'Chushingura' is a story worth treasuring
Playwright Shinobu Hashimoto, who turned 90 this year, reminisced about his father, who loved theatrical performances, in a recent issue of the weekly Shukan Asahi magazine.
A restaurant-bar owner in a small town, the elder Hashimoto staged several productions every year in his spare time. But one play he never cared for was "Chushingura," a popular, partially factual feudal tale of 47 ronin masterless samurai avenging their disgraced lord and master by capturing and executing Kira Kozukenosuke, the man responsible for the downfall of their clan.
The younger Hashimoto recalled his father saying, "Just one samurai going against 47 foes would make an exciting story. But where's the excitement in 47 young fellows conspiring to kill just one old man?" As a boy, Hashimoto was quite impressed by his father's unconventional sense of value.
Dec. 14 marked the 306th year since the 47 ronin from Ako (a part of present-day Hyogo Prefecture) accomplished their vendetta. People like Hashimoto's father are apparently few and far between, and "Chushingura" still remains a popular play today.
If the 1,000-year-old "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji) is a literary gem that should be considered a national treasure for its refinement, "Chushingura" is undoubtedly a gem of popular literature.
Kira is virtually portrayed as Public Enemy No. 1, but he has defenders. For one, there was novelist Kikuchi Kan (1888-1948), who wrote a novel titled "Kira Kozuke no Tachiba" (Kira Kozuke's position). In the scene where Kira is huddled in a coal shed, hiding from the avengers, he laments in indignation, "Should (the avengers) capture and kill me, I'll be branded forever as a villain. ... Whatever I have to say will all but be vilified by those who preach the moral rectitude of this vendetta." I must say Kira makes a legitimate point.
There are "villains" within the ranks of the Ako ronin, too--namely, the "traitors" who refused to participate in the vengeance. For instance, Ono Kurobei, who was said to have stood up to Oishi Kuranosuke, who masterminded the plot, is portrayed as a total loser.
Ono must have had perfectly legitimate reasons or excuses of his own for wanting out, but the public in any era is ever eager to label people as simply "good" or "bad."
A haiku poem by Tenko Kawasaki goes: "Hot sake/ Shared by men/ Who sat out the vendetta." The men referred to here are obviously ronin from Ako, but the poem also reminds me of the sort of pathos felt by Japanese company workers today.
From time to time, many Japanese think their own thoughts about "Chushingura." The story, with its climax set in December during the Genroku Era (1688-1703) of the Edo Period (1603-1867), is as much of a national treasure as The Tale of Genji.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 14(IHT/Asahi: December 22,2008)