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The Japanese ronin are legendary and yet they’re often widely misrepresented. Fascinating historic figures turned into romantic mythological characters, these wandering and disgraced samurai played a major role in the shaping of medieval Japan.
Who are the Ronin?
Literally translating as “wave man”, i.e. a “wanderer” or “drifter”, the ronin were former samurai who had become masterless for one reason or another.
In Japanese culture, samurai were the equivalent of the European knights. Core to the military power of the various Japanese regional lords, samurai were sworn to their lord from the beginning to the end of their service.
Just as with European knights, the moment a samurai’s daimyo (a.k.a. feudal lord) perished or released them from their service, the samurai became masterless. For a significant part of Japanese history, especially during the Sengoku Period (15th to 17th century), this wasn’t all that significant. The samurai were allowed to seek employment elsewhere or even to choose a different profession and become a guard, farmer, trader, or anything else.
However, during the Edo Period (early 17th to late 19th century), the Shogunate class system became much more rigid and the fluidity between the different classes of people became almost impenetrable. This meant that if a samurai lost his master, he couldn’t just become a farmer or a trader. Additionally, the Bushido code of the time no longer allowed for the samurai – now ronin – to seek the employment of other daimyo lords.
The only acceptable course of action according to Bushido was for the samurai to commit seppuku, i.e. a ritual sacrifice. Also called harakiri (belly cutting), this was done with the shorter of the two traditional blades all samurai carried – the tanto. Ideally, another samurai would stand behind the masterless samurai with their longer sword (tachi or katana) to assist with the hara-kiri.
Naturally, many masterless samurai chose to escape this fate and became ronin instead. With their ability to seek further samurai employment or other allowed career opportunities, these ronin typically became mercenaries, bodyguards, outcasts, or simply grouped up in wandering bands of outlaws.
Why Did So Many Samurai Become Ronin?
The turning point for many masterless samurai started at the turn of the 17th century – between the Sengoku and the Edo periods. More precisely, this was brought upon because of the famous Toyotomi Hideyoshi – the Great Unifier.
This famous samurai and daimyo (feudal lord) lived from 1537 to 1598 AD. Toyotomi rose from a peasant family in service to Oda Nobunaga, a leadingdaimyo during this period. Nobunaga himself had already started a massive campaign to unite the other daimyo of Japan under his rule when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was still just his servant.
Eventually, however, Toyotomi rose through the ranks of the samurai and became Nobunaga’s successor. He then continued his daimyo’s campaign and managed to unite all of Japan under his rule. It was this campaign of conquest that closed the Sengoku period and began the Edo period.
While immensely momentous and arguably pivotal for Japan’s history, this event also marked a dark turn for many samurai. Because Japan was now united, the demand for new soldiers by many regional daimyos was drastically decreased.
Although some hundred thousand ronin had joined forces with the samurai of Toyotomi Hideyori (the son and successor of Toyotomi Hideyoshi) at the siege of Osaka in 1614, soon after, masterless samurai simply could not find employ anywhere.
It’s believed that during the rule of Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604 to 1651) as many as half a million ronin wandered the land. Some did become farmers in secluded areas and villages but many others became outlaws.
Did Ronin Follow Bushido?
Bushido Shoshinshu or the Code of the Warrior was the military, moral, and lifestyle code of all samurai. Typically traced back to the 17th century, Bushido was preceding by other codes such as Kyūba no Michi (The Way of the Bow and the Horse) and other similar codes.
Wherever you choose to put the beginning of this samurai code of conduct, the significant factor was that it always applied to the samurai of the time. Ronin, however, were not samurai. Masterless samurai who refused to perform seppuku and became ronin defied Bushido and weren’t expected to follow it any further.
It’s possible that individual ronin had their own moral codes of conduct or tried to follow Bushido anyway.
When did the Ronin Disappear?
