The Chushingura (Treasury of Loyal Retainers) tells the tale of the forty-seven retainers of the lord of Akπ who were loyal beyond death. In the early eighteenth century, the young and inexperienced Lord Asano Naganori of Akπ drew his sword in the shogun’s palace after being mortally insulted by Lord Kira Yoshinaka, a shogunal retainer and master of ceremonies. Because of this, Asano was sentenced to death. Forty-seven of his retainers swore to avenge their lord’s death on the man who had caused the incident, even though the shogunal government had forbidden their official request for a blood feud. For three years they pretended to obey the government’s ruling and acted as rπnin (masterless warriors), while secretly making preparations. In early 1703 they made their way to the villain’s home in Edo (now Tokyo), attacked the premises, and placed Lord Kira’s severed head on the grave of their lord.

The shogunate government wished to execute them as common criminals, but due to public pressure, which was excited by the conspirators’ self-sacrifice, allowed them to commit sepukku (ritual disembowelment) instead. Several plays, including Chushingura, were written about this event, which is reenacted every year in November, though the costumed retainers now travel on the subway from the location of Lord Kira’s villa in Shinagawa (where the murder took place) to the graves of the loyal band in the Sengakuji temple.

The Chushingura myth is one of the most popularly influential in Japan. It reinforced and dramatized the ideas of self-sacrificing loyalty that were the basis for the Japanese view of themselves as capable of utmost loyalty. The plays were as popular among the elite as among the common people and when staged today still evoke the Japan of warrior virtues. The ChΔshingura embodied the virtues of bushidπ, the Warrior’s Way, which was formulated during the Edo-period peacetime. It provided some of the underpinnings of the blind ferocity and loyalty exalted by the Imperial Japanese Army during the lengthy years of the Pacific War (circa 1936 to 1945, and including World War II).

The story of the forty-seven rπnin is one of three major national myths of Japan (the other two being the kamikaze and the divine antecedents of the imperial house). It defined for Japanese civil society since the eighteenth century what being Japanese was: self-sacrificing, loyal to one’s superiors beyond the grave, and capable of limitless sacrifice. Whatever the facts of the story (some historians argue that the original quarrel was Asano’s fault, not Kira’s), the drama was incontestable. It was felt not only by the warrior class who governed Japan but also, and no less, by the townspeople, who were already becoming a significant cultural factor. The idea of loyalty became so deeply ingrained that it was easily exploited by Imperial Army recruiters and modern industrial concerns
alike. That the myth is based on actual events, and that these events can be verified by anyone wishing to see the graves of the protagonists, makes it even more powerful and imposing.



  • Shioya, Sakae. 1956. Chushingura: An Exposition: Illustrated with Hiroshige’s Coloured Plates. 2d ed. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press.
  • Takeda, Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryu. 1971. Chushingura, the Treasury of Loyal Retainers: A Puppet Play. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Tucker, John Allen. 1999. “Rethinking the Akπ Rπnin Debate: The Religious Significance of Chushin Gishi.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26(1–2):


Handbook of Japanese Mythology written by Michael Ashkenazi – Copyright © 2003 by Michael Ashkenazi