- The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History by John A. Tucker
The romance and violence of the 1701–3 Akō vendetta have captivated audiences through three hundred years of dramatic interpretation, scholarly debate, and, of course, inclusion in Japan studies syllabi. For scholars who teach courses on the samurai or early modern history, the Akō Incident, along with its various philosophical and literary interpretations, occupies a unique position. The vendetta provides an opportunity for the simultaneous engagement of several critical themes, including the tension between warriors' violent autonomy and political authority, the relationship between popular art forms and contemporary controversies, and intellectuals' attempts to understand the changing place of the samurai in Tokugawa society. [End Page 149]
But until now, using the Akō Incident to get at these issues in a comprehensive way has required a mix-and-match approach—a journal article, excerpts from Sources of Japanese Tradition (2005), and (almost always) Donald Keene's translation of Chūshingura (1971).
John Tucker's new book, The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History aspires to serve as one-stop-shopping for students of the Akō Incident by offering a comprehensive historical narrative of the event(s), examining the legal and philosophical debates the vendetta occasioned, the artistic and dramatic works it inspired, and the continuation of its appeal into the twentieth century. Addressing all of these topics is a tall order, but Tucker succeeds marvelously. Despite some inevitable sacrificing of depth for breadth, the author covers an astonishing amount of ground in a trim 300-page book. And with its crisp, approachable prose and thorough contextualization, The Forty-Seven Rōnin will be a critical resource for anyone interested in a book-length English-language history of the Akō Incident.
The Forty-Seven Rōnin comprises 11 chapters (not including the introduction) but might be more neatly conceptualized as having four sections. The first two chapters offer a thorough narrative of the vendetta's inciting incident: Akō daimyō Asano Naganori's 1701 attack on Kira Yoshinaka, one of the shogunate's masters of etiquette and ceremony. In addition to providing necessary background on Asano and Kira themselves, Tucker offers a detailed analysis of the existing primary sources, deftly parsing the differences between "credible" sources like Kajikawa Yosobei's diary and more dubious accounts like Okado Denpachirō's memorandum. By the end of the second chapter, readers should understand Asano's attack clearly enough to separate established fact from apocrypha. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts narrative, Tucker is also interested in how the Asano-Kira incident reflects the complexities of politics and court ceremony during the reign of the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (r. 1680–1709). Here Tucker offers a useful corrective to the common assumption that Asano's execution by seppuku was an inevitable legal consequence of Edo Castle's regulations on weapons:
According to the shogunate's verdict, Asano's attack was an outrageous violation of etiquette and standards of ritual purity and protocol. . . . The judgment was arguably not a matter of law, then, so much as shogunate ritual sensibilities. . . . Rather than maintaining a respectful demeanor and humble compliance with the occasion hosted by the shogun . . . for representatives of the emperor and retired emperor, Asano acted "outrageously" (futodoki), as though he were encountering Kira in some field.(pp. 62–63)
Thus, Tucker situates Asano's execution as the result not of rigid legalism but of the political anxieties of a particular moment in Tsunayoshi's shogunate. [End Page 150]
The book's second section (chapters 3–4) narrates the aftermath of the attack, beginning with the debate among Asano's retainers about how to respond to the shogunate's verdict. In chapter 3, Tucker emphasizes the conditional character of the vendetta's beginnings, observing that over two-thirds of Asano's men had no interest in pursuing revenge, and many of those who did—including the vendetta's leader, Ō ishi Yoshio Kuranosuke—might have abandoned their quest had...