prince had said. And as he reflected, it occurred to him that since Kotsuke no Suke had the reputation of being a miser he would certainly be open to a bribe, and that it was better to pay any sum, no matter how great, than that his lord and his house should be ruined. So he collected all the money he could, and, giving it to his servants to carry, rode off in the night to Kotsuke no Suke’s palace, and said to his retainers: “My master, who is now in attendance upon the Imperial envoy, owes much thanks to my Lord Kotsuke no Suke, who has been at so great pains to teach him the proper ceremonies to be observed during the reception of the Imperial envoy. This is but a shabby present which he has sent by me, but he hopes that his lordship will condescend to accept it, and commends himself to his lordship’s favour.” And, with these words, he produced a thousand ounces of silver for Kotsuke no Suke, and a hundred ounces to be distributed among his retainers.

When the latter saw the money their eyes sparkled with pleasure, and they were profuse in their thanks; and begging the councillor to wait a little, they went and told their master of the lordly present which had arrived with a polite message from Kamei Sama. Kotsuke no Suke in eager delight sent for the councillor into an inner chamber, and, after thanking him, promised on the morrow to instruct his master carefully in all the different points of etiquette. So the councillor, seeing the miser’s glee, rejoiced at the success of his plan; and having taken his leave returned home in high spirits. But Kamei Sama, little thinking how his vassal had propitiated his enemy, lay brooding over his vengeance, and on the following morning at daybreak went to Court in solemn procession.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1900 – 1940). Samurai warrior in armour. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c261ef12-e4eb-3577-e040-e00a18067776

When Kotsuke no Suke met him his manner had completely changed, and nothing could exceed his courtesy. “You have come early to Court this morning, my Lord Kamei,” said he. “I cannot sufficiently admire your zeal. I shall have the honour to call your attention to several points of etiquette to-day. I must beg your lordship to excuse my previous conduct, which must have seemed very rude; but I am naturally of a cross-grained disposition, so I pray you to forgive me.” And as he kept on humbling himself and making fair speeches, the heart of Kamei Sama was gradually softened, and he renounced his intention of killing him. Thus by the cleverness of his councillor was Kamei Sama, with all his house, saved from ruin.

Shortly after this, Takumi no Kami, who had sent no present, arrived at the castle, and Kotsuke no Suke turned him into ridicule even more than before, provoking him with sneers and covert insults; but Takumi no Kami affected to ignore all this, and submitted himself patiently to Kotsuke no Suke’s orders.

This conduct, so far from producing a good effect, only made Kotsuke no Suke despise him the more, until at last he said haughtily: “Here, my Lord of Takumi, the ribbon of my sock has come untied; be so good as to tie it up for me.”

Takumi no Kami, although burning with rage at the affront, still thought that as he was on duty he was bound to obey, and tied up the ribbon of the sock. Then Kotsuke no Suke, turning from him, petulantly exclaimed: “Why, how clumsy you are! You cannot so much as tie up the ribbon of a sock properly! Any one can see that you are a boor from the country, and know nothing of the manners of Yedo.” And with a scornful laugh he moved towards an inner room.

But the patience of Takumi no Kami was exhausted; this last insult was more than he could bear.

“Stop a moment, my lord,” cried he.

“Well, what is it?” replied the other. And, as he turned round, Takumi no Kami drew his dirk, and aimed a blow at his head; but Kotsuke no Suke, being protected by the Court cap which he wore, the wound was but a scratch, so he ran away; and Takumi no Kami, pursuing him, tried a second time to cut him down, but, missing his aim, struck his dirk into a pillar. At this moment an officer, named Kajikawa Yosobei, seeing the affray, rushed up, and holding back the infuriated noble, gave Kotsuke no Suke time to make good his escape.

Then there arose a great uproar and confusion, and Takumi no Kami was arrested and disarmed, and confined in one of the apartments of the palace under the care of the censors. A council was held, and the prisoner was given over to the safeguard of a daimio, called Tamura Ukiyo no Daibu, who kept him in close custody in his own house, to the great grief of his wife and of his retainers; and when the deliberations of the council were completed, it was decided that, as he had committed an outrage and attacked another man within the precincts of the palace, he must perform _hara-kiri_,–that is, commit suicide by disembowelling; his goods must be confiscated, and his family ruined. Such was the law. So Takumi no Kami performed hara-kiri, his castle of Ako was confiscated, and his retainers having become Ronins, some of them took service with other daimios, and others became merchants.

Now amongst these retainers was his principal councillor, a man called Oishi Kuranosuke, who, with forty-six other faithful dependants, formed a league to avenge their master’s death by killing Kotsuke no Suke. This Oishi Kuranosuke was absent at the castle of Ako 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 Kotsuke no Suke 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.

So Oishi Kuranosuke and his forty-six companions began to lay their plans of vengeance against Kotsuke no Suke; but the latter was so well guarded by a body of men lent to him by a daimio called Uyesugi Sama, whose daughter he had married, that they saw that the only way of attaining their end would be to throw their enemy off his guard. With this object they separated and disguised themselves, some as carpenters or craftsmen, others as merchants; and their chief, Kuranosuke, went to Kioto, and built a house in the quarter called Yamashina, where he took to frequenting houses of the worst repute, and gave himself up to drunkenness and debauchery, as if nothing were further from his mind than revenge. Kotsuke no Suke, in the meanwhile, suspecting that Takumi no Kami’s former retainers would be scheming against his life, secretly sent spies to Kioto, and caused a faithful account to be kept of all that Kuranosuke did. The latter, however, determined thoroughly to delude the enemy into a false security, went on leading a dissolute life with harlots and winebibbers. One day, as he was returning home drunk from some low haunt, he fell down in the street and went to sleep, and all the passers-by laughed him to scorn. It happened that a Satsuma man saw this, and said: “Is not this Oishi Kuranosuke, who was a councillor of Asano Takumi no Kami, and who, not having the heart to avenge his lord, gives himself up to women and wine? See how he lies drunk in the public street! Faithless beast! Fool and craven! Unworthy the name of a Samurai.”

And he trod on Kuranosuke’s face as he slept, and spat upon him; but when Kotsuke no Suke’s spies reported all this at Yedo, he was greatly relieved at the news, and felt secure from danger. One day Kuranosuke’s wife, who was bitterly grieved to see her husband lead this abandoned life, went to him and said: “My lord, you told me at first that your debauchery was but a trick to make your enemy relax in watchfulness. But indeed, indeed, this has gone too far. I pray and beseech you to put some restraint upon yourself.”

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (187-). Japanese Yakonin in dress of ceremony Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c596-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Trouble me not,” replied Kuranosuke, “for I will not listen to your whining. Since my way of life is displeasing to you, I will divorce you, and you may go about your business; and I will buy some pretty young girl from one of the public-houses, and marry her for my pleasure. I am sick of the sight of an old woman like you about the house, so get you gone–the sooner the better.” So saying, he flew into a violent rage, and his wife, terror-stricken, pleaded piteously for mercy.

“Oh, my lord! unsay those terrible words! I have been your faithful wife for twenty years, and have borne you three children; in sickness and in sorrow I have been with you; you cannot be so cruel as to turn me out of doors now. Have pity! have pity!”

“Cease this useless wailing. My mind is made up, and you must go; and as the children are in my way also, you are welcome to take them with you.”

When she heard her husband speak thus, in her grief she sought her eldest son, Oishi Chikara, and begged him to plead for her, and pray that she might be pardoned. But nothing would turn Kuranosuke from his purpose, so his wife was sent away, with the two younger children, and went back to her native place. But Oishi Chikara remained with his father.

The spies communicated all this without fail to Kotsuke no Suke, and he, when he heard how Kuranosuke, having turned his wife and children out of doors and bought a concubine, was grovelling in a life of drunkenness and lust, began to think that he had no longer anything to fear from the retainers of Takumi no Kami, who must be cowards, without the courage to avenge their lord. So by degrees he began to keep a less strict watch, and sent back half of the guard which had been lent to him by his father-in-law, Uyesugi Sama. Little did he think how he was falling into the trap laid for him by Kuranosuke, who, in his zeal to slay his lord’s enemy, thought nothing of divorcing his wife and sending away his children! Admirable and faithful man!

