The 47 Ronin Story takes place in 1701, approximately 100 years after the Tokugawa Shogunate was formed. The story displays much of the changes going on in Japanese society and culture. From the declining importance of the Samurai, to the rising influence of the merchant class, and finally to the inevitable changing of values that are all exacerbated by the long peace imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. The changing of values were not just commonplace among the classes, it also reached into the high echelons of the court.
The corruption of the court sparked the beginnings of a series of events that at it’s conclusion would inspire a nation and ultimately define them. The seventeenth century was a long era of peace for Japan and the Tokugawa Shogunate. To ensure the peace was upheld, the Shogun employed several tactics to control the power of the Daimyo and to prevent them from warring with the Shogunate. The Alternate Residence System, which forced the Daimyo to live in Edo every other year, proved to put a financial chokehold on the Daimyo, as the cost of maintaining two separate residences were expensive.
The Shogun also controlled the Daimyo in other ways, by restricting their actions and stripping them of their power, the Shogun was able to ensure the long era of peace was sustained. With no war to fight and without power or financial stability, many of the underemployed Samurai flocked to the cities in search of idle pleasures, which provoked the deterioration of the moral code of Bushido. (the way of the warrior) A prime example of the declining of the Samurai is the reports that Oishi receives of the men in Kyoto. He had even heard rumors that samurai had been seen in the Kabuki theaters of Kyoto, the city of pleasure as well as of temples, but these he found hard to believe. ” With the rising of the merchant class and the mindless indulgence of the changing samurai, many samurai often times turned to the merchants who were considered the lowest in society, to borrow money in order to continue their outrageously lavish lifestyles.
Another evident sign of the declining of the samurai was Yoshida’s lack of faith in what he called the third group, “those who were with Oishi in his plan to get the castle restored, but who were suddenly unavailable when it came to embarking on the road to vengeance. ” (P. 172) This proved to be true, as certain developments began unfolding, the original 300 ronin who pledged allegiance, dwindled down to 47. The decline of the samurai was also evident in the house of Uesugi as well, and after the successful assassination of Kira, a messenger from the Shogun’s council arrived before Lord Uesugi to carry out the Shogunate’s official decrees.
Lord Kira’s grandson, Sayhoe, was to disembowel himself for his inability to fight to the death in defense of his kinsmen. Secondly, the retainers who fled without aiding their kinsmen were to be beheaded and cast adrift as ronin. Lastly, since Lord Uesugi failed to act on behalf of Kira, his domain is ordered to be ceased forever. The official decrees of the Shogunate all display the decline of the samurai under the house of Uesugi. With the growing underemployment of the classes came opportunity for ambitious men to carve out a place in the changing japanese capitalist economy.
Many thronged to the big cities in search of wealth, and in turn, cities grew exponentially. Castle towns turned into bustling trade communities and roads leading into some of the major cities needed to cater to the needs of the traveling men. These needs came in the form of tea houses, Kabuki theaters, restaurants, and houses of prostitution, and the majority of these establishments were owned by merchant families. Many of the samurai who frequented these places were already in debt and were funding their extravagance on credit.
This lending of money proved to be a very profitable business for the merchants, and as interest rates skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, so did their stature in society in terms of wealth. Signs of the rising of the merchant class are also apparent in the story of Ono. Ono, who was once the treasurer of the Asano Clan and formerly a samurai, has stooped to the lowest class among japanese society by becoming a merchant by selling dried goods with the crest of Asano proudly displayed above his establishment.
Another significant sign of the rising of the merchant class was the meeting Oishi planned in order to unify the ronin in the critical stages of their mission and to prevent disbandment of the remaining men. Oishi demanded the meeting to take place in a public restaurant that Mimura found in Fukugawa, and since the social gatherings of merchants were common, Oishi and his band disguised themselves as such, proving that merchants were everywhere. “After a few days of searching, Mimura found that Oishi’s suggestion of a public restaurant as a meeting place was a good one.
They could meet in the middle of the day like any other group of merchants and call themselves a social group. ” (P. 190) The fact that Oishi and his band of ronin were not discovered, considering the increasing popularity of these men is proof that the merchant class was rising and becoming a norm in japanese society. The rise of the merchant class was also evident in the story of Okaru’s father, who was forced off of his land as a farmer and into the business of merchanting. To support his family he had taken the shameful step of going into business, thereby dropping two steps down the social ladder of samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant. ” (P. 149) As his business grew, so did his taste for the things once reserved only for noble descent. His display of wealth is a sign of the rising merchant class and that great wealth could be had from that of even a lowly merchant. The shifting of powers between the declining samurai’s and the rising merchants directly contributes to the changing of values taking place in history and in the The 47 Ronin story.
The first account of these changes in value clearly show with the fire boy who carelessly placed green sticks in the fire causing smoke to go into Kataoka’s face. Instead of apologizing to Mimura for his lack of attentiveness, he instead blatantly disrespects Mimura, and to disrespect a servant of Lord Asano is to disrespect Lord Asano himself. Shocked at this display of contempt, Hara insisted on striking down the fire boy but is stopped by Lord Asano, and he responds by saying “He’s only a boy.
Besides, you’ll get yourself in trouble if you harm him. The laws are different here; we can’t behave as we would at home. ” (P. 19) Another example of changing values is the attitude towards passing daimyo in the crowded streets of Edo, and the no longer humbling effect it had amongst the lower classes. In the past, people would clear paths for the samurai, in respect and in often times fear, but this was no longer the case and the palanquin carried by Lord Asano’s men met with troublesome resistance of the overcrowded and busy streets of Edo.
As the changing of values occurs among the social classes of Japan, it also occurs at the highest levels of government. The Shogun’s reaction after hearing of Kira’s death and the certain fate that will soon follow the well-known and respected daimyo Lord Asano is enough evidence that values are changing. His concern doesn’t lie with Lord Asano, or his master of ceremonies, Kira; it lies with his dance group who will no longer be able to perform at the ceremony due to the defiance of Lord Asano brought on by Kira’s corrupt behavior in the court.
The 47 Ronin Story is still highly regarded in Japanese culture as a legacy and a tradition to the Japanese people. The story reflects values of honor, duty, sacrifice, and loyalty and can be seen in Japanese society today. Many of these core values resonate deeply with the Japanese people and can still be used in modern everyday life. It is evident that the ethos of Bushido are present in many facets of business and it is very much an identity for the Japanese.
Many employees of Japanese companies spend countless years in dedicated service to their companies, much like the samurai; and in result, the results of their dedication and loyalty show with their superior craftsmanship and outstanding advancements in many industries. At a time of a warrior without a war and a noble class without a purpose, the Japanese relive the way of the warrior through their own modern day lives and prove to the world that the samurai still exist in themselves.