Ako Festival 47 Ronin

Matsuri: Ako Festival - Gishisai

Japan's Festival Calendar: December 14

The 47 Ako Ronin, Bushido and 'Japanese-ness' 赤穂義士祭

Juliette Gray participated in the Gishisai, held annually in Ako western Japan.

The small Seto seaside town of Ako is located on the island Honshu where Hyogo Prefecture meets Okayama Prefecture. Further exploration of this small town with a population of 50,000 reveals that it is renowned as the venue for one of the most told and significant samurai stories throughout Japan. Moreover, the town still celebrates December 14th as a local holiday in matsuri (festival) style.

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Gishisai, as the festival is locally known, takes places yearly on December 14th. Ako Primary, Junior schools and local business close as the town's streets are lined with festival stalls and coloured lanterns.

As a foreigner residing in Ako I had been told countless times by local residents proudly of the 47 Ako Ronin (Chushingura), their loyalty (bushido) and the significance that this history held for all Japan. It certainly appeared to bring joy to the kids, a day off school to sport the latest fashions, hang out with friends and consume the tasty ready-to-go food from the street sellers.

I was anxious to get to the bottom of the board cut-outs of samurai one sees on arrival at Ako station, the tourists flocking to Ako Castle and the numerous fictions, television and movie dramatizations of the story. Why?' I asked myself, and, indeed, Why Ako?'

The history of the Gishisai

The best place to start is the historical tale itself. I learned that the actual events of the tale began in 1701 when the emperor sent an envoy to the Shogun. Unfortunately, the two men entrusted to receive the envoy at Edo Castle (on the site of today's Imperial Palace in Tokyo), the domain chieftain, Asano, and the palace official, Kira, had had a scuffle between themselves.

Taunted, Asano had lunged at Kira, wounding him, if only superficially. However, the penalty for such gross misconduct in the Shogun's castle was death. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku - more popularly known in the West as 'harakiri' - a form of ritual suicide, limited to the samurai class, involving self-disembowelment.

Asano's household retainers, numbering 47, became ronin or masterless men,' and swore to avenge their master. After elaborately plotting for a full year, on the 14th December the Ako Ronin killed Lord Kira, at his home in Ryogoku (see "Kira-tei") and as a punishment had to commit seppuku themselves.

Ako Castle turret or yagura.
Ako Castle in Hyogo Prefecture is associated with the classic tale of the Forty-seven Ronin

The Gishisai today

Fortunately, for any visitors to Ako, the Gishisai enactment procession does not feature seppuku. Needless to say, the novelty of taking part in the festival as local foreigner dressed as samurai (as I did) receded slightly as the freezing Japanese December air attacked my kimono clad body, seppuku might have been an option.

I dispelled such thoughts as I told myself I was taking part in a story at the center of the Japanese concept of bushido and loyalty. Heavily made up, capped with katsura (Japanese wig) and brandishing a katana (Japanese sword), I was a samurai and completing my mission to uncover the relevance of this story to Ako and the rest of Japan.

Oishi Shrine in Ako Castle.
Oishi Shrine dedicated to the spirits of the 47 Ronin within the grounds of Ako Castle; see the statues of the men on each side of the entrance to the shrine

Following the Gishisai

The procession itself winds through the town, and consists of all sorts of acts, traditional dancing, walking processions and finally the floats upon which the scenes of the story are acted out. I featured in that. From the float platform the instruction is to stand still in pose for about two hours and act with a serious expression'. This is made difficult; firstly, progressive freezing fosters the desire to move, secondly, students yelling Jurietto-sensei' (Juliette teacher) is hardly conducive to maintaining a serious expression'.

The final stretch down Ako's main street, as the winter sun sinks low in the sky, is the defining moment. As announcements are made for each character, NHK television reporters film and people cheer, the two freezing hours suddenly seem worthwhile again. I found out later that a similar festival is also held on the same day at Sengakuji Temple, Tokyo, where the 47 Ronin are buried.

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The Chushingura story today

The year 2002 saw the 300-year anniversary of the incident, and no dimishment in popularity of the story. There have been 34 television adaptations of Chushingura in the twentieth century and 13 in the last decade alone.

Contemporary adaptations feature all the current fans' stars, from Matsudaira Ken to Kimutaku (singer from SMAP), evidence that the story still commands attention. How is that that Chushingura popularity persists?

It may be that the story encompasses several attractive qualities for modern Japanese; endurance of the unbearable for a long time before attainment of a collective goal; a revenge occurring as an expression of loyalty to a master; characters in the story are caught in a complex web of loyalties that demand devotion to and sacrifice for an altruistic cause.

How far the Japanese samurai bushido' code of loyalty to one's master', that forms the backbone of the story, translates to contemporary Japan rests with the opinion of the visitor and observer. The term itself is much debated as a constructed ideology with little to do with the reality of samurai.

Bushido' has been linked (although opinions are divided) to the fostering of military spirit, the warrior' mentality to die (as displayed by World War 2 kamikaze pilots and Yukio Mishima's own act of seppuku).

Bushido: the way of the warrior, today

Modern bushido is closely bound-up with the notion of a Japanese national essence', the core of Japanese-ness' as an ideology imposed by the state and focussed on the emperor.

These thoughts considered, invented or not, no casual observer can fail to notice the relevance that group loyalty has for members of sports clubs and companies with their sempai/kohai (senior/juniro) hierarchies. In this context, the story of the 47 loyal Ronin of Ako is the most well-known throughout Japan amongst young and old alike.

Ako Gishisai

Ako Gishisai takes place on the 14th December every year. To get to Ako: JR from Himeji station. Change at Aioi to Ako-sen. Get off at Ako.
Tokyo Gishisai takes place at Sengakuji Temple of Minato-ku (Sengakuji Sation on the Asakusa subway line).

DISCLAIMER Festivals may be cancelled or postponed without much warning. Check with your local tourist office for confirmation.

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