In this way Kuranosuke continued to throw dust in the eyes of his foe, by persisting in his apparently shameless conduct; but his associates all went to Yedo, and, having in their several capacities as workmen and pedlars contrived to gain access to Kotsuke no Suke’s house, made themselves familiar with the plan of the building and the arrangement of the different rooms, and ascertained the character of the inmates, who were brave and loyal men, and who were cowards; upon all of which matters they sent regular reports to Kuranosuke. And when at last it became evident from the letters which arrived from Yedo that Kotsuke no Suke was thoroughly off his guard, Kuranosuke rejoiced that the day of vengeance was at hand; and, having appointed a trysting-place at Yedo, he fled secretly from Kioto, eluding the vigilance of his enemy’s spies. Then the forty-seven men, having laid all their plans, bided their time patiently.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Osaka Castle Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c4cc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

It was now midwinter, the twelfth month of the year, and the cold was bitter. One night, during a heavy fall of snow, when the whole world was hushed, and peaceful men were stretched in sleep upon the mats, the Ronins determined that no more favourable opportunity could occur for carrying out their purpose. So they took counsel together, and, having divided their band into two parties, assigned to each man his post. One band, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, was to attack the front gate, and the other, under his son Oishi Chikara, was to attack the postern of Kotsuke no Suke’s house; but as Chikara was only sixteen years of age, Yoshida Chiuzayemon was appointed to act as his guardian. Further it was arranged that a drum, beaten at the order of Kuranosuke, should be the signal for the simultaneous attack; and that if any one slew Kotsuke no Suke and cut off his head he should blow a shrill whistle, as a signal to his comrades, who would hurry to the spot, and, having identified the head, carry it off to the temple called Sengakuji, and lay it as an offering before the tomb of their dead lord. Then they must report their deed to the Government, and await the sentence of death which would surely be passed upon them. To this the Ronins one and all pledged themselves. Midnight was fixed upon as the hour, and the forty-seven comrades, having made all ready for the attack, partook of a last farewell feast together, for on the morrow they must die. Then Oishi Kuranosuke addressed the band, and said–

“To-night we shall attack our enemy in his palace; his retainers will certainly resist us, and we shall be obliged to kill them. But to slay old men and women and children is a pitiful thing; therefore, I pray you each one to take great heed lest you kill a single helpless person.” His comrades all applauded this speech, and so they remained, waiting for the hour of midnight to arrive.

When the appointed hour came, the Ronins set forth. The wind howled furiously, and the driving snow beat in their faces; but little cared they for wind or snow as they hurried on their road, eager for revenge. At last they reached Kotsuke no Suke’s house, and divided themselves into two bands; and Chikara, with twenty-three men, went round to the back gate. Then four men, by means of a ladder of ropes which they hung on to the roof of the porch, effected an entry into the courtyard; and, as they saw signs that all the inmates of the house were asleep, they went into the porter’s lodge where the guard slept, and, before the latter had time to recover from their astonishment, bound them. The terrified guard prayed hard for mercy, that their lives might be spared; and to this the Ronins agreed on condition that the keys of the gate should be given up; but the others tremblingly said that the keys were kept in the house of one of their officers, and that they had no means of obtaining them. Then the Ronins lost patience, and with a hammer dashed in pieces the big wooden bolt which secured the gate, and the doors flew open to the right and to the left. At the same time Chikara and his party broke in by the back gate.

Then Oishi Kuranosuke sent a messenger to the neighbouring houses, bearing the following message:–“We, the Ronins who were formerly in the service of Asano Takumi no Kami, are this night about to break into the palace of Kotsuke no Suke, to avenge our lord. As we are neither night robbers nor ruffians, no hurt will be done to the neighbouring houses. We pray you to set your minds at rest.” And as Kotsuke no Suke was hated by his neighbours for his covetousness, they did not unite their forces to assist him. Another precaution was yet taken. Lest any of the people inside should run out to call the relations of the family to the rescue, and these coming in force should interfere with the plans of the Ronins, Kuranosuke stationed ten of his men armed with bows on the roof of the four sides of the courtyard, with orders to shoot any retainers who might attempt to leave the place. Having thus laid all his plans and posted his men, Kuranosuke with his own hand beat the drum and gave the signal for attack.

Ten of Kotsuke no Suke’s retainers, hearing the noise, woke up; and, drawing their swords, rushed into the front room to defend their master. At this moment the Ronins, who had burst open the door of the front hall, entered the same room. Then arose a furious fight between the two parties, in the midst of which Chikara, leading his men through the garden, broke into the back of the house; and Kotsuke no Suke, in terror of his life, took refuge, with his wife and female servants, in a closet in the verandah; while the rest of his retainers, who slept in the barrack outside the house, made ready to go to the rescue. But the Ronins who had come in by the front door, and were fighting with the ten retainers, ended by overpowering and slaying the latter without losing one of their own number; after which, forcing their way bravely towards the back rooms, they were joined by Chikara and his men, and the two bands were united in one.

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. (191-?). Armour and Weapons of Ancient Warriors. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-83bf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

By this time the remainder of Kotsuke no Suke’s men had come in, and the fight became general; and Kuranosuke, sitting on a camp-stool, gave his orders and directed the Ronins. Soon the inmates of the house perceived that they were no match for their enemy, so they tried to send out intelligence of their plight to Uyesugi Sama, their lord’s father-in-law, begging him to come to the rescue with all the force at his command. But the messengers were shot down by the archers whom Kuranosuke had posted on the roof. So no help coming, they fought on in despair. Then Kuranosuke cried out with a loud voice: “Kotsuke no Suke alone is our enemy; let some one go inside and bring him forth. dead or alive!”

Now in front of Kotsuke no Suke’s private room stood three brave retainers with drawn swords. The first was Kobayashi Hehachi, the second was Waku Handaiyu, and the third was Shimidzu Ikkaku, all good men and true, and expert swordsmen. So stoutly did these men lay about them that for a while they kept the whole of the Ronins at bay, and at one moment even forced them back. When Oishi Kuranosuke saw this, he ground his teeth with rage, and shouted to his men: “What! did not every man of you swear to lay down his life in avenging his lord, and now are you driven back by three men? Cowards, not fit to be spoken to! to die fighting in a master’s cause should be the noblest ambition of a retainer!” Then turning to his own son Chikara, he said, “Here, boy! engage those men, and if they are too strong for you, die!”

Spurred by these words, Chikara seized a spear and gave battle to Waku Handaiyu, but could not hold his ground, and backing by degrees, was driven out into the garden, where he missed his footing and slipped into a pond, but as Handaiyu, thinking to kill him, looked down into the pond, Chikara cut his enemy in the leg and caused him to fall, and then, crawling out of the water dispatched him. In the meanwhile Kobayashi Hehachi and Shimidzu Ikkaku had been killed by the other Ronins, and of all Kotsuke no Suke’s retainers not one fighting man remained. Chikara, seeing this, went with his bloody sword in his hand into a back room to search for Kotsuke no Suke, but he only found the son of the latter, a young lord named Kira Sahioye, who, carrying a halberd, attacked him, but was soon wounded and fled. Thus the whole of Kotsuke no Suke’s men having been killed, there was an end of the fighting; but as yet there was no trace of Kotsuke no Suke to be found.

