We live in a society that grants us almost immediate gratification for almost anything we desire at the press of a button. Things that we want or need are rarely out of our grasp. Our clothes are made for us, our entertainment is stored in an almost infinite online database, and we can reach out to and communicate with people all over the world instantaneously. Our paths in life are almost carved out for us as a default. We grow up, go to school if we can afford it, get an education, get married, buy a house, have children, and toil away in the same career until we retire. There is little room for developing not only the will to go off of the beaten path, but also the stamina to do so for a goal which is not achievable in the short term. For those of us that dare to be different, the path is fraught with obstacles, some of them environmental, the rest of them human. The much celebrated legend of the 47 Ronin tells a tale of a group of disgraced samurai that dared to be different. They chose to shirk not only tradition but also the law in the pursuit of something greater than themselves: revenge.
Japan in the 18th century, like much of the world, was a very different place. Ruled by the Shogun Tsunayoshi of the Tokugawa clan, Japan was an empire steeped in tradition. These traditions were upheld by a rigid class structure, enforced by powerful feudal lords and the razor sharp blades of their samurai retainers. It is against this backdrop that we find Asano Takumi no kami Naganori, a lord from the Asano clan. For his loyalty to the crown, Lord Asano was chosen to host members of the Imperial family. Being a country lord, Asano was not well acquainted with the customs of the royal court. As part of preparing him for his new role, Lord Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka was assigned to be his coach on these matters. Lord Kira proved to be an arrogant and abusive teacher, constantly berating and belittling his charge. Eventually Lord Asano could bear the insults no longer and lost his temper. He attempted to murder Lord Kira with a dagger. This was unsuccessful. This assault on a servant of the emperor was considered an assault on the emperor himself. As punishment for his crime, Lord Asano was ordered to perform the ritual suicide known as seppuku. His lands were forfeit, and his samurai retainers were not only forbidden from seeking revenge for what they saw and a great injustice, but also were reduced to the status of Ronin, samurai with no lord, land, or honour.
Despite their righteous anger, the samurai abandoned their master’s castle without a fight. It seemed that the story would end here. However their leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, could not allow for this injustice to go unavenged. Of the nearly 200 samurai in the service of the late Lord Asano, Oishi was able to convince 46 to join him. Their goal was simple: infiltrate Lord Kira’s palace and force him to commit seppuku in the same manner as their master. This would not be easy. Lord Kira had over 100 men at his command, high walls to his compound and an acute case of paranoia that kept his spies well paid and constantly watching for any signs that the dishonoured samurai would seek revenge. Over the course of two years, Oishi and his men worked in secret on a meticulous plan to infiltrate Lord Kira’s residence and exact their revenge. During those two years, Oishi took on the persona of a broken alcoholic. Rolling around in the streets in a stupor and spending far too many nights in brothels, seemingly trying to forget the pain of his disgrace. He even divorced his wife, not because he no longer loved her, but to protect her from reprisals once the deed had been done. During their plot, other members of his band gathered information about the layout of Lord Kira’s palace, secretly sought supplies for their attack, and did their best to appear to be interested in anything but revenge. Lord Kira’s spies reported that there was no threat from Lord Asano’s former retainers.
Finally, when all of their plans were ready, on December 14th, 1702, they attacked. After an epic battle in which the 47 ronin decimated Lord Kira’s retainers, they found him hiding among the women and children. They threw their late master’s dagger at Lord Kira’s feet and ordered him to commit seppuku for his shame. Lord Kira was too terrified to respond, and so they cut his head off with that same dagger and presented it as an offering at their lord’s grave. The 47 ronin gave all of their possessions to the temple to pay for their funerals, after which they turned themselves in to the authorities. While their pursuit was admirable, their actions were in direct contravention to the edict of their emperor, and so they were ordered to commit ritual suicide for their crimes. The youngest of them spared this fate because of his tender age.
There are many versions of this true story, and all of them highlight one particular theme: patience. Oishi wanted to get his revenge, but he wanted to be sure that it was executed perfectly. He did not want to leave anything to chance and was willing to commit himself fully to the task. Whether or not he chose to seek revenge, the two years leading up to the honour killing of Lord Kira would still pass. He would still be a disgraced ronin and he would still languish in poverty. His choice to seek revenge gave him purpose.
We often hear from our friends and colleagues about the things they want to do in life. People talk about going back to school, starting a business, or getting in shape. Most of the time that talk does not translate into action, and if it does, then it often does not see the fullness of fruition. We get distracted by our daily lives, things that interest us, discouraging words from others, and at times our own insecurities. We look at all of the work involved in going back to upgrade our education, and the thought of spending four years in study seems unappealing. It is easier to shrug the idea off as something nice to have as opposed to taking the leap. Consider a change in perspective. Barring any disaster that would take our lives or prevent us outright from seeking our goals, those years are going to pass regardless of what we do. Therefore, we are left with a decision, spend those years staying in the same place, or use the time to look for something different, something better. To Oishi, time was not something to pass while he lived with the shame; it was a tool for him to execute his plan.
The story also shows us the importance of patience when laying our plans. When we are eager to get involved in a new activity or to start a new project, we can find ourselves jumping in with both feet without adequate preparation. Any large task that we take on requires planning, focus, and dedication. Every detail of Oishi’s plan was accounted for. He left nothing to chance, including having his men make their own armour so that they would not arouse suspicion. Hatching his master plan required intense attention to detail. To achieve our goals we have to be willing to put in the countless hours required to master the skills and acquire the necessary resources for building the foundation for our success. Oishi fully committed to the role of a broken alcoholic, and even had some of his men work in Lord Kira’s palace under false identities to learn the layout of the building. There is one anecdote of him lying in the street pretending to be drunk and unconscious while being kicked and insulted by a local merchant, who was utterly disgusted at his disgrace. In the same way that Oishi was willing to delve in to the minutia of his plan, we must be willing to slog through the tedious, the boring, and the seemingly pointless activities that are integral to the success of our designs.
In choosing to go off the beaten path of obeying the orders of the emperor, the 47 ronin found purpose. Had they chosen to obey, they would have lived longer, though it would mean surrendering to the slow decay of mediocrity. In choosing to simply follow the script that society has set forth for us, the same can happen to all of us. Instead, knowing that they would likely not live past the day of their revenge, they chose to break with the norm. In doing so they not only avenged their master, but also became legends, legends that an obscure writer with a love for great stories is writing about over 300 years later. We must be willing to step out of the boxes that society places us in and dare to be different, even if it means losses for us in the short term. We are all full of dreams and great ideas. Every day we must make the choice to seek those dreams out, or to let them fade and rot with the time. These decisions may cost us dearly, like taking revenge on Lord Kira did for the 47 ronin, but the result will always be better than never having tried in the first place. We must not fear becoming legends in our own right.
Now, today, we must make a decision. We can simply accept life as it is and wait for it to end, or we can make today the first day of the rest of our lives, and dare to live. Both the adventure and the choice to pursue it are yours to make. You stand here at the fork, which road will you take?
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
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