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Bushido and Revenge

Shinko Taniguchi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Bushido and revenge

Stories and dramas about master swordsmen present many scenes in which samurai attack their enemies using splendid skillful sword fighting techniques. The scholar Mitamura Engyo, an authority on the Edo period (1603-1868 prior to the Meiji period in Japan) stated that samurai were convinced that if they did not carry out revenge, they would lose their honor as samurai. Chiba Kameo also mentioned that samurai were forced into revenge, sacrificing themselves to the code of bushido (the samurai code of chivalry), which compelled them to carry out revenge.

The title that the editorial department gave me was "Bushido, spirit of samurai, revenge." From this title, I understood that revenge is a quintessential act expressing bushido.

However, revenge was not the sole prerogative of the samurai class. People of other classes, including peasants and tradesmen, carried out revenge, and the Tokugawa shogunate and individual feudal clans praised their acts of revenge, which means that it does not seem possible to accurately comprehend revenge in the Edo period by considering only revenge involving bushido.

Raid by the 47 ronin (masterless samurai) of Ako

Many people consider the Ako incident to be a typical example of Edo period revenge. "Chushingura revenge" holds the highest rank among examples of revenge shown on the east side of the [stemming from sumo classifications of East and West] "Revenge ranking list," published in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and now in the possession of the Theatre Museum at Waseda University, making it obvious that the raid by the 47 Ako ronin was definitely considered an example of revenge.

The Ako incident began on March 14th, 1701 (the 14th Genroku year) when the feudal lord Asano Takumi-no-kami of the Ako domain, who held a post in which he was responsible for entertaining imperial envoys, attacked Lord Kira Kozuke-no-suke of the Koke rank, in the Matsu no Roka (main grand corridor in the Shogun's residence, Edo Castle). On the very same day Takumi-no-kami was ordered to commit harakiri (ritual suicide). On December 14th of the following year, 47 former retainers of his who had become ronin because of the dissolution of the Asano family, raided Kira Kozuke-no-suke's residence, beheaded him, and presented Kozuke-no-suke's head as an offering in front of Takumi-no-kami's grave at Sengakuji temple in Takanawa.

Does the raid constitute revenge?

In its order sentencing the 47 ronin to commit harakiri, the Tokugawa shogunate said that the 47 ronin had formed a league, declared that they were avenging their master and forced their way into the Kira’s residence. The shogunate acknowledged that the 47 ronin sought revenge, but the shogunate itself took the action of the 47 ronin who raided Kira's residence to be that of forming a league, and did not consider their raid to be revenge for their master. Also, after the 47 ronin had committed harakiri, the Confucian scholar Sato Naokata commented that their raid was not a proper example of revenge.

Sato Naokata did not consider the case of the 47 ronin raiding Kira Kozuke-no-suke's residence to be revenge. If Kozuke-no-suke had attacked Takumi-no-kami first, Kozuke-no-suke would have been considered an enemy of the Ako ronin, but in fact the opposite occurred, and Takumi-no-kami was sentenced to commit harakiri because he was a criminal who had violated an important law (that prohibited the use of weapons in the Shogun's residence). Naokata said that the 47 ronin should have realized their crime—that they had employed battlefield methods by using passwords, wearing matching insignias, carrying bows and arrows, and having killed Kozuke-no-suke—and therefore, that they should have committed suicide at Sengakuji temple.

On the contrary, Asami Keisai and Miyake Shousai, who were studying under Yamazaki Ansai, expressed opposing opinions. Asami Keisai considered that Kozuke-no-suke had shamed Takumi-no-kami, resulting in bloodshed, and that it was natural for the 47 ronin to consider that the death of their lord was the fault of Kozuke-no-suke, so their raid was a form of justice. Asami Keisai also opposed Naokata, saying that it was slanderous to criticize persons who had sacrificed their lives, leaving only messages behind.

On the other hand, Miyake Shousai understood that regardless of their lord's grudge against Kira Kozuke-no-suke, these retainers maintained unconditional loyalty to their dead master. He did not make any judgments of right or wrong about the will of their lord and the method of the raid by the 47 ronin, or whether or not their action disturbed public peace. His opinion was, "Raiding is Revenge" and "The 47 Ako ronin are loyal retainers".