The ronin stopped being a part of the Japanese landscape long before the end of the Edo Period. By the end of the 17th century, the need for new samurai and soldiers had decreased to such an extent that the ronin – extremely numerous at the beginning of the century – eventually disappeared. The peace and stability of the Edo Period simply motivated an increasing number of young men to seek employment elsewhere and not even consider becoming fighting men in the first place.
However, this doesn’t mean that the samurai disappeared at the same time. This warrior caste continued on until their eventual abolition in 1876 – nearly two centuries after the de facto end of the ronin.
The reason for this gap is twofold – 1) there were fewer samurai to become ronin, and 2) even fewer of them were becoming masterless because of the peace and stability between Japan’s daimyo. So, while there continued to be samurai, the ronin disappeared rather quickly.
The 47 Ronin
There are quite a few famous ronin both in history and in pop culture. Kyokutei Bakin, for example, was a ronin and a famous novelist. Sakamoto Ryōma fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate and advocated democracy over the monarchy of the Shogunate. Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Buddhist, ronin, strategist, philosopher, and also a writer. These and many others all deserve a mention.
However, none are as famous as the 47 ronin. These 47 warriors took part in what’s known as the Akō Incident or the Akō Vendetta. The infamous event occurred in the 18th century, which is after the de facto end of most of the ronin caste. In other words, these 47 ronin were already some of the last of their kind to further add to the drama of the event.
These 47 former samurai became ronin after their daimyo Asano Naganori was compelled to perform seppuku. This was necessitated because he had assaulted a powerful court official named Kira Yoshinaka. Instead of also performing seppuku as the Bushido code instructs, the 47 ronin vowed revenge for their master’s death.
The 47 warriors waited and plotted for about a year before eventually launching an assault on Kira and killing him. After that, all 47 performed seppuku according to Bushido for the murder they had committed.
The story of the 47 ronin has become legendary through the centuries and has been immortalized by numerous novelists, playwrights, and movie directors, including in the West. This is just one of three famous adauchi vendetta stories in Japan together with the Igagoe Vendetta and the Revenge of the Soga Brothers.
Symbols and Symbolism of Ronin
Ronin means different things for different people. Historically, they were outlaws, mercenaries, and marauders more often than anything else. However, they also often became farmers and ordinary townsfolk, depending on the period they lived in. Some even achieved fame as writers, philosophers, and civic activists.
More than anything else, however, ronin can be described as victims of their circumstances and of the system they lived under. While many great things can be said about the Bushido code as it typically talked about honor, valor, duty, and self-sacrifice, it was nevertheless a code of conduct that demanded that people take their own lives.
The idea behind this was that they had failed in their duties to protect their daimyo. Yet, from a 21st-century standpoint, it does seem incredibly cruel to force such a choice upon a person – either perform seppuku and take their own life or live as an outcast away from society. Fortunately, with prosperity, peace, and modernization, the need for a standing army decreased. With that, the resulting ronin were also no more.
Importance of Ronin in Modern Culture
Most of the images and associations we make of ronin today are overly romanticized. That’s almost entirely due to the various novels, plays, and movies we’ve seen and read about them over the years. These usually portray the most favorable element of the ronin story – that of a misunderstood outcast who tries to do what’s right in the face of a rigid society whose laws were sometimes… shall we say “suboptimal”?
Regardless of how historically accurate or not such stories are, they are nevertheless legendary and endlessly fascinating. Some of the most famous examples include the jidaigeki movies of Akira Kurosawa such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro.
There are also Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 film Harakiri as well as the 2013 Japanese-American production 47 Ronin. Other examples include the famous 2020 video game Ghost of Tsushima, the 2004 anime series Samurai Champloo, and the legendary animated series Samurai Jack where the protagonist is technically a ronin rather than a samurai.
Today, the term ronin is used in Japan to describe unemployed salaried workers or high school graduates who have yet to be admitted to university. This reflects the state of limbo, of drifting, associated with the historical ronin.
While today the class of ronin have faded into the past, their stories and the unique justice of the world they lived and served within continue to fascinate and inspire.