Remembering The 47 Rōnin

Remembering The 47 Rōnin

On December 14, 1702, the 47 loyal retainers of Asano Naganori, lord of Ako, avenged his death by killing another samurai, a court official named Kira Yoshinaka–whose behavior caused their lord’s death almost a year before. The event, which became known as the “Ako Incident” (赤穂事件 Akō jiken) remains an influential part of Japanese culture and history. Under the title Chūshingura, the Ako Incident has been fictionalized in numerous Japanese plays, films, and other works of art – and the story has also inspired Western works in multiple genres.

Read more

Jisei – the Poetry of Death

During the medieval period, samurai often wrote special poems, known as jisei, in the hours before their deaths. The tradition originated in Zen Buddhism, and fused three important principles from Zen tradition: – The material world is transient and impermanent – Understanding reality requires an absence of self-nature and acceptance (or pursuit) of emptiness – Attachment to the world causes suffering The earliest recorded jisei was written by Prince Ōtsu, a younger son of Emperor Temmu, just before the prince’s execution in 686. Customarily, composition of jisei was done only by members of Japan’s nobility, samurai, poets, or Buddhist priests. The poem was supposed to

Read more

What’s in a Name? Sometimes, Confusion.

I’m continuing my “fact from fiction” series today with a look at samurai naming conventions and why they caused me a little trouble in CLAWS OF THE CAT. Most samurai received and used several names in the course of a lifetime. The childhood name was given at birth and used until the samurai completed his genpuku, the coming-of-age ceremony during which a samurai male received his swords and his adult name. In addition, samurai children often answered to various nicknames, either personal (like the ones we use for our children now) or numeric and based on the child’s age and

Read more

A Word or Two About Seppuku

Seppuku (sometimes also referred to as hara-kiri) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide. Throughout most of Japanese history, only samurai were allowed to commit seppuku. The first recorded seppuku was that of Minamoto no Yorimasa, a warrior and poet who committed suicide by slashing his stomach open with his sword after suffering defeat in battle. During the medieval period, samurai committed seppuku for several reasons, most commonly to avoid being captured after suffering a defeat (in the manner of Minamoto no Yorimasa), as a penalty for shameful or criminal activity, or to expunge the shame of surviving a battle in which

Read more

Do You Know About Genpuku?

Genpuku is (or, more properly, was) a traditional Japanese coming-of-age ceremony for male members of the samurai class. The timing of the ceremony varied, at the discretion of a samurai boy’s father or the male relative in charge of his training, but it typically took place when a boy was between the ages of 12 and 17. When a samurai youth had attained the requisite skills and maturity to accept the responsibilities of adulthood, he was taken to the shrine of his family’s patron kami (a Japanese term for gods or divinities) where the ceremony was performed. After genpuku, a boy

Read more

Kyoto’s Bloody Ceilings

In 1600, rebel samurai attacked Fushimi Castle, south of Kyoto, in an attempt to kill five year-old Toyotomi Hideyori, the son and heir of the general who had recently united Japan. After a two-week siege, the rebels breached the walls, set fire to the castle and killed the garrison commander. With their leader dead, the remaining samurai defenders (approximately 400 men) committed seppuku (ritual suicide) inside the keep. The mass suicide flooded the wooden floor with blood, staining the timbers permanently. That portion of the keep survived the fire, although the structure was subsequently dismantled by the new Shogun, Tokugawa

Read more