In fact, there were various concerns related to the raid by the 47 Ako ronin. For example, since Takumi-no-kami had attacked and wounded Kozuke-no-suke, should the retainers of Takumi-no-kami have considered Kozuke-no-suke to be their enemy or not? In addition, the content of Takumi-no-kami's grudge was not clear, and it was questionable whether the actions of his retainers, who carried on his grudge and killed Kozuke-no-suke, could be considered the proper way to express their loyalty. I can say that the above arguments developed because their raid was disconnected from the general idea of revenge prevalent in that period.

Revenge by peasant's wife

In examples of ordinary revenge in the Edo period, if a family member, lord or master was unlawfully killed, and the murderer had escaped, the bereaved family, retainer or disciple would seek out and kill the criminal. In the late Edo period, peasants and trademen started to carry out revenge: it was no longer limited to the samurai class. At times, not only men but also women sought revenge. One example is the revenge by Chika, a peasant's wife.

In 1820 (the 3rd Bunsei year), Chika, wife of the peasant Kizaemon in Otagaya village, Koma county, Bushu (in what is now the Kanto area), successfully avenged the killing of her father. According to the document presented to the accounting magistrate, when Chika was 9 years old her father, Heizaemon, was killed by his fellow villager Tomesaburo, who was intoxicated at that time. Heizaemon was first wounded by Tomesaburo, and the village government official concluded the case on his own judgment by stating that Heizaemon's wounds had healed. However, Heizaemon had actually died as a result of the wounds inflicted by Tomesaburo. The village government official did not report the case, and Tomesaburo vanished. About ten years after Heizaemon’s death, Chika learned that Tomesaburo was staying at a temple in another village and visiting Otagaya village again. Chika avenged her father's death by killing Tomesaburo.

Roju (Councilor) Okubo Kaga-no-kami assessed the revenge carried out by the peasant's wife Chika as laudable, and ordered Jito (Lord of the Manor) Maruge Ichigaku to give her a reward. As stated in "Shinpen Musashi no kuni fudoki ko", Ichigaku gave her bronze coins worth 5 kanmon. Chika's revenge was long remembered in the area, with the story being passed down from generation to generation.

Prohibition of revenge in Meiji period

Many cases of revenge actually avenged the killing of a parent, and the Tokugawa shogunate authorities and individual feudal clans permitted this type of revenge as a practice of filial piety. In 1833 (the 4th Tempo year) when, together with her uncle, Riyo, the daughter of Yamamoto Sanemon, a retainer of Sakai Utanokami, avenged the killing of her father, the Tokugawa shogunate awarded her 5 silver coins and 2 rolls of white silk crepe, and the house of Sakai Utanokami gave her 20 silver coins, 20 rolls of white silk crepe, and monthly allotments of rice sufficient to feed 15 persons, also granting her the right to inherit and retain the family name. Related to this, "Musume katakiuchi kyoukun irohauta" (lit., "young girl's revenge lesson - Japanese syllabary song"), published 2 years later, says, "rigors of sleeping in fields, sleeping on mountains and suffering other hardships should be known as forms of obedience to your parents," and, "have your daughter learn martial arts, which will be useful in times of need."

Similarly, except for one case, all of the 10 and a few cases of revenge in the first few years of Meiji period avenged the killings of grandparents, parents, elder brothers or uncles. In one case in 1870 (the 3rd year of the Meiji period) in which peasant brothers avenged the death of their father then turned themselves over to the police, government officials praised their revenge as a role model in terms of ethics and morality, and reported to the government that it should give the brothers a reward. Because the sense that revenge was good was deeply rooted in society in those days, revenge was not prohibited until much later, in 1880 (the 13th year of the Meiji period).

In Edo period society, revenge for the death of a parent was positioned as an act that epitomized filial devotion and that was committed by commoners, rather than being the essence of samurai-class bushido (chivalry).

Shinko Taniguchi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Career Outline]
Born in Osaka.
Completed doctoral program in Graduate School of Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University.
PhD (Literature)
Specialty: Early modern Japanese history
Studied distinctive national features based on Tokugawa shogunate and feudal clan system with focus on relationships between samurai class lords and retainers, from the viewpoint of ways force should be used: also studied laws, court cases, concepts of crime and punishment, mental characteristics of samurai, and theory of bushido (chivalry).
Recent work concerns presentation of new viewpoints not centered on the Western world, by comparing Japan's early modern history with medieval and early modern European history.

Major works:
"Early modern society and legal standards - honor • Social status • Use of force" (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2005),"True image of Ako Roshi" (Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2006),"Study of Bushido - Disputes • Revenge • Attacks in response to insults" (Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan Publishing Co., Ltd., 2007)