Few Japanese traditions and values can be as gut-wrenching and unfathomable to Westerners as Seppuku. The mere mention of “ritualistic suicide” is enough to scare most non-Japanese people.
While the West considers the practice “barbaric,” old-school Japanese and non-Japanese individuals who appreciate the Land of the Rising Sun’s Samurai culture view Seppuku as nothing short of honorable.
So, what is it, and why did the Samurai choose to perform this ritual instead of other honor-saving alternatives? How did they carry out Seppuku, and are there forms of the ritual? Did Japanese women perform Seppuku, too? Does this practice persist today?
Join us in exploring these issues.
What is Seppuku?
Non-Japanese people call ritualistic self-disembowelment “Hara-kiri,” but you won’t hear any local call ritualistic suicide as such. Instead, they call it Seppuku, from the words “setsu” (to cut) and “fuku” (belly).
Seppuku requires plunging a razor-sharp-bladed weapon into the belly’s left side and moving the blade toward the right. The action cuts off the aorta and vena cava (the human body’s largest blood vessels), leaving the person performing Seppuku bleeding to death.
The Origins of Seppuku
The ancient Japanese did not practice Seppuku until about the late 12th century when the Japanese poet and warrior Minamoto no Yorimasa preferred dying by his hands to the enemy’s (the Taira clan) during the First Battle of Uji in 1180.
Minamoto’s act paved the way for Seppuku as a code for the Samurai – a more honorable way to accept defeat than torture and death at the hands of enemies. Many cultural historians believe Samurai viewed Seppuku as more merciful, allowing warriors to die on their terms, preserving their honor and dignity on the battlefield.
The very first Seppuku was as rudimentary as any suicide and without rituals. There was no Kaishakunin to ensure the person’s quick death after performing Seppuku.
Hence, Seppuku between the 12th and 17th centuries was agonizingly painful, and death was slow.
Individuals performing Seppuku had to remove the bladed weapon and pierce his throat. Alternatively, the person could position the Katana against the heart and fall to the ground, plunging the razor-sharp Samurai sword into the heart.
The Edo period saw the standardization of the Seppuku ritual, making the act a spectacle to the public.
The person performing the Seppuku takes a cold water bath to constrict the blood vessels and avoid excessive bleeding. He wears a Shiro-shozoku (a white kimono) and eats his last meal. A Sanbo (a stand) accommodates the weapon and a cloth for the ritual. The warrior writes a “death poem” and drinks Sake for the final time.
The Kaishakunin stands behind the person committing the Seppuku as he grabs the blade and cloth on the Sanbo. Although the Katana is a Samurai’s preferred sword for Seppuku, he can use a Tanto or Wakizashi (interestingly, there are many rituals associated with Katana swords other than for Seppuku).
The principal (the person performing Hara-kiri) removes the garment to expose the belly and wraps the blade with a cloth to ensure stability in thrusting the weapon into the abdomen. He plunges the blade into the left belly and moves it across.
The Kaishakunin delivers the death blow in one swift but precise motion. Contrary to many Hollywood film portrayals, the Kaishakunin doesn’t decapitate the principal. Instead, the sword strike must be so precise that the head hangs loosely from the torso but never falls to the ground.
This position of the principal’s head defines Dakikubi, an essential element of Seppuku, and satisfies the Shinto belief that any ground in contact with blood is unclean.
We can only imagine the principal’s mental fortitude when performing Seppuku. He must endure the pain without losing composure. The Kaishakunin can only deliver the “coup de grace” when the agony becomes unbearable.
A Seppuku ritual. Photo by Nippon.
The Kaishakunin’s Responsibility
Many Westerners see the Kaishakunin as the executioner, a title no one in the West would gladly take. However, the Samurai culture requires the Kaishakunin to be a master swordsman. Otherwise, he will not be able to ensure Dakikubi (the head hanging from the neck by a small piece of flesh and skin), leading to shame and disgrace.
Reasons for Seppuku
Warriors and ordinary individuals perform Seppuku for different reasons. Here are the most important ones.
