11 in speaking about plunging recklessly toward an

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Unformatted text preview: ry. Of theatrical versions, the 1748 puppet play Chûshingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers)8 established itself as the most popular, and indeed the name “Chûshingura” became, and remains today, synonymous with the entire cultural phenomenon of the forty-seven rònin. Why, we may ask, did the rònin story become so immediately and lastingly popular? For one thing, of course, it was an inherently exciting, suspenseful story. But to the contemporary Japanese of the early eighteenth century who started the Chûshingura craze, the story of the rònin surely aroused feelings deeper than simply the reactions one might have to an exciting, suspenseful story. The time was the Genroku epoch. Japan had been at peace almost uninterruptedly for a century. The economy, from its agricultural base to urban commerce, had expanded steadily and, in many respects, dramatically throughout this period. More people had more money and more leisure time than ever before, and Genroku itself became a byword for the cultural flourishing of a consumer society. Peace, prosperity, leisure time, and consumerism had, over the years, eroded the martial spirit of the samurai, who had not had wars to fight for generations. Some people may even have wondered why anyone was still allowed to be a samurai. Then, suddenly, came the astounding news that forty-seven Heterodox Trends 211 rònin had risked everything—the wrath of the shogunate, their lives, their families—to avenge their lord. Revenge, in the form of the vendetta (katakiuchi), was a practice that was, in fact, tacitly approved, if not encouraged, by the Tokugawa shogunate, which allowed government agencies at various levels to authorize vendettas. But of the authorized vendettas that have come down to us in the records, virtually all were under taken by people on behalf of their relatives—for example, the revenge of a son against the murderer of his father. The “revenge” of the forty-seven rònin, as people at the time were quick to point out, was not authorized and, indeed, was not eve...
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