The Case of the Forty-Seven Samurai


The Background and the Myth


In the twelfth century, the samurai came to prominence in Japan. Fiercely loyal warriors whose duty was to protect the regional warlord to whom they owed their loyalty, they developed a stringent code of honor. Becoming a samurai required years of education, practice, and discipline. The samurai trained themselves to be neither fearful of death nor hopeful of victory. They entered combat with a fierce intensity that was at the same time emotionless, formidable opponents who fought to the last man and won many battles on the basis of their reputation alone.

In 1701 an event involving the samurai established an enduring legend. Three warlords were summoned to the imperial shogun’s court. One, knowing little of court etiquette, insulted by a lord of the shogun’s court, was compelled by honor to draw his sword, subsequently wounding the man who had ridiculed his manners. To draw a sword in the presence of the shogun was an unheard of crime, however, and the shogun commanded the warlord to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide by disembowelment. The warlord, a man of honor owing complete loyalty to the shogun, obeyed.

The shogun knew well the code of the samurai, and he knew that the warlord’s protectors were sworn to avenge the death of their daimyo by killing the lord who had insulted him. To prevent further bloodshed, the shogun sent his warriors to surround the warlord’s castle with overwhelming force. To carry out their mission of avenging their daimyo, the forty-seven samurai made a pact and then surrendered, subsequently disavowing any obligation they felt to their dead lord. For two years, they wandered the land separately, some becoming drunkards, some hired mercenaries, some brothel operators. Their swords rusted, and they were despised by all. But after two years, they secretly assembled, assaulted the castle of the lord who had insulted their daimyo, and beheaded him. They carried his head to the daimyo’s grave. Having failed to protect their lord, and having violated the dictate of their shogun not to avenge his death, each of the forty-seven, sitting in a large circle, then committed seppuku.

Such is the tradition of the samurai.


The Situation


You are the commander of a battalion of the force occupying Japan in 1945 following the conclusion of the war. A member of the Japanese nobility, standing in the road, sword in hand, when your column arrived outside the city of Honai, had charged the vehicles and soldiers with the sword over his head. The advance guard shot and killed him on the road. Your interpreter later explained that the Japanese lord had sworn to fight to the death and thus was honor bound to attack the column.

He had also extracted from his ten samurai an oath not to avenge his death as required by the giri, the samurai code of honor. The samurai, compelled by honor not to conduct themselves as their code required, were shamed. Your interpreter further explained that that evening, the group would commit suicide in the tradition of the forty-seven ronin.


The Problem


You do not believe in suicide for any reason, let alone the obscure one apparently at work here. You also have orders to establish a stable environment in Honai. You suspect that the ten samurai and their lord are in the process of becoming legendary martyrs and thus a rallying cry for armed resistance, a potential problem of major proportions for your occupying force. Should you take steps to prevent the predicted suicides from occurring? You are too far away from your higher headquarters to request orders and get an answer before the ceremony of seppuku.

You have called a staff meeting and asked for the advice of your staff officers.