Yamaga Sokō's Inspiration

from the Righteous Samurai Collection, 1920

by Tomita Keisen

IHL Cat. #2305


The eighth print appearing in Volume 1 of Gishi taikan, edited by Fukumoto Nichinan. 

The artist, Tomita Keisen, presents us with a view of the Confucian scholar, philosopher and military strategist Yamaga Sokō 山鹿素行 (1622-1685), credited with developing the concept of shidō "the way of the samurai", teaching a group of Akō domain retainers. Yamaga came to Akō in 1652 at the invitation of its daimyō, Asano Naganao 浅野長直 (1610-1672), grandfather of Asano Naganori 浅野長矩 (1667-1701), to train the Asano clan in military science. In 1660, after nine years, he resigned from his position going to Edo to open his own school. Running afoul of the shogunate by contradicting prevailing doctrine on the role of the samurai, in 1666 he was sent into exile, back to Akō in the custody of Asano Naganao, where he remained until pardoned in 1675, when he returned to Edo.

In building the legend surrounding the Righteous Samurai vendetta and its leader Ōishi Yoshio (大石 良雄, 1659-1703), Yamaga and his teachings have been positioned as a motivating driver of, and justification for, the vendetta. Fukumoto Nichinan's commentary accompanying this print (see below) indicates that Yamaga's impact on Ōishi enabled him "to create a group of forty-seven warriors that attracted the attention of the nation."[1]  In John A. Tucker's words, "Yamaga was early on implicated in the whole [revenge] incident as if he and Ōishi were co-conspirators."[2]  In Section 32 of Genroku kaikyoroku, Fukumoto tell us that , "From an early age, he [Ōishi] aspired to the path of literature and martial arts, and studied hard under Yamaga Sokō. Considering the time period, Sokō was exiled to Akō for ten years from [Ōishi's] age of eight until he turned seventeen, and it was during this period that he received his education."[3] 

While Yamaga's teachings were widely disseminated throughout Japan, many historians cast doubt on the influence he had on Ōishi's actions in taking revenge against Kira, the shogun's master of ceremonies, attacked by Ōishi's lord Asano Naganori. Objections center around the improbability of Ōishi ever having been taught by Yamaga, even when Yamaga was in exile, Ōishi's actions not being consistent with Yamaga's teachings[5] and Ōishi's lack of any mention of Yamaga in his writings.[4] 

The propagation of the myth of Yamaga's influence on Ōishi by adherents of Yamaga's teachings, many of whom rose to positions of power after the Meiji Reformation, was instrumental in young Emperor Meiji's 1868 imperial rescript praising Ōishi and the righteous samurai and the public veneration of the vendetta.[5]

[1] my translation from the commentary, the original of which is shown below. 

[2] The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History, John A. Tucker, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 153.

[3] my translation of section 32 of Genroku kaikyoroku (三二 大石内蔵助の人となり素行との出会い)  元禄快挙録(上) 

[4]  Ōishi was a baby at the time Yamaga was teaching Akō (Ōishi was born in 1659 with Yamaga leaving for Edo the following year in 1860) and there is no record of Yamaga doing any teaching during his period of exile in Akō (1666-1675) coinciding with Ōishi 's 7th to 16th years.  Again in the words of Tucker, "In short, Yamaga was not an advocate of revenge killings, and surely not ones directed at elderly ceremonial officials serving the shogunate." 

[5] The Forty-Seven Rōnin: The Vendetta in History, John A. Tucker, Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 159.

Print Details

click on image to enlarge

artist signature and seal

click on image to enlarge

Tribute Preceding Print by the author and President of Keio University

Eikichi Kamada 

鎌田榮吉 (1857-1934) from Volume 1 of Gishi Taikan

image source: The Early Japanese Book Portal Database, Art Research Center AkoRH-R0419-1 

click on image to enlarge


Print Commentary from Volume 1 of Gishi Taikan

image source: The Early Japanese Book Portal Database, Art Research Center AkoRH-R0419-1 


【圖は山鹿素行 (通稱甚五右衛門)の、浅野長矩の祖父長直の招聘によりて赤穗に留ること九年、經學兵法を以て一藩子弟を訓練した其より一旦江戸に歸りて大に門戸を張つたが、偶幕府の忌諱に觸れて江戸を逐はれ、浅野長直監視の名義に再び赤穗藩の師となつた、當時の接伴役は大石良雄の叔父頼母良重であつたから、良雄は無論幼時より此英物の薫陶を十二分に受けれのである、此時素行の赤穗にあること十年、前後を通じて十九年のしき感化は、果して其効空しからず、四十七士を産出して天下の耳目を聳動するの素地を作つたのである. 

【畫  院展派 富田渓仙

賛  元?應大學長 貴族院議員 號竹堂   鎌田榮吉  


Portraying a Historical Figure

Pre-dating this 1920 portrayal of Yamaga Sogo on the right was the undated and unattributed image on the left.

Artist Profile

Tomita Keisen 冨田溪仙 (1879 - 1936) 

Tomita was born in Hakata (Fukuoka). His given name was Shingorō. He studied the Shijō style of painting in Kyoto with Tsuji Kakō (1871-1931). He also studied Heian Buddhist painting and nanga (traditional Japanese painting).  He exhibited in the official Bunten, Teiten and Inten exhibitions. Exhibited paintings with Saiko Nihon Bijutsuin (Reorganized Japan Fine Art Academy) in 1915, and became a member of the Academy in1916. He is credited with creating a new style of kacho-ga and was one of the foremost painters of his generation. 

For more information on this artist go to https://myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/tomita-keisen-1879-1936.html