- Birth: 1641
- Death: 1702/12 (1/1703)
- Titles: Kozuke no suke
- Japanese: 吉良義央 (Kira Yoshinaka or Kira Yoshihisa)
Yoshinaka was a Tokugawa hatamoto with a stipend of 4,200 koku, a shogunal official of the Edo period. He is famous for his part in the tale of the 47 Ronin, as the killer of their lord Asano Naganori and the target of the ronin's vengeance. While Kira's personal name has traditionally been given as Yoshinaka, recent discoveries of letters and other contemporary documents show that it was actually pronounced 'Yoshihisa'.
Traditionally, Kira Kosuke Yoshinaka has been heavily vilified by novels, plays, and prints to lend justification to Asano Naganori’s assault and also to give the 47 Ronin a worthy villain against which to carry out their vendetta. But how much of this, if any, is based on historical fact? Kira’s contemporary, Sato Naotaka, has pointed out that "while Asano’s conduct was justified (by some) on account of evil-doing that people attributed to Kira, it still left open the question of whether this view of Kira was indeed supported by fact".
The picture that arises from the historical record is that of a rather typical Edo period samurai/bureaucrat, little better or worse than his peers whose ‘big mistake’ was in being assigned the surly Asano as a student.
Kira had served the Shogunate in matters of ceremony for about 40 years, having been part of a group of families called koke (‘high families’) that had been responsible for ceremonial matters from the start of the Tokugawa period. His family was descended from the Ashikaga clan branch of the Seiwa Genji and was distantly related to the Mikawa Tokugawa. As with many hatamoto, Kira’s status was high but his income low (4200 koku). Kira was highly regarded by the Shogunate and at age 22 was given the duty of congratulating Emperor Reigen on his succession, for which he was praised by the Shogunate and bestowed with lower 4th court rank by the Emperor. Kira’s one year old son was also made successor to Uesugi Tsunakatsu (Kira’s brother-in-law, who had died without an heir). Ronin supporters have stated that Kira had poisoned Uesugi, but there is no historical evidence to support this claim and does not appear to have been an issue at the time. Kira was further honored when his son (now Uesugi Tsunanori) was permitted to marry Sakaehime, the sister of Tokugawa Tsunanori (the successor of the house of Kii). Tsunanori later became Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s son in law, giving Kira family relations with the Shogun. Kira continued to receive promotions and successfully served Tsunayoshi, a rather demanding ruler, for twenty years. Kira was remembered fondly by many in his hometown as he was responsible for building many public works.
The biggest charge made against Kira seems to be that he expected expensive gifts from Asano (or as the early 20th century historian Murdoch terms it without any supporting evidence, ‘had an itch in his palm’) and, not having received any, proceeded to belittle and withhold information from the Ako daimyo. However, there exists no contemporary evidence whatsoever that Kira was angered over not receiving gifts, and for that matter, that Asano failed to present him with any in the first place. The charge of Kira insisting on bribes first appears in Gijin Roku and its author, the philosopher Muro Kyuso, also invents a fictional encounter between Kira and Asano where Kira refers to the Ako lord as a ‘country bumpkin’. Bito Masahide and other Japanese scholars have called Gijin Roku “filled with inaccuracies” and “the information he (Muro) was able to obtain already consisted of fictional elements”. The stories in Gijin Roku were eagerly accepted by playwrights and novelists and became accepted over time as fact. Tokutomi, who generally looked for primary source material, could only find Tokugawa Jikki as a source for Kira’s ‘evil’ conduct. This work was written over a century after the event and lacks any sort of historical foundation, being instead the opinions of the book’s compiler.
Having said that, there can be little doubt that Kira did expect gifts from Asano. Gift giving to gain favor was an accepted part of Tokugawa society (and still is in Japanese business circles) from the Shogun on down. Bodart-Bailey has an excellent summary of the practice:”Then as now in Japanese culture it is a form of payment for services rendered or hoped for where no formal system of remuneration exists”. It was an important way for samurai of lower income to supplement their incomes from their wealthier charges (and unlike the popular depiction, Kira was not a rich man-his income was less than 10% of Asano’s). Unlike modern times, Kira could not simply set a fee for his role as teacher-it would be up to Asano to show his appreciation by giving him gifts. IF Asano did not give Kira gifts (and the record does not show that), Kira likely would have been angry at the implied insult-as would any other samurai in a similar position. As Bodart-Bailey states, “No doubt Kira knew well how to use his monopoly on essential ceremonial knowledge to boost his meager income, and he might well have been unpopular and considered greedy by some” but also states “it seems arbitrary to label the gifts one official expected within this framework as graft”. No doubt Asano was more than pleased to receive gifts from retainers and those seeking to win favor himself.
Kira left himself open to charges of cowardice after failing to defend himself against Asano’s rather ineffectual assault. He was mocked and shunned by his fellows (almost as much as Asano was mocked for botching the assault), and even his own family scorned him. This act of cowardice likely spared his life for the time being-it made Asano’s assault an act of unilateral misconduct rather than an argument between retainers, where Kira likely would also have been ordered to commit suicide. Eventually, Kira was sent away by his son as an embarrassment. Unable to afford adequate security with his meager income (with only 3-5 armed guards at his mansion on the night of the attack), Kira became a fish in a barrel just waiting for the expected assault. In the aftermath, while there was debate among the bakufu in what to do with the 47 Ronin, they were unanimous in condemning Kira’s family for failing to adequately protect him (including his stepson, who was gravely wounded defending Kira).
In summary, it appears Kira was nothing more than a typical Edo bureaucrat who expected his traditional due-not the evil, lustful, grasping villain he is commonly portrayed as. Again, Bodart-Bailey gives an excellent overview by stating “Lauding the slaying of Kira meant praising an act of breaking the law. Hence Kira’s vilification was necessary to justify such illegal behavior as being provoked by an even worse state of affairs”.
- Bodart-Bailey, Beatrice M The Dog Shogun:The Personality And Politics Of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Honolulu:University Of Hawai’i Press, 2006
- Kanai Madoka, editor Dokai Koshuki in Edo Shiryo Sosho Tokyo:Jinbutsu Oraisha, 1967
- Tokutomi Ichiro Kinsei Nihon Kokuminshi vols 11-19, Tokyo:Minyusha, 1935-1936
- Rankin, Andrew, Seppuku Tokyo:Kodansha International Ltd, 2011
- Sato Naokata Yonjuroku Nin No Hikki NST, Vol 27
- Bito Masahide The Ako Incident, 1701-1703 in Monumenta Nipponica 58:2 (Summer 2003)
- Sakata Moroto, unpublished memoirs-Kai Shosho Yoshiyasu Ason Jikki vol 30, Genroku 15, property of University Of Tokyo
- Sato Hiroaki Legends Of The Samurai The Overlook Press, 1995