Then Kuranosuke divided his men into several parties and searched the whole house, but all in vain; women and children weeping were alone to be seen. At this the forty-seven men began to lose heart in regret, that after all their toil they had allowed their enemy to escape them, and there was a moment when in their despair they agreed to commit suicide together upon the spot; but they determined to make one more effort. So Kuranosuke went into Kotsuke no Suke’s sleeping-room, and touching the quilt with his hands, exclaimed, “I have just felt the bed-clothes and they are yet warm, and so methinks that our enemy is not far off. He must certainly be hidden somewhere in the house.” Greatly excited by this, the Ronins renewed their search. Now in the raised part of the room, near the place of honour, there was a picture hanging; taking down this picture, they saw that there was a large hole in the plastered wall, and on thrusting a spear in they could feel nothing beyond it. So one of the Ronins, called Yazama Jiutaro, got into the hole, and found that on the other side there was a little courtyard, in which there stood an outhouse for holding charcoal and firewood. Looking into the outhouse, he spied something white at the further end, at which he struck with his spear, when two armed men sprang out upon him and tried to cut him down, but he kept them back until one of his comrades came up and killed one of the two men and engaged the other, while Jiutaro entered the outhouse and felt about with his spear. Again seeing something white, he struck it with his lance, when a cry of pain betrayed that it was a man; so he rushed up, and the man in white clothes, who had been wounded in the thigh, drew a dirk and aimed a blow at him. But Jiutaro wrested the dirk from him, and clutching him by the collar, dragged him out of the outhouse. Then the other Ronin came up, and they examined the prisoner attentively, and saw that he was a noble-looking man, some sixty years of age, dressed in a white satin sleeping-robe, which was stained by the blood from the thigh-wound which, Jiutaro had inflicted. The two men felt convinced that this was no other than Kotsuke no Suke, and they asked him his name, but he gave no answer, so they gave the signal whistle, and all their comrades collected together at the call; then Oishi Kuranosuke, bringing a lantern, scanned the old man’s features, and it was indeed Kotsuke no Suke; and if further proof were wanting, he still bore a scar on his forehead where their master, Asano Takumi no Kami, had wounded him during the affray in the castle. There being no possibility of mistake, therefore, Oishi Kuranosuke went down on his knees, and addressing the old man very respectfully, said–

“My lord, we are the retainers of Asano Takumi no Kami. Last year your lordship and our master quarrelled in the palace, and our master was sentenced to _hara-kiri,_ and his family was ruined. We have come to-night to avenge him, as is the duty of faithful and loyal men. I pray your lordship to acknowledge the justice of our purpose. And now, my lord, we beseech you to perform _hara-kiri_. I myself shall have the honour to act as your second, and when, with all humility, I shall have received your lordship’s head, it is my intention to lay it as an offering upon the grave of Asano Takumi no Kami.”

Thus, in consideration of the high rank of Kotsuke no Suke, the Ronins 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 Kuranosuke, 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. Then the forty-seven comrades, elated at having accomplished their design, placed the head in a bucket, and prepared to depart; but before leaving the house they carefully extinguished all the lights and fires in the place, lest by any accident a fire should break out and the neighbours suffer.

As they were on their way to Takanawa, the suburb in which the temple called Sengakuji stands, the day broke; and the people flocked out to see the forty-seven men, who, with their clothes and arms all blood-stained, presented a terrible appearance; and every one praised them, wondering at their valour and faithfulness. But they expected every moment that Kotsuke no Suke’s father-in-law would attack them and carry off the head, and made ready to die bravely sword in hand. However, they reached Takanawa in safety, for Matsudaira Aki no Kami, one of the eighteen chief daimios of Japan, of whose house Asano Takumi no Kami had been a cadet, had been highly pleased when he heard of the last night’s work, and he had made ready to assist the Ronins in case they were attacked. So Kotsuke no Suke’s father-in-law dared not pursue them.

At about seven in the morning they came opposite to the palace of Matsudaira Mutsu no Kami, the Prince of Sendai, and the Prince, hearing of it, sent for one of his councillors and said: “The retainers of Takumi no Kami have slain their lord’s enemy, and are passing this way; I cannot sufficiently admire their devotion, so, as they must be tired and hungry after their night’s work, do you go and invite them to come in here, and set some gruel and a cup of wine before them.”

So the councilor went out and said to Oishi Kuranosuke: “Sir, I am a councillor of the Prince of Sendai, and my master bids me beg you, as you must be worn out after all you have undergone, to come in and partake of such poor refreshment as we can offer you. This is my message to you from my lord.”

“I thank you, sir,” replied Kuranosuke. “It is very good of his lordship to trouble himself to think of us. We shall accept his kindness gratefully.”

So the forty-seven Ronins went into the palace, and were feasted with gruel and wine, and all the retainers of the Prince of Sendai came and praised them.

Then Kuranosuke turned to the councillor and said, “Sir, we are truly indebted to you for this kind hospitality; but as we have still to hurry to Sengakuji, we must needs humbly take our leave.” And, after returning many thanks to their hosts, they left the palace of the Prince of Sendai and hastened to Sengakuji, where they were met by the abbot of the monastery, who went to the front gate to receive them, and led them to the tomb of Takumi no Kami.

And when they came to their lord’s grave, they took the head of Kotsuke no Suke, and having washed it clean in a well hard by, laid it as an offering before the tomb. When they had done this, they engaged the priests of the temple to come and read prayers while they burnt incense: first Oishi Kuranosuke burnt incense, and then his son Oishi Chikara, and after them the other forty-five men performed the same ceremony. Then Kuranosuke, 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. So the forty-seven Ronins, with their minds at rest, waited patiently until they should receive the orders of the Government.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Fujiyama, Japan. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c260bdb3-9b60-4552-e040-e00a18066d81

At last they were summoned to the Supreme Court, where the governors of Yedo and the public censors had assembled; and the sentence passed upon them was as follows: “Whereas, neither respecting the dignity of the city nor fearing the Government, having leagued yourselves together to slay your enemy, you violently broke into the house of Kira Kotsuke no Suke by night and murdered him, the sentence of the Court is, that, for this audacious conduct, you perform hara-kiri.” When the sentence had been read, the forty-seven Ronins were divided into four parties, and handed over to the safe keeping of four different daimios; and sheriffs were sent to the palaces of those daimios in whose presence the Ronins were made to perform hara-kiri. But, as from the very beginning they had all made up their minds that to this end they must come, they met their death nobly; and their corpses were carried to Sengakuji, and buried in front of the tomb of their master, Asano Takumi no Kami. And when the fame of this became noised abroad, the people flocked to pray at the graves of these faithful men.

Among those who came to pray was a Satsuma man, who, prostrating himself before the grave of Oishi Kuranosuke, said: “When I saw you lying drunk by the roadside at Yamashina, in Kioto, I knew not that you were plotting to avenge your lord; and, thinking you to be a faithless man, I trampled on you and spat in your face as I passed. And now I have come to ask pardon and offer atonement for the insult of last year.” With those words he prostrated himself again before the grave, and, drawing a dirk from his girdle, stabbed himself in the belly and died. And the chief priest of the temple, taking pity upon him, buried him by the side of the Ronins; and his tomb still remains to be seen with those of the forty-seven comrades.


Freeman-Mitford, A.B. (1871) Tales of Old Japan. London,

Gender Expectations of Edo Period Japan


The Edo period made Japan Japan. This long segment of peace shaped Japanese gender expectations and continues to influence them today. Japan was once a matriarchal society. The influx of Confucian ideas from China around the 15th century eroded the ability of women to hold power. Confucian ideas stressed hierarchy, male dominance, integrity, and righteousness. Women became subservient (Sugihara 2000). Japan divided along class lines that became distinct during the Edo period: the ruling class, townsman class, and the peasant class. Each class had tiers within it. Samurai increased in rank all the way up to the shogun. However, even the lowest samurai remained higher in social standing than the highest peasant. The walls between the classes could be shattered with work, but most of the time people moved downward through the classes. Samurai became farmers more often that farmers became samurai (Platt, 2000). Each class had its own gender expectations.

The House System

At the center of Edo period gender roles stood the ie or house. This organization system originated in Confucian China. Men headed the house, and women changed their names to that of her husband. Her social status was dependent on her husband. Before the house system, women were able to keep their names and own property (Sugihara, 2000).  At first, the house system appears constraining for women, and for samurai women it was. However, the system gave women control of the business within the house. Men controlled the business outside the house. The Confucian ideal between the genders is best described by a book called the Onna Daigaku, or Greater Learning for Women: “men pursue their duties without, while women govern within.” Men were not to speak of what belongs in the house and women were not to speak of what belongs outside. The ideal of the Edo period was for men and women to form a harmonious union. Through this union, the house prospered. This idea replaced the Chinese Confucian idea that husbands and wives were to be distinct and separate (Sekiguchi, 2010). Confucianism stressed the preeminence of men over women, stating: “A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother.”(Walthall, 1984) This view reflected in the laws of the period. Women did not legally exist. In practice, these ideas were mostly limited to the samurai class.

Heads of households were expected to protect and nurture the family name and the business of the house. This extended to all three classes. The house was more important than any single member. The gender expectations of each class centers around this idea, but how they went about nurturing the house defined gender roles for each class.

