- 47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akō by Thomas Harper
History includes many chambers, most meant to convey some understanding of truth and, ideally, historical truth. But there are surprise chambers furnished with facsimiles, chimeras, and apocrypha, confounding focused, empirically driven researchers even while dishing up wonderfully diverting entertainment and ironically enough some truth as well. Thomas Harper's lengthy—968 pages—new book on the Akō Incident, 47: The True Story of the Vendetta of the 47 Ronin from Akō, contributes, uniquely, to historicoliterary understandings of that sensational event (1701–3) in Japanese history that virtually all know as a tale but precious few seek to grasp as a historical incident of vast cultural consequence in early modern and modern Japan. Perhaps the Akō Incident makes better quasi-historical drama, as with Chūshingura, enhanced by the grave addendum that the drama is based on real history. With 47, the emphasis is not, however, on dramatic reconstruction but on presenting a comprehensive narrative account of the historical tale, one distinguished by its inclusion of copious translation of early sources, without rigorous concern, necessarily, about the authenticity and credibility of the "contemporary documents" translated. Considering Harper's earlier [End Page 463] work, In Praise of Shadows and the Tale of Genji, 47 might well be viewed as a literary rendition, a rekishiteki monogatari, yet with dimensions comparable to those of Murasaki Shikibu's magnum opus. It is undoubtedly the lengthiest English-language work of any sort on the Akō Incident.
Most valuably, and this is the book's truly extraordinary contribution, Harper incorporates considerable amounts of translated material—essays, memoirs, letters, etc.—related to the incident. In this respect, his work is akin to another recent publication, Satō Hiroaki's Forty-Seven Samurai: A Tale of Vengeance and Death in Haiku and Letters (Stone Bridge Press, 2019), also distinguished by the extensive translations it presents, though often in hodgepodge manner. Neither book, however, shines as a seriously critical historical study. After all, a significant amount of what Harper presents to readers as reliable and credible has not always been viewed as such. The title of Harper's book lays bare its hand: as a "true story," the volume would be, if translated into Japanese, a jitsuroku, or literally, a "true record," that is, one which via declared veracity drapes its mixing of credible historical sources and other whatnot, leaving the whole more true in proclamation than result. In the eighteenth century, several such jitsuroku were authored relating the sensational incident and typically embellishing it with even more sensation, all the while claiming to be true accounts. In many respects, 47 continues this genre of Akō Incident literature.
In 47, evidence of this appears early on as Harper opens his book with a curious set of declarations:
This book is as true to fact as I have been able to make it. It is closely based upon contemporary documents. All the events it relates actually took place. All the people involved in them really existed. Even the dialogue is drawn from documentary sources, either verbatim or reconstructed from reported speech. I have invented nothing.(p. vii)
Harper then acknowledges that he might not have succeeded in "telling the whole truth" (p. viii) because of the partial, subjective, and perhaps unreliable nature of some "contemporary documents."
In the wake of the Akō Incident, fabrications and forgeries were the order of the day. One case in point will suffice: Muro Kyūsō's Akō gijin roku (Records of the righteous men of Akō domain, 1703) was the first major quasi-historical narrative of the incident. It purportedly drew upon every scrap of material that Kyūsō could obtain. Yet Kyūsō's eagerness to be exhaustive along with his clear bias in favor of the Akō band of avengers as "righteous men" (gijin) left his work appearing gullible and farfetched. Kyūsō, for example, included some incredible details...