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The 47th Samurai

Dr Alex Tang


Stephen Hunter (2007) The 47th Samurai, New York: Simon & Schuster. Imagine the bloody battle at Iwo Jima in which a tough US Marine fought with a Japanese officer. The American survived and was highly decorated. He also took the Samurai sword of the Japanese officer. Fast forward 50 years. The son of the Japanese officer turned up in the States to look up the son of the US Marine named Bob Lee Swagger who was also an ex-US Marine, looking for the sword. Out of a sense of honor, Bob Lee Swagger found the sword and brought it to Japan.

The sword turned out to be a legendary sword in Japanese history. With such a promising start, Stephen Hunter has delivered an exciting novel about Japanese culture, Samurai, Japanese sword, the Yakuza and of course, the CIA in Japan. The plot is fast moving. Hunter interspersed the novel with juicy tidbits about Japanese culture. It is like watching a movie and suspending belief. Like in many Hong Kong Kung Fu movies, Bob Lee Swagger learnt Japanese sword fighting in one week and was able to kill the Yakuza topmost assassin who was also their master swordsman.

The story of the 47 Ronin is one of the most celebrated in the history of the samurai. Ronin is a samurai without a master. This story is about Asano Takumi no kami Naganori (1667-1701). Lord Asano was chosen by the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, to be one of a number of daimyo tasked with entertaining envoys from the Imperial family. Unfortunately Asano did not get along with the ranking master of protocol, Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka (1641-1702). This interpersonal conflict came to a head in April, 1701 when Asano threw his sword at Kira. Kira was not wounded seriously. However, this was a serious matter and the Shogan ordered Asano to commit hara-kiri and all his lands in Akô in Harima confiscated. Asano’s samurai were disbanded and became ronin. However they plotted together and on the snowy night of 14 December 1702, 47 of them marched to Kira’s mansion. Kira was beheaded by the same sword that Asano used to kill himself. It is this sword that is the centre of Hunter’s novel.


They then carried Kira’s head to Sengakuji, where Asano was buried. Then they turned themselves in. The ronins were ordered to commit suicide. They were all buried in Sengakuji. The Legend of the 47 Samurai is very popular in Japan and many plays, novels, mangas and movies were based on it. The Sengakuji is still a popular spot in Tokyo and a place who many feel were the finest examples of samurai loyalty to emerge from the Edo Period.


A good thriller with fast moving action packed scenes of Japanese sword fighting (first time I read about Japanese sword fighting action in English). I give it a four stars.



|posted 3 December 2007|


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