Gender Expectations for the Samurai Class

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-c600-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wSamurai had a problem during the Edo period. War was abolished. The entire class centered around being warriors. Even samurai women were expected to fight and die. Both men and women shared the same ideals of loyal, courage, and honor. Samurai women were expected to govern the household, continue her husband’s line, and protect the family’s honor. If that required death, she would slit her own throat faster than a man could lay open his stomach. Only during the Edo period little of this was actually necessary. Samurai women were left to continuing her family’s line and governing the household. During the Edo period, it become rare for many samurai women to leave the home (Tanimura, 2011). Samurai girls learned what was needed to govern the household, including reading, writing, and how to play the koto, a 13 string zither. A lady playing the koto was considered the ideal of modesty and elegance.However, they were forbidden to learn the shamisen. The 1847 version of Onna Chohoki, another female instruction book, speaks negatively of the instrument (Tanimura, 2011):

Its tone sounds so lecherous that it is not regarded as a musical instrument. It is a tool for courtesans. You should definitely not learn to play the shamisen. However, you should learn the names of its parts.

Samurai women were expected to be strong and endure in addition to being educated and subservient. Despite these trends, when the Edo period ended samurai women remembered their history. They fought some of the final battles of the Edo period.

The Onna Daigaku summarized the role samurai women played in the house:

A woman must be intent on the duties of her household, and must not weary of weaving, sewing, and spinning…, nor must she feed her eyes and ears with kabuki, kouta, and joruri.

Samurai men, as heads of the household, had the obligation to continue their lineage and carry the business of their family. Most importantly, they carried the honor of their family. Men were expected to be well-trained in military arts and literature. In the old days, samurai would gain honor through bravery and decisive action on the battlefield. They would return with the heads of those they killed in battle, and through this they gained honor. Yes, samurai were head hunters. Without war, Edo period samurai culture shifted from bravery and decisive action  on the battlefield to finding ways to show their bravery and decisiveness in other ways. Shame —haji–played a key role in the identity of samurai men. The class defined itself as the class that would risk their lives to defend their good name. Shame differed from how we understand it. While it was a feeling, shame was also a combination of inner principles and societal views of a samurai. As heads of household, shame could spread from samurai men to the rest of the family. Samurai honor lacked a set guide for shame. Instead, samurai men decided when and if his honor needed defense. Autonomy was important for samurai men, even as it was denied samurai women. The practice of seppuku, or ritualized suicide, was the final act of autonomy a samurai could commit (Ikegami, 2003). The accusation of cowardice made the blackest stain on a samurai’s honor.

Confucian scholar Muro Kyuso (1658-1734) defined the samurai’s moral code as principled autonomy:

The disciplined and rightful attitude of the samurai should include the following: not to speak falsehood; not to work for selfish gain; to keep the mind straightforward and honest; simplicity in external appearance; to maintain a disciplined and courteous bearing, neither flattering one’s superiors nor being arrogant toward one’s juniors; to keep promises unfailingly; and not to ignore another in hardship. . .

Samurai not only had to worry about their reputation, but the lord they served as well. Their actions could disgrace their lord. Many samurai served their lords out in rural fortresses where they oversaw and protected the surrounded villages. Samurai were not allowed to own businesses. They had to work as administrators as befitting their social standing. Samurai were paper pushers in the Edo period. In return, samurai received stipends according to their rank.

Gender Expectations of the Townsman Class

12645216_1019550614772013_4424802824108759450_nWhile samurai couldn’t legally own businesses, Edo period towns teemed with commerce. The long peace allowed intricate trade networks to develop between villages and towns. Over time, the townsman class, which composed of merchants, artisans, and other people who served the needs of the urban samurai, gained power and wealth. The townsman class had their own gender expectations were differed from the samurai. The importance of the household remained the same, but the application of the principles differed, particularly for women. The townsman class made up around 6-7% of the total population of Japan during the Edo period (Tanimura, 2011). Townsman class women were industrious and worked to direct their own future. Many worked alongside their husbands and fathers to improve the family business. Most even went to school.

Private school systems thrived during the Edo period. Called terakoya, some scholars estimate as many as 86% of children who lived in the city of Edo went to these schools. The schools were ran by priests, Confucian scholars, doctors, merchants, and female teachers. They lacked tuition, and parents could pay teachers in goods, such as produce or rice cakes. Girls and boys started school around 6 years old and left after 3-4 years. Literacy was so widespread in the cities–and in the countryside as we will see–that European visitors to Japan at the end of the Edo period were shocked. The ability to read was more widespread than in England and Europe at the time (Tanimura, 2011).

The Onna Shikimoku, yet another girl’s teaching book, states:

The girls of the townsman class will become the wives of merchants, and so they are encouraged to be literate to help with their family business. . . People who cannot write are called illiterate. These people have eyes, but they are like the blind.

Women were expected to help men. Townsman class men, unlike their samurai brethren, relied on their women to help carry the burden of the house. Unlike samurai men, townsmen didn’t worry about honor as much as the reputation of their business. Men were expected to know how to read, write, do arithmetic, and understand ethics. Many men paid for extra education for their daughters. In addition to private schools, they sent their daughters to classes to learn how to play the shamisen.  Despite the public disdain samurai had for the instrument, it became popular behind closed doors. It also appeared in theatrical art forms like kabuki. Girls who mastered the instrument had a chance to move across the line between the samurai and townsmen classes. Poor townsmen girls dreamed about becoming concubines for high ranked samurai. It was a common fairy tale told in cities and rural villages (Tanimura, 2011). Becoming a mistress to a samurai brought a family wealth and social status. Talented townsman class girls became maids and ladies-in-waiting for samurai families. This let her learn the customs and tastes, and styles of samurai women. In turn, her family could use this knowledge to better the family business and their own social standing among other townsman families.

The Miyako Fuzoku Kagami,published in 1681 states (Tanimura, 2011):

In cities, if parents have daughters with good looks, they send those daughters out to the provinces, and put them in service with country lords. There are a good number of people who originally came from low class families, but became rich through their daughters’ service. If such parents have a girl with sophisticated beauty, they place great hopes in her. In order to have her support the family, they raise her carefully and have her become literate and learn calligraphy or take shamisen lessons. Or, if they think that it might be valuable for her future, they send her to street performers to learn dancing.

Townsman class men taught their sons the family trade and worked to provide for their families. Their relationships with their wives and daughters was more equitable than the samurai class. The peasant class shared this in common with their urban counterparts.

Gender Expectations of the Peasant Class

12931044_1055742431152831_6226667208404208230_nThe word “peasant” has the danger of creating misunderstandings. Peasants in Edo period Japan were not the serfs of the European feudal ages. The shogunate implemented many agriculture reforms that were designed to encourage peasant families to be independent. Improved irrigation and other agricultural practices gave peasants more resources to put toward recreation and the arts. Peasant farms ran similar to urban family businesses. Peasants could visit religious shrines and cities. They wrote poetry, acted in kabuki, and practiced sword fighting. Like the townsman class, women were expected to help on the family farm. Peasant women often dominated male members of the household (Walthall, 1984). The typical peasant family considered of 5-7 people: the married couple that made the core of the family, 2-3 children, and perhaps grandparents. The social ideal for peasant families was independence. Each household was expected to survive without outside help. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t cooperation between neighbors. Rather, families took pride in their ability to run a successful farming business. Men and women dreamed about earning wealth and honor. Unlike the townsman class, this dream didn’t involve breaking the class boundaries. The dream of wealth and honor remained on the farm, its continuation and the continuation of the family.  The fear of losing everything remained real (Katsumi, 1989).

Even among the samurai farming was considered honorable. Not as honorable as being a samurai but still honorable. The peasant class took pride in their role and referred to themselves as honorable peasants, onbyakusho. Samurai were seen as protectors, and the townsman class seen as serving the samurai.

Men and women had different labor roles. For example. weaving and papermaking–both lucrative trades–were done by women. Men gathered firewood and made charcoal–less lucrative trades than weaving and papermaking. Peasant women, like townsman class women worked in public (Katsumi. 1989).