It is worth differentiating Seppuku as capital punishment from execution. The former describes a fallen Samurai willing to perform Seppuku himself (although with orders from an authority).
Meanwhile, execution directs capital punishment to individuals who do not want to perform Seppuku. It also means the condemned person’s death doesn’t pardon or absolve his family of the crime.
Forms of Seppuku
People have different reasons for performing Seppuku. However, it is worth noting we can classify these rationales into two distinct Seppuku forms – voluntary and obligatory.
Most individuals performing a Seppuku do so to save face, regain honor, or atone for irreparable mistakes. Some might also commit the ritualistic self-disembowelment to protest.
Japan’s defeat in the Second World War saw many high-ranking military officers and government leaders commit voluntary Seppuku. The Japanese novelist Mishima Yukio also performed self-disembowelment in 1970 to protest Japan’s deteriorating traditional values.
Some examples of voluntary Seppuku include the following.
Also known as Tsuifuku or Kun’yomi, Oibara involves servants performing Seppuku upon a master’s death. It signifies the servant’s loyalty to a single master that serving another lord is disgraceful and dishonorable.
Although most “ritualistic self-disembowelment” occur with other persons watching the event unfold, the Kanshi is different. Known as “remonstration death,” Kanshi requires the person to perform the Hara-kiri in private, bandage it up, and bring his grievance or protest to his master or lord. The individual reveals the mortal wound before passing away.
This Seppuku is nearly identical to Kanshi – a statement of protest or dissatisfaction against a master or lord. However, the person performing the Seppuku no longer voices the concern and simply performs the ritual. They call this Seppuku “indignation death.”
The “cross-shaped cut,” the Jumonji giri, is an excruciatingly painful way of ending one’s life to save honor. The person performing the Seppuku does not only make the horizontal cut in the belly. They must remove the same bladed tool, plunge it midline below the ribcage, and move it downward to form a cross with the horizontal cut.
Jumonji giri also eliminates the Kaishakunin from the picture, robbing the person performing Seppuku of a quick death. It is the ultimate display of bravery, courage, and dedication to regaining honor.
Capital punishment and execution are examples of obligatory Seppuku. An authority orders the warrior or individual to perform Seppuku to save the latter’s honor.
A classic example of obligatory Seppuku is the story of the 47 Ronin. Although the masterless Samurai only avenged their lord’s death by executing the opposing Daimyo, the Shogun at the time (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi) ordered the warriors to commit Seppuku to “die with honor” instead of being treated as “criminals.”
Do Women and Children Perform Seppuku?
Female Seppuku varies from the male version. It would be incorrect to call female ritual suicide “Seppuku” because it does not involve cutting the belly. Instead, Samurai wives and women from Samurai families take their life by cutting the carotid arteries in the throat. In many instances, the woman dies alone.
The woman performing the suicide uses a Kaiken or Tanto in one stroke. She also binds the knees to maintain a “dignified pose,” preventing the lower extremities from thrashing during death convulsions.
Feudal Japan did not exempt children from Seppuku, especially those belonging to Samurai families. Hence, it was not unusual for a family to face execution if the breach of conduct was grave enough.
Seppuku in the 21st Century
Japan abolished Seppuku in 1873. However, many traditional Japanese men still adhered to these rituals as the ultimate act of saving one’s honor from disgrace. The last recorded Seppuku was the 1970 Mishima Yukio incident at the headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.
Although traditional ritualistic suicide (i.e., Seppuku) is rare in 21st-century Japan, suicide remains high. More than 17 Japanese men and women for every 100,000 Japanese commit suicide, with men bearing most of the brunt at 24.3 per 100,000.
Mass Seppuku scene from the film “47 Ronin.” Photo by Commentaramafilms.
The Bottom Line
Often misunderstood, Seppuku teaches honor and dignity to the 21st-century world. It is the ultimate sacrifice and display of one’s fortitude, something that many 21st-century individuals find challenging to appreciate and respect. Seppuku might be gone, but its spirit lives on, especially in a world where suicides are growing at an unprecedented rate.