Chūshingura, depicting the assault of Kira Yoshinaka by Asano Naganori.

Kira Yoshinaka, the Villain of the Akō Vendetta

The story of the 47 Rōnin, also historically known as “The Akō Vendetta,” and in fiction as the Chushingura, is an example of the Bushido honor code associated not just with samurai, but also with the Japanese national identity. Its tale has been made even more popular with countless adaptations of bunraku and kabuki plays, film, novels, and manga.

Akō Vendetta, by Yasuda Raishū, Homma Museum of Art, Japan.

The story of Asano Naganori, the daimyō of the Akō Domain, tells us that Asano supposedly assaulted Lord Kira with his sword for his repeated insults. Lord Asano was then ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) after a tribunal. His 47 samurai followers were now deemed as rōnin, a samurai with no lord or master. The 47 ronin followed their code of honor by seeking  revenge and claimed the life of Lord Kira. By doing so, they defied the shogunate’s authority. All were caught and 46 ronin were sentenced to take their own lives by seppuku, with one being too young to perform the death rite.

But there are two sides to every story.

Akō Vendetta, by Yasuda Raishū, Homma Museum of Art, Japan.

Who is Kira Yoshinaka

Many historians propose that Kira Yoshinaka may not be the villainous man the stories depict him to be. Lord Kira in fact was greatly admired by his vassals as a fair and good lord. He formed a salt industry in the region, expanded the development of rice paddies for cultivation and other public works.

Chūshingura, depicting the assault of Kira Yoshinaka by Asano Naganori.

Lord Kira’s name has long been known as Yoshinaka in dramas and novels. However, Ekisui Rembeiroku, written in 1703 by an anonymous contemporary, records his name as “Yoshihisa”.

Chūshingura, depicting the assault of Kira Yoshinaka by Asano Naganori.

 

More recent findings on kaō or huāyā (stylized signature or mark used in east Asia), marked in his own letter preserved in Kezō Temple confirms that his real name should be read as “Kira Yoshihisa.”

Lord Kira was born in 1641 and was the eldest son of Kira Yoshifuyu and his mother was a member of the high-ranking Sakai clan. Upon the death of his father, he became the 17th head of the household, inheriting lands valued at 4200 koku. He married a woman from the Uesugi clan and his eldest son was adopted by Uesugi Tsunakatsu, the third head of Yonezawa Domain, taking the name Tsunanori. Lord Kira named his second son as his heir, but when his heir died, he took Tsunanori’s second son instead, strengthening further the ties between Kira and the Uesugi.