Samurai Ideals in Chûshingura

Topics: Samurai, History of Japan, Shogun Pages: 5 (1658 words) Published: March 7, 2007
Even before the Kamakura period the Japanese warrior had begun his ascent to a higher social status. During the Heian period collateral branches of the imperial line, the Minamoto and Taira clans, represented two of the greatest warrior associations. Wars and battles that broke out during the eleventh century in the Kanto area presented the local warriors and the powerful clans with the chance to continue to build up their power (Schirokauer 181). During Kamakura period the provincial warrior class had managed to consolidate political power at the expense of the nobility. Under the Minamoto clan leader, Yorimoto, the Taira clan was defeated in the Gempei War, a bakufu or "tent government" was established – which demonstrated the military origins of his power - and the emperor named him shogun. The shogun had delegated power under the control of the emperor – which by this time was merely theoretical – and would represent an institution in Japanese politics that would last until the nineteenth century (Schirokauer 289). The shogun maintained his power through the loyalty of vassals - warriors who vowed service to a lord in exchange for military protection and land rights. This loyalty would become the characteristic ideal of the samurai warrior. The warrior class would rule society and politics in Japan until the Tokugawa Shogunate in the nineteenth century. A samurai was a member of the Japanese elite and his lifestyle was dictated by a series of strict moral codes and ideals. True loyalty to his lord was expected, if not always followed through in its ideal form. In 1703 a vendetta carried out by forty-six former vassals avenging their lord's death would come to be viewed as the embodiment of samurai ideals. Playwrights and storytellers have used the story of the valiant and devoted retainers many times since, due to the tale's immense popularity in Japan. What would go on to be called "the most famous and popular work in the entire Japanese theatrical repertory" is one particular version of the story, Chûshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) (Keene xi). Written in 1748, the puppet play is set in the fourteenth century and the names of the characters were changed in order to evade the laws of censorship that forbade the depiction of recent political events in the theatre of the time. But the shift in time period does little to change the strength of the play's message, rather it manages to depict a time when such samurai ideals of loyalty and resolute action were more than mere theories and ideas of a bygone era. While a samurai traditionally spent his time defending his lord and fighting battles, in the eighteenth century many were forced to take up bureaucratic positions in the government due to a peace which lasted nearly one hundred years. Their ideals, which had once distinguished the samurai class, had been all but forgotten. On January 30, 1703, however, the forty-six rônin (masterless samurai) and their "sudden dramatic gesture came as a heartening reminder of what being a samurai had once meant" (Keene 2). Chûshingura tells the story of the forty-six rônin, led by Ôboshi Yuranosuke, who avenge the death of their lord Enya Hangan by attacking the mansion of general Kô no Moronao who had provoked and ultimately caused their lord to commit seppuku (the ritual suicide of the samurai). It is a story full of examples of true samurai loyalty to their masters and the accepted ideal of feminine virtue in samurai society. Yuranosuke is without a doubt the protagonist of the play and is the personification of a samurai's loyalty to his lord. Kakogawa Honzô Yukikuni's loyalty to his master, Momonoi Wakanosuke Yasuchika, is also noteworthy, if made slightly less admirable for its prudent and calculated nature. By going against his master's orders he is successful in saving his master's life, but manages to discredit himself through his use of bribery and his disobedience. Donald Keene, the translator of...

Bibliography: Keene, Donald. Chushingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers): A Puppet Play. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Schirokauer, Conrad, et al. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2005.
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