The peasant class was also fairly educated and literate. Leading families in villages were expected to be literate. Head families had the responsibility to collect taxes and carry out the written orders of the samurai class. The shogunate encouraged the peasant class to learn practical writing, reading, and math skills. By the end of the Edo period, most heads of peasant households could read (Katsumi, 1980). Some of the leading families were once samurai. Some samurai families willingly bought farms and converted to the peasant class (Platt, 2000). This brought a taste for samurai style and arts to rural villages.

The Roles of Children

Across each of the three social classes, children were expected to master the skills of their station. Samurai children mastered martial arts, literature, administration, and the warrior code. Townsman class children went to school for reading, writing, mathematics, and learned the family trade. Talented girls had the opportunity to enter the world of the samurai if they worked hard. Boys were mostly locked in their station. But they did have the option of becoming monks and religious leaders. Peasant children lived on the farm and learned the various side businesses like weaving and charcoal making that supplemented the household. Many also learned writing, reading, and mathematics.

The Division Among the Classes

We focused on the division between the classes but families also vied within classes for social status. Village heads were the top of the peasant class. The indentured laborer sat on the bottom. The concubine for a high ranked samurai sat at the top of the townsman class. Beggars sat at the bottom. The Shogun capped the samurai class, and the lowest ranked samurai were relegated to doing meaningless administrative busywork or becoming ronin, or samurai without masters.

Divorce in the Edo Period

At times, one person or the other couldn’t carry the burden of the family. Dowries dictated the rank of a samurai woman’s marriage in the middle of the Edo period. Divorces among the samurai could only happen with the permission of the domain’s lord. Townsman and peasant classes allowed men to write a short letter of divorce to his wife. If she accepted it, the divorce was complete. These letters were about three lines (Cornell, 1990):

 To my wife. It is my pleasure to divorce you.

There is no objection to your marrying anyone whomsoever.

Witness my hand, this day and month

Men who married without issuing this letter and having it accepted were banished. Women could issue letters of divorce as well (Tadashi, 2003).

What is Missing with Gender Expectation Discussions

10636845_1002800429780365_6951032470458221506_oWhenever we discuss gender expectations like this, we can only speak in generalities. Not all samurai women were shut ins. Likewise not all peasant families were egalitarian. There is a human element we lose when we discuss history. History often distills complex lives into lists and dates. Samurai men loved their children, including their daughters. Many samurai men loved their wives, and many wives loved their husbands. From our modern, Western perspective we find it deplorable how women were treated, but we also forget that such rigid structures hurt men too. Some samurai fathers certainly wanted to spend more time at home with their children but were unable to do so. Gender expectations came out of the reality of the times they developed.  Dividing roles based on gender was a practical matter–from the perspective of the time. Women could produce children and the strain was hard on their bodies. Medical care was limited to traditional techniques. The risk of dying in childbirth remained high. The role of raising children was more important than many of the roles men held. This is particularly true under the ie system and its focus on continuing the lineage.  In the Edo period, women were expected to be subservient but not weak. Weak women could not run a demanding household or manage business affairs. Women were expected to be strong pillars for the family. Men were expected to improve the family’s reputation out in society.  The family rested on the shoulders of husband and wife. Both had a share of the weight.

Some people lived outside the expected gender roles, such as geisha and actors. Geisha could be their own business, and the life offered women a level of independence unknown to the other classes. Actors shared the pleasure districts with geisha or traveled to villages in troupes. Some actors and geisha became celebrities. Their fame allowed them to cross the boundaries between all of the classes. Kabuki was one of the few areas where all three classes mingled, much to the distress of the shogunate. Each of the classes of the Edo period had their own view of how to continue and improve the household. Each class wanted the best life possible for their children and grandchildren.


Cornell, L. (1990). Peasant Women and Divorce in Preindustrial Japan. Signs. 15 (4). 710-732.

Friedman, S. (1992). Women in Japanese Society: Their Changing Roles. http://www2.gol.com/users/friedman/writings/p1.html

Ikegami, E. (2003). Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trustworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture. Social Research. 70 (4).1351-1378.

Katsumi, Fukaya (1980) Tokugawa Peasants and the Three Rs. Japan Interpreter. 13 (1) 126-128.

Platt, B. (2000) Elegance, Prosperity, Crisis: Three Generations of Tokugawa Village Elites. Monumenta Nipponica. 55 (1) 45-81.

Sekiguchi, S. (2010) Confucian Morals and the Making of a ‘Good Wife and Wise Mother”: From ‘Between Husband and Wife there is Distinction’ to ‘As Husbands and Wives be Harmonious’ Social Science Japan Journal. 13 (1) 95-113.

Shin, M. (2010) Making a Samurai Western: Japan and the White Samurai Fantasy in The Last Samurai. The Journal of Popular Culture. 43 (5) 1065-1080.

Sugihara, Y. and Emiko Katsurada (2000) Gender-Role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 30-318.

Tanimura, R. (2011) The Study of Shamisen Among Girls of the Late Edo Townsman Class. International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, National Institute for the Humanities. 73-96.

Tadashi, T. (2003) Marriage and Divorce in the Edo Period. Japan Echo. 30 (5).

Walthall, A. (1984). Peripheries. Rural Culture in Tokugawa Japan. Monumenta Nipponica. 39 (4) 371-392.

Gender Roles of Men in Japanese Society

Japanese-men-groupMany trees have died to research the effects of Japan’s patriarchal society on women. I also did my part by killing digital trees. Surprisingly, not as much research has been done on men. Patriarchal societies may appear to be a man’s paradise, but these societies place a heavy burden on men, perhaps even heavier than on women.

Many people get upset about female gender roles and the submissive nature of those roles. However, we rarely consider the opposite side. Being the head of the household and forced to wield authority over women and other people lower in the social order can be a problem for some men. Of course, many men (and women for that matter) enjoy lording over others. But what of those men who do not fit into the social role? What exactly is the social role of men in Japanese society?

Enter Confucius

You may be surprised to learn that Japan used to be a matriarchal society. That is, until Confucianism landed on Japan’s shores (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000). The arrival of China’s long-beard philosophy  — hey, that is how many view it, as an old man with a long beard — marked the beginning of women’s subordination to men and forcing men into authoritative roles.

rural-japanConfucianism focuses on order. Everything has its place. The household, called ie in Japanese, is the basic building block of society. Confucianism view men as aggressive, independent, dominate, competitive, confident, and analytical. All of which are needed to head a household and manage the family’s estate. Men must be leaders, risk-takers, decision makers, and profoundly loyal to his lord and emperor. During the Tokugawa period, Confucian structure was encouraged by the Shogun. (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000; Slote & De Vos, 1998). In addition to this, men were required to cultivate themselves through intellectual activity, self denial, and discipline. Even the lower classes were expected to practice self denial and discipline.

In the samurai class, men were expected to be accomplished in literature and the arts in addition to being strong warriors (Brown, 2012; Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002).  This was all a part of Bushido, the warrior’s ethic. Bushido forms the foundation for Japanese male identity from the feudal era up to the end of World War II. One of the key ideas of the ethic is selfless loyalty and dedication to the emperor. These ideas led to the kamikaze and other suicidal practices martial men were expected to do. Seppuku also comes to mind.

Basically, men were expected to run the show and earn the family’s wealth. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a lot to shoulder. The local lord also expected men to serve him in war. Even the peasant class had the risk of being conscripted as an ashigaru.


Photo of samurai, Kusakabe Kimbei c. 1880

As you may remember from the article about women’s gender roles, women were also expected to be loyal to their husbands and the Japanese state. However, their loyalty was not quite as demanding as what was expected of men. Particularly during WW2, the imperial government of Japan demanded total sacrifice from Japanese men. Although it is dramatized, I recommend you watch Letter of Iwo Jima to get an idea of what some Japanese soldiers may have experienced.

Men in Modern Japan

As I mentioned, bushido drove expectations of manhood in World War II.  Beyond loyalty, the patriarchal system enshrined gender roles as a sacred duty. People in power were morally superior and deserved their higher status because of it (Slote & De Vos. 1998). Anyone who spoke against these compartment roles spoke out against the sacred. Society pressures men to conform to expectations just as much as it does women. Men are expected to shoulder authority, even when he would rather share it with his wife. Men who would like to spend more time with children cannot. Being a stay-at-home dad isn’t something “real” men do. American men wrestle with this as well. I have friends who dreamed of being stay-at-home fathers, but society’s expectations frowned upon them doing “women’s work”.

