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date: 18 June 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This one-act puppet play is one of the first fictionalized (though only thinly disguised) treatments of a famous event that occurred in Tokugawa Japan in 1701–1703. The historical incident began with a knife attack by the daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori on an imperial official named Kira Yoshinaka. Whatever the justice of the provocation, Asano had committed a serious breach in conduct and was forced to pay the most severe penalty. Even though Kira had suffered only a minor wound to his face, Asano was commanded to commit seppuku, ritual suicide. When he did so, his 47 samurai vassals were left leaderless (rōnin), but they swore to avenge Asano’s memory by killing Kira.

In January 1703, the 47 rōnin entered Kira’s home, chasing him and killing several of his retainers and wounding others, including Kira’s grandson. When they finally trapped and overcame Kira, the rōnin cut off his head and brought it to their master’s grave. However, they then decided to turn themselves in to the authorities and commit seppuku themselves, true to their code until the bitter end. In order to elude the censors, Chikamatsu altered the names, condensed some of the main details, and offered a judge that was more sympathetic to the rōnin cause. The essential story would reemerge repeatedly in popular culture (both Japanese and non-Japanese) down to the present day.

Jacqueline Miller, “A Chronicle of Great Peace Played Out on a Chessboard: Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s Goban Taiheiki,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 46 (1986): 221–267, 263–267.

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