A Ronin was a Samurai who is now considered to be a wandering man. In the tradition of ancient warriors, he has no retainer or what you call a master. Picture a Samurai sitting under a tree with just his Katana sword but unable to wield it. First, one becomes a Ronin upon the demise or death of his master. Another is if their master disowns them in certain cases such as betrayals or disloyalty. There has never been a more legendary depiction of the Ronin than the story of the 47 Ronin. Which is also known as the Genruko-Ako incident.
Yamaga Soko is one of the philosophers who made the definition of Samurai in Tokugawa, Japan. Yamaga wrote many books that explained the warrior’s creed, a Bukyu and the way of the warrior or Bushido. He greatly influenced Asano Naganori, the Daimyo of Ako.
The 47 Ronin Story
Shogun Tokugawa Tsuneyoshi ordered Lord Asano Naganori and Lord Kamei Korechika to welcome emissaries from the emperor. That time, they were the young Daimyo of the Ako domain. The guests were to arrive at the Shogun’s residence in Edo. Lord Asano and Lord Kamei were to observe proper behavior while attending to the visitors. The visitors, Kira Yoshinaka and his envoy, were welcomed in. But Kira, for an unknown reason, was displeased by the welcoming committee. Many states that Kira was either just boastful and corrupt. But it was possible that these young Daimyo were not prepared to welcome a high official. Either way, Kira showed his displeasure by insulting statements. Lord Kamei was so enraged he attempted to kill Kira but good thing his subordinates were able to stop him. Many believed that his subordinates paid Kira a bribe so he treated Lord Kamei well after.
Unfortunately, when Lord Asano was publicly offended by Kira, he drew his sword and wounded him. Now at that time, to draw a weapon in the Shogun’s residence is a criminal offense. While wounding an official made it worse. Thus, as punishment for his mistake. They confiscated his properties and ordered him to commit Seppuku.
After Asano’s public humiliation his wife shaved her head and became a nun. Most of his retainers became Ronin. Oishi Kuranosuke, Asano’s right hand, called on the Ronin to exact revenge on Kira Yoshinaka. The shogunate who caused the death of Asano. 46 answered this and they planned their move on Kira. Disguised as merchants and beggars, they surrounded Kira’s house. They waited until it was clear for their attack. When the right time came they captured him and beheaded him. And they used the same sword that Asano used to perform Seppuku. Oishi placed Kira’s head at the grave of Asano as an offering and as a symbol of their vendetta.
After the incident, they surrendered to the authorities. Although many people were sympathetic to their case, the law would abide. Tokugawa Bakufu would not allow their sense of loyalty to Asano undermine the law of the land. As punishment, they ordered them to commit Seppuku. They buried the 47 Ronin next to their lord, whom they served faithfully unto death.
Ronin in the Tokugawa Period
In some cases, Ronin or Samurai was able to switch clans and still maintain honor. That was more popular in the peaceful Tokugawa era. Since Japan’s political state was in constant flux. In addition, a Samurai clan could adopt individuals into their clans. Certainly, some were warrior monks and distinguished Ashigaru. But during the Tokugawa period, this was not so. In contrast, they considered individuals dishonorable when changing from one clan to another.
Religious Aspects in a Ronin’s Motivation
The religion of the Samurai is a complex entity. It was born out of the multiple religions cultivated through Japan’s history. Thus, Japan’s spiritual native religion, Shintoism, is a supplement mixture of Buddhism and Taoism. Compounded on top of this was the warrior code, Bushido. Which added its own flavor in the point of view of religion at that time. No wonder the saying “born Shinto and die Buddhist” developed in Japan. Their spirituality shaped the way they conducted their cruel military affairs.
For the Samurai, Shinto took on a new meaning to fit their unique social nature as a warrior class. For instance, the meaning of loyal expanded to those of allegiance to the head of the clans. At that time each Samurai has its own personal commitment to honor. This includes the honor of their ancestors. This, later on, expand to include the honor of their master and his ancestral lineage.
Buddhism and Zen:
During that era, most Japanese people found Buddhism complex and difficult to understand. Many, therefore, chose to follow a different path of Buddhism called Zen. The very essence of Zen is that one was must be able to experience it before once can fully grasp its meaning. Therefore, practitioners of Zen find truths of their spiritual enlightenment through meditation. This helps the Ronin through a tranquil state of soul searching. Assisting in what path he takes in his journey as a Ronin.
The Buddhist concept of the afterlife, however, was appealing by the Japanese people. Under this belief, death for a Samurai represented a great opportunity for honor and glory. One that would continue into the afterlife.
The basic precepts of the Bushido code are justice, loyalty, honor, courage, love, and courtesy. The perfect Samurai, therefore, is the man who upholds justice and honor as the highest value. He is not afraid to go to battle and even die for his lord. He loves all things in the world and is capable of great compassion. Also, he is the perfect gentleman in the matter of etiquette. These ideas unite the concept of loyalty and connection with all things Shinto. In many respects, Bushido is the Japanese equivalent of European chivalry. Those that were upheld by the knights in the middle ages.
The Ronin and the Katana
From the Zen teachings, the Samurai strive for perfection in their combat skills. This so to be as sharp and deadly as their blades. The Japanese Katana was not only a sword but an extension of the warrior who wields it.
The Warrior Spirit – Katana
Katana is a long sword associated primarily with Japanese swords. It’s originally meant to be a slashing sword. But its unique structure allows it as a weapon for stabbing and parrying for defense. Due to its high resilience, one can hold it with one or two hands. Always depending on how to deliver the stroke. The Katana blade is often two to three feet long and the tang is almost a fifth of the blade length. The wooden handle is then covered with leather or stingray skin. And finally wrapped with rough silk for a good grip.
The sword is an extension of the Samurai. When one becomes a Ronin, the katana serves as their only companion. It is also one reason why being a Samurai or a Ronin is always portrayed with a Katana.
Samurai Class Abolished
The whole Samurai class was in decline comes the Tokugawa period. Simply because there was no more need for warriors during peacetime. The Samurai changed from warriors to bureaucrats as soon as the Meiji period began in 1868. The Samurai class itself was completely abolished by the new government.
The Genruko-Ako incident is the single most important event that highlighted the Ronin. Although the ending was tragic, it was an honorable death compared to execution. Their death sentence helped their popularity which romanticized the event. While their death was controversial, it is now today’s highlight. Had they died of a different cause or by execution, no one will remember their story today.