The roles can be summarized in three points:

  • The father (or CEO) must be obeyed.
  • Defer to those who are older.
  • Serve the emperor (or company).

These ideas go beyond what we in the West would consider service. Loyalty involves more than obeying orders and heeding advice. It involves anticipating what benefits the superior. Loyalty means being proactive. Being proactive is one reason why some Japanese men have died on the job.  Another factor is the idea that men must be wholly dedicated to their work.

Bae (2010) conducted a study about gender role division. Japanese men who believed a man must be devoted to work and women to the household reported higher life satisfaction when that was the case. They also reported lower satisfaction when wives were forced (or wanted) to work.  Egalitarian-minded men reported the opposite, higher life satisfaction when the wife also worked and lower when she did not. However, both types of men wrestled with feelings of inadequacy about his ability to provide for the family when the wife worked. Men’s social role of being the devoted breadwinner remains a burden.

Senpai-kohai Relationships

Japanese-menJapanese men have a tight social world to navigate. Obeying superiors becomes a complicated web. Surprisingly, women are not as aware of senpai-kohai relationships as men (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2002).

So what exactly is a senpai-kohai relationship?

It is a social structure based on the ideas of loyalty and obedience we already examined. A senpai is someone who is more experienced and therefore higher in the social order. A kohai is someone who is subordinate to the senpai. It is loosely similar to the master-apprentice system. The senpai‘s orders and opinions are absolute and must be obeyed. A senpai’s social standing is enhanced by the number of kohai he has. The kohai benefits from the senpai‘s connections. Kohai receive jobs, positions, and even emotional support from the senpai.

There are times when the roles are reversed. For example, Takashi is the senpai to Shin at work. However, Shin is a senior member at a country club Takashi wants to join. At work, Shin would defer to Takashi. At the country club, Takashi would defer to Shin. Depending on their relationship, honorifics they use to refer to each other may change based on the different social situations.

Senpai-kohai relationships are among the most important and lasting of relationships between Japanese men. Because of the nature of these relationships, and corporate culture’s emphasis on teamwork, Japanese men are expected to balance traditional masculine traits (decision making, competitiveness, and others) with feminine traits such as kindness and sensitivity (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000)

The Changing Man

Since the feminist movement of the 1960s, Japanese men see a slight loosening in their expected role in society. Some of the stereotypes are not as prominent because of the new demands of the corporate world. However, Japanese men still lack the freedom many Western men enjoy. Japanese men are still expected to found households and be loyal to their company. Duel income households are becoming more common out of necessity (Sugihara & Katsurada, 2000). Because of this, men must shoulder more of the household duties. The added stress of doing “woman’s work” strains his social role and demands he devote less time to his corporate work.

Japanese gender roles are changing. Male gender roles change more slowly than women’s roles, creating tension between the genders (Bae, 2010).

felice_beatos_japan_places_people_2_2Men’s gender roles are just as constraining as female roles. They constrain differently. Many men do not want to be sole head of the household. I am one of them. Men do not want to spend every waking hour working. Most want to embrace long ignored sides of masculinity: the nurturing and mentoring sides, the soft strength of sensitivity. However, Japanese society –and American society for that matter–have a one dimensional view of men. Feudal Japanese society encourages men to cultivate themselves in the arts and literature, but even this still had an eye toward improving how a man may serve. So-called feminine traits like care-giving and sensitivity are not on the list. Sadly, the sensitive side of men offers the most strength. Grass withstands winds that shatter oaks.

Gradually, the social demands on Japanese men are changing. Whether or not the change is for the better depends on who you ask. Like so many aspects of Japan, old ideas co-exist with new. Traditional gender roles for men and women might yet find a way to co-exist with new, negotiated gender roles.


Bae, J. (2010). Gender Role Division in Japan and Korea: The Relationship between Realities and Attitudes. Journal Of Political Science & Sociology, (13), 71-85.

Brown, R. (2012). Yasuoka Masahiro’s ‘New Discourse on Bushido Philosophy’: Cultivating the Samurai Spirit and Men of Character for Imperial Japan. Social Science Japan Journal. 16 (1). 107-129.

Slote, W. & De Vos, G. (1998). A Japanese Legacy of Confucian Thought. Confucians and the Family. Ebook.

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2000). Gender-role Personality Traits in Japanese Culture. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 24. 309-318.

Sugihara, Y. & Katsurada, E. (2002). Gender Role Development in Japanese Culture: Diminishing Gender Role Differences in a Contemporary Society. Sex Roles. 47. 443-452.

Musings On Nameless Old Women in Edo-Period Popular Literature

About a year ago, I was looking at Edo-period book illustrations and reading name cartuoches – until I stumbled upon two which did not actually contain a name!

I was working behind the scenes of an exhibition at my former university (Goethe-University Frankfurt Main, Germany[1]), which owns a small but very well-preserved collection of mid- to late- Edo-period (mostly early 19th century) woodblock printed books.[2] Many of those are illustrated (beautifully even though black-and-white). We planned to exhibit a few of these, related to the topic of travel in Edo-period Japan. In the process of preparing the information booklet for the exhibition, my supervisor, my co-worker and I usually transcribed and then translated the text on the pages which were to be shown. Kyôden granny bear 1Since I couldn’t read premodern Japanese very well, I tended to focus on short texts such as name cartouches and one-line image titles. This is where I noticed that, in two pages from different volumes of Santô Kyôden’s (1761-1816) novel Mukashigatari Inazuma Byôshi (Tales of the Past: The Envelope with the Lightning Design, illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni), two old women are not actually named in their name cartouches.Instead they are identified as ‘the mother of Kamon’ ( 嘉門の母, Kamon no haha, right) or literally ‘an old woman’ (老女, rôjo, down left). Incidentally, both of them have to be  rescued by male heroes: the old woman from a pack of dogs, Kamon’s mother from a bear.

By contrast, in another novel we exhibited, Kyôden granny dogs 2Shûshoku Shibori no Asagao (Autumnal Colours: Morning Glories Tie-Died, by Shôtei Kinsui, illustrated by Utagawa Yoshifuji), the female characters seemed to be travelling quite safely on their own or with a servant, and they have actual names, both in the text and in their cartouches.

Why might this be? The principal difference between these two sets of female characters is their age. The women in Shûshoku are young and thus of interest to the male heroes (as potential wives or paramours); but the old women in Mukashigatari have either already served their function as wife/lover and mother, or are too old now to do so. In both cases, I thought to myself, they have nothing left to contribute to a patriarchal society… so why bother naming them?[3]

There is more to it of course. In the Edo era, religious and social prejudice against women was prevalent; Buddhism as well as Shinto decried women as polluted and polluting beings for their ‘sexual allure’ and their bleeding in menstruation and childbirth. (These were colourfully evoked in the Buddhist concept of Blood Lake Hell and are probably responsible for the prohibition for women to ascend certain holy mountains.[4]) Yet, Buddhist nunneries existed too, and traditionally, an imperial princess dwelled as a miko (shrine maiden) in the ancestral shrine of the Tennô family.[5] Because of the approach of death, old age especially was seen as a time of religious devotion for both genders[6] – that was how the elderly were supposed to spend their additional free time in ‘retirement’. Kamon’s mother follows this custom and in so doing, I would argue, demonstrates her agency when she travels the mountains, by herself, to worship at a temple.[7] I would also assume that, similar to the nunneries of the Christian Middle Age, religious practice offered security and even a pathway to some degree of validation and authority for women.Kyôden granny bear 2

However, Confucianism was more influential in the period than either Japanized Buddhism or Shintô,[8] and it emphasized the moral virtue of caring for the aged, represented by ‘the image of the devoted son carrying his incapacitated [i.e. passive] parent around on his back’.[9] This is referenced in Mukashigatari when the hero, having saved Kamon’s mother from the bear, carries her home.

