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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

The Modernization of Chūshingura: Politics and Media in the Making of Japan's National Legend

October 15, 1999 / 6.30 P.M.

Henry D. Smith (Professor, Columbia University)

Chūshingura (the story of the 47 ronin) is once again the focus of national attention in Japan, in the form of “Genroku Ryōran”, the third time in the postwar period that NHK had recycled this perduring national legend as the theme of its Sunday-evening historical drama (taiga dorama). Talk about Chūshingura and its appeal will surely proliferate even more when we enter the season of the 300th anniversary of the historical Akō Incident, which will span a 19-month period from April 14, 2001, to December 14, 2002. This seems an opportune time to reconsider the history of the complex processes by which a historical incident has over the course of three centuries been successively made and remade into legend. I wish to consider the ways in which the evolution of the popular media in Japan, particularly from kōdan and naniwabushi in the 19th century, and on to popular fiction, film, and television in the 20th century, have intersected with changing political climates to insure the survival of Chūshingura. I argue that the continuing popularity of Chūshingura owes less to any inherent appeal to “Japanese values”, as is often argued, than to the specific historical configurations of media that have encouraged its growth within the context of changing political climates. At the same time, the perceived “reality” of the historical incident has itself served to infuse new life into the legend in what might be called “the revenge of history”.

Henry Smith is professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, and is currently serving as visiting professor for the academic year 1999-2000 at the Kyōto Center for Japanese Studies. He works in the history of urban and visual culture in modern Japan, and is presently involved in the preparation of two conference volumes, one on the history of modern Japanese architecture, and the other on the history of Chūshingura.