On the other hand, the image also recalls the ‘custom’ of ubasute (‘throwing away the old woman’) attacked in Confucian moral tales. In old times, these stories claim, whenever food was scarce or sometimes just because they became too much work, old people were abandoned in the mountains (which are linked to the afterworld in the Japanese religious mindset) by their kin – that is, until a faithful son breaks with the custom (there are different variants but this is the general story). In both ways, as a symbol of devotion or as a reminder of past bad practices, the image was vastly familiar in the Edo period and would have been recognized by the readers.[10] This stereotype could also be a reason why Kamon’s mother lacks a personal name – she is an intertextual reference.

Turning to the other old woman, the beggar, I found that, despite the Confucian demand for care and loving obedience toward one’s parents (and by extension all aged persons), old beggars are portrayed Kyôden granny dogs 3as a frequent occurrence in Edo-Period texts.[11] Wandering from door to door begging for food, they would often be attacked by the village dogs, as the rôba is in Mukashigatari. Although probably not as common an image as the piggyback-riding parent, the beggar woman trying to keep the dogs at bay with a stick may thus also have been a well-known image. (My supervisor suggested this as well.) In Mukashigatari, the encounter might prove crucial for the hero: he is travelling incognito, wearing a straw-hat which covers his face, but he needs to lift it in order to assure the old woman of his intentions (see image above). This will most certainly come into play later in the story: thus, the old woman serves a narrative function, as Kamon’s mother does – no need for a name.

To conclude, it seems to me that, from whatever angle I approach them, these women end up being functions – either biologically, religiously/morally or narratively – rather than people. Limited in their options and confined by social expectations, which push them aside as dependents on filial piety, they don’t seem to matter enough to anyone – character, writer or reader – to deserve a personal name. Basically they cannot do anything interesting: if you are but an old woman with a stick, chances are you will not be able to beat back the dogs on your own.

In my next ‘musing’, I might be looking at very young women with sticks who perform magical feats, meaning Magical Girls, and try to disentangle a bit of the puzzling mixture of progressive and cringe-worthy stereotypical elements in the genre.

Notes and Sources:

[1] http://www.goethe-university-frankfurt.de/en?locale=en

[2] A German-language catalogue of the whole collection, entitled Edo Bunko, is available. See also the (German) website of the collection, http://sammlungen.uni-frankfurt.de/sammlung/43/edo-bibliothek-a-institut-f-r-ostasiatische-philologien-japanologie-a-edo-bunko-a-a-a-a/

[3] For an interesting discussion of the position, rights and abilities of Edo-period women, see Yabuta Yutaka, “Rediscovering Women in Tokugawa Japan”, a paper presented at the Japan Forum, Harvard University, 2000. http://rijs.fas.harvard.edu/pdfs/yabuta.pdf

[4] Okano Haruko, “Die Stellung der Frau in der japanischen Religionsgeschichte“, in Elisabeth Gössmann, ed, Japan – Ein Land der Frauen? (München: Juridicum, 1991), pp. 34-55, pp. 50-53.

[5] I read this in the notes to an English translation of the Kôjiki which is unavailable to me at the moment.

[6] Susanne Formanek, “Traditional Concepts and Images of Old Age in Japan”, in Florian Coulmas, ed, The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook about Japan, pp. 323-43, pp. 332-4. See also her (German) study Denn dem Alter kann keiner entfliehen: Altern und Alter im Japan der Nara- und Heian-Zeit (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994), p. 505.

[7] Women were allowed in temples if they were past the age of forty: Susanne Formanek, Die “böse Alte” in der japanischen Populärkultur der Edo-Zeit: Die Feindvalenz und ihr soziales Umfeld (Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2005), p. 384. There was a danger, of cause, for old women living alone in the mountains to become suspect, as the tales of the yôkai ‘yamauba’ reveal (Yamauba are also connected to the obasute-custom I mention later; see http://yokai.com/yamauba, for example). All the more reason, then, for Kamon’s mother to emphasize her piety.

[8] Yabuta, p. 10.

[9] Formanek, “Traditional Concepts”, p. 338.

[10] ibid.

[11] Formanek, Denn dem Altern, pp. 228-31.

Japan’s Warrior Women

onna-bushiThe one characteristic that sets women apart from men has shaped how women are treated in most societies. No, I am not referring to boobs. There is something about childbirth that relegates women to the role of property in most agricultural societies. Perhaps it is because most agricultural societies have the idea of land ownership built into their systems. Like farmland produces food, women produce heirs. Both are important for a family’s survival. Japan is one culture that has a long history of viewing women as subordinate. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, for example, women did not legally exist. They could not own property and had to be subordinate to men in every way (Friedman, 1992).

Despite this lack of legal status, women played important background roles in Japanese warrior society. Sadly, women are rarely mentioned in early histories. These histories were originally oral traditions that enshrined certain clans and warriors (almost all male) in legend.  This lack of history doesn’t mean Japanese women kept to their kimono and were victims of rape and other atrocities of war. Quite the contrary, Japanese women of samurai class were expected to train in the use of weapons and could even be jito, stewards that supervised land when their men were absent (Amdur, 1996).

Let’s look at what roles samurai women actually held. Now, little is known of how lower classes (farmer, merchant, and artisan) lived compared to the samurai and other elite classes. The lower classes were not the concerns of chroniclers, but we can safely say that the women of these classes were concerned about their families just as much as samurai women. If anything, it might have been better to live in the lower classes. These women dealt with starvation and other deprivations, but they were also not subject to the same rigors of discipline and social expectations as samurai women.

Like what you ask? What is worse then starving?

Beheading your children and then slitting your own throat.

And yes, this actually happened during the Meiji Restoration.

Expectations of Samurai Women

samurai-class-womanEarly History
The battle tales of Japan that chronicle the wars of the Heian, Kamakura, and Muromachi periods portrayed women in a few  roles (Amdur, 1996):

  • Tragic heroine: the woman who kills herself when her husband dies.
  • Loyal Wife: the woman who is taken captive but retains her husband’s honor under questioning, torment, and more.
  • Stalwart Mother: the woman who trains her son to take vengeance for his father.
  • Merciful woman: the woman who encourages a samurai to indulge “unmanly” empathy, such as sparing an enemy’s family.
  • Seductress: the woman who distracts a man from his duty.
  • Spoils of war: women to be slaughtered or given to men as a reward for heroism.

As you can tell, half (or perhaps all?) of the roles are negative. The merciful woman inevitably causes her husband to die by the hand of those he spares. The first three – tragic heroine, loyal wife, and stalwart mother – exemplify samurai ideals. Be loyal to death. Protect the family’s honor. The other three – merciful woman, seductress, and spoils of war – are roles a good samurai woman are to avoid.

Now, I am being a little misleading. The battle tales predate the samurai class, but they were used by the class as a source for their ideas, among other sources. During the time of these battles, particularly the Heian and Kamakura periods, women in the forming samurai class were called bushi (ぶし). Bushi were women pioneers that helped settle new lands. And yes, that sometimes involved fighting. Bushi trained in the use of naginata, a halberd-like weapon useful for both fighting a man and a horseman. The naginata was considered the best weapon for women – although men used the weapon as well – because of women’s natural disadvantage in close quarters fighting. Naginata wielding women became an iconic image during the Warring States Period (Amdur, 1996).

As pioneers, bushi were expected to defend their families, build homes, farm, and just about anything else the American pioneer women did during the expansion of the United States. This background of being tough and loyal to the family became the foundation of what samurai women were expected to be.

Warring States Period
The samurai class was firmly established during this period of history. Because of the constant warfare between the city states, samurai women had many brutal challenges placed upon them. Women were often the final defense of the town or castle. They would also lead other women to battle. In one account, the wife of a samurai lord, after witnessing women and children killing themselves, armed herself, lead 83 surviving soldiers, and challenged the enemy general. The general, claiming women are unfit to be warriors, retreated from her. He managed to  escape when his soldiers attacked the woman’s squad. She cut her way through the mess and back to the castle (Amdur, 1996). These tales made naginata wielding women a new part of the samurai ethos.

However, the main weapon women used showed just what was expected of her. The kaiken (Not the kaioken of Dragonball Z, by the way) or dagger was carried by bushi women at all times. They were not expected to actually fight with the dagger. After all, she would often face several men armed with spears and katana. If she was captured, she was certain to face rape and be used to dishonor her family and husband. Instead, the kaiken was used for jigai. Jigai was the female version of seppuku, only instead of spilling her guts all over the ground, she cut her jugular vein. This avoided an “ugly” death that would be an affront to the dignity of a samurai woman (Amdur, 1996).

Edo Period
During this period, bushi were expected to make the family and her husband her entire life. Then her male sons and her mother-in-law. I already wrote about these expectations if you want to learn more.

Above all, samurai women were expected to be strong, subservient, and endure.

Tomoe, the Legendary Woman  Samurai

Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa

Ishi-jo wielding a naginata, by Kuniyoshi Utagawa

One bushi in particular is enshrined in Japan’s battle chronicles.  Tomoe Gozen appears with other women in Heike monogatari, a chronicle of the Genpai War. Tomoe was a legend for her skill as a mounted warrior, archer, and her beauty.  There are various conflicting accounts of her lineage and final fate, but the attention she garnered shows just how impressive she was in a patriarchal society. A noh play even suggests Tomoe may have retired and became a noh entertainer (Brown, 1998).

In any case, Tomoe appears during the battle of Yokotogawara. There, she kills seven mounted samurai.  Two years later, she is appointed as Kiso no Yoshinaka’s commanders and leads 1,000 horseman to a crucial victory.  In 1184, she survives a debacle that the chronicle says reduced her force from 300 warriors to just five. Soon after, Tomoe appears in one final battle. In one account, Tomoe is denied a warrior’s death. Her lord, in fact, orders her away from the battlefield despite her desire to die beside him in the final fight.  Like a samurai woman should, she obeys his orders to retreat, reports the result of the battle to his wife and child, and prays for her fallen lord.  After this final battle, Tomoe’s life becomes speculation. She is said to have married Wada Yoshimori that produced a legendary warrior Asahino Saburo Yoshihide. The legend also states he inherited his immense strength from his mother (Brown, 1998).

Whether or not the Asahino’s lineage is historical doesn’t matter. What matters is how important Tomoe was. She became one of the best examples of what a samurai woman was supposed to be. She was denied a warrior’s death, but the chronicle makes it plain that she was not dishonored by following her lord’s final order.  While she may be an exception, the fact she became a legend is a male-oriented society is important to consider. She became the leading commander of Yoshinaka’s army and trusted to report a final message to his wife.  The chronicle illustrates the expectation of samurai women to endure – even endure what Tomoe would have considered the dishonor of retreating from a warrior’s death.

The exploits of samurai women like Tomoe became popular subjects for kabuki theater. While the roles are played by men – called onnagata – female warriors became a popular theme. One play, called Kagamiyama or Mirror Mountain premiered in 1782 and appealed directly to samurai class women.  The play’s portrayal of life in a lord’s home and the behavior of the women must have been close to reality because of the play’s popularity. It was based on true incidents of a samurai class maidservant taking revenge for the humiliation of her mistress in 1724. So about 550 years after Tomoe, samurai class women were still involved in fighting and vengeance (Klens-Bigman, 2010).

The Women’s Army – the Joshigun

female-samurai-c.1900During the Meiji Restoration, samurai women saw the end of their class. The Meiji Restoration was a movement to restore the Japanese emperor to power and abolish the Tokugawa shogunate. The last battles of the shogunate often pitted sword-carrying samurai against American and British made Imperial rifles.

One clan, the Aizu, had the deepest loyalty to Tokugawa rule. This loyalty led to one of the final actions of female samurai.

In 1868, Imperial forces besieged the last Aizu stronghold of Aizu-Wakamatsu: Crane Castle. The pressure of the superior firepower from Imperial forces led to few options. Retreat into the castle, commit suicide, flee to the countryside, or charge into final combat.  Some of the warrior women who lost their husbands and sons in the fighting prior opted for suicide. Some even killed themselves to save the castle’s rations for those better fit to fight.  According to accounts, 230 people killed themselves (Wright, 2001).

The members of the Joshigun had other plans. They decided to fight and die. We even know some of their names. The wife of a magistrate, Kawahara Asako, executed her family members before joining the final battle still covered in her family’s blood. She cut off her mother-in-law’s and daughter’s head to avoid their capture (Wright, 2001).

What did Kawahara Asako feel as she decapitated her own daughter? Relief that her daughter won’t have to suffer rape and torture? A sense of duty as a samurai? Certainly sorrow.

Together, 20 to 30 women gathered with the remaining Aizu samurai.  The Aizu commander denied them permission to join to fight before relenting from Nakano Takeko’s (the leader of the women’s delegation group) insistence and threats to kill herself on the spot to shame the commander. The next morning, the remaining Tokugawa supporters attacked in an effort to break through the imperial forces to get to Crane Castle (Wright, 2001).

The members of the Joshigun determined not to be taken alive. When imperial troops learned they were females, many died tried to take these women as captives. However, the attack did have some success. Some of the troops managed to cut through the imperial forces and reinforce Crane Castle. Most of the castle’s defenders were women. Many of these women were tasked with covering cannon balls with wet mats and rice sacks to reduce the damage of the resulting explosion (Wright, 2001).

The women did what they could to hold out with diminishing supplies. There is a story of a 60-year-old mother sneaking out of the castle to find food for the wounded. She was attacked by a soldier who she promptly stabbed to death with her kaiken. Despite efforts like this and attacks to break the siege by diminished outside forces, Crane Castle surrendered after a month. At least 4 of the Aizu warrior women survived.  Yamakawa Sakuko, saw her mother killed during the fighting. She was 9 years old at the time.  Three years later, she found herself selected by her former enemies to go to the United States and become the first Japanese woman to be certified in nursing (Wright, 2001). The daughter of one of the last samurai women became a healer.

Warrior Women Today

The history of samurai women left a quiet mark on Japanese women. Quiet, because it is no where near as well known as the exploits of their male counterparts. However, women like Tomoe exemplified what it meant to be a female samurai – strong, enduring, yet dedicated to family. While we view many of the ideals as perhaps toxic and misogynistic today, the ideas of endurance and inner strength are important for both genders in modern society. We live in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. Samurai ideals came from a similar age of change and uncertainty. These ideals left an impression on Japanese culture that can still be seen in the corporate world. We have similar ideals of endurance and hard work here in the United States because of how own pioneering period. Women, in particular, embodied these ideals because of the burdens of birthing and raising children.

As a guy, I will say it is unfair how much of a burden biology can be for women. Most gender roles rotate around the ability of women to give birth. Even today, the ability to have children shapes how society treats women. Samurai culture is interesting in how men and women shared many of the same expectations.  The ultimate expectation of an honorable death was perhaps equally painful. For men, it was the expectation of stoically spilling out your own guts. For women, it was the expectation of killing your children and then yourself to avoid capture.

Actually, never mind.  It looks like women still have the heaviest burden in even this.
Final thoughts on samurai and suicide.

Okay, I know this is a really long article. So, I will keep this section short.  Samurai culture often seems to revolve around suicide. We have to keep in mind that the stories we have are just a small window. The vast majority of samurai were unlikely to kill themselves. However, the expectation was still there if it had to be done.  In addition to Japanese culture, I also study early Christian history. Understand, I come from a different culture (obviously). So that said, my opinion is a result of my upbringing.  That said, I view martyrdom and a samurai’s suicide as equally fruitless. A dead person cannot help anyone. The idea of honor is silly. All you have to do is travel a fair distance and no one will even know who are you (or in a samurai’s case, travel to Korea or northern Japan) and much less care. It is better to remain alive to teach others than die. Perhaps your name will live on, but the influence a living person has upon history is even greater through his/her influence on people. Even if the name of that person is forgotten. Hundreds of nameless samurai women who lived and died attest to the power of this type of legacy,


Amdur, E. (1996). The Role of Armsbearing Women in Japanese History. Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 5 (2).  11-35.

Klens-Bigman, D. (2010). Fighting Women of Kabuki Theater and the Legacy of Women’s Japanese Martial Arts.  Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 19 (3) 64-77.

Brown, S. (1998). From Woman Warrior to Peripatetic Entertainer: The Multiple Histories of Tomoe. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 58 (1). 183-199.

Wright, D. (2001). Female combatants and Japan’s Meiji Restoration: the case of Aizu. Ware in History 8 (4) 396-417.