You may already know that Seppuku or Harakiri is the Japanese art of suicide and die with honor, preferable by samurai rather than an execution. In this article we go further, investigating every detail of this culture of suicide and some unknown facts.
Did you know that the most used blade in Seppuku was not a Katana? Did you know that women also had a similar ritual? Do you know all harakiri’s lawsuits? Do you know the most famous people who have committed such an act?
Table of Contents - What does Seppuku and Harakiri mean? - The complexity of a seppuku or harakiri - What is seppuku's origin and story? - How did the Seppuku ritual work? - Kaishakunin - Seppuku is not done alone - Jigai - Female Harakiri - Seppuku and the Bushido - Code of Honor of samurai - Japanese who committed seppuku - Jumonji Giri - No cuts to the head - How did Seppuko influence Japan?
What does Seppuku and Harakiri mean?
Seppuku is a Japanese suicide ritual, which is part of the Samurai Code of Honor. The word seppu[切腹]ku means “cut the belly”. The Seppuku is used in extreme situations as a failure to serve your master or lose in a war.
In the West this act is better known as harakiri [腹切 ou 腹切り] where samurai or warriors were suicidal in an honorable way, for love; honor and homeland. This act is used voluntarily as a choice to escape from the hands of enemies.
The Seppuku is also a form of capital punishment for samurai who have committed serious crimes and other grounds of shame. In its most basic form, seppuku is an honorable suicide, committed ritualistically.
The knife used for the ritual is called Tantō or Kozuka. This knife is much easier to handle than a katana or sword, allowing cuts quickly, accurately and cleanly.
The complexity of a seppuku or harakiri
The proper Seppuku was so complex that it required even a master swordsman. Some rituals have become so complex that the act could take days to plan and hours to enact itself.
The cut in the intestine is not the blow of death, it is symbolic. The act requires a specific technique involving 3 movements.
Let’s say you have a god’s pain tolerance and want to be especially honored in death. After the first three wounds, remove the knife, stab yourself in the stomach and pass through the previous cuts to the sternum.
In many cases, those who committed harakiri wrote poems as part of the ritual. Therefore, there are technical and literary aspects in seppuku. Is this one of the first reports of the suicide letters?
It turns out that, in addition to being tough warriors, samurai were an educated class, with education in religion and the written word, both strongly linked to poetry in feudal Japan. Believe it or not, some samurai were really good poets.
Some samurai wrote haiku, others waka. The death poems provide proof that the samurai understood the true nature of his death. These poems were typically influenced by buddhist views of death.
Seppuku wasn’t something isolated. On the contrary, some were committed in a garden or in a sacred place, and was attended by several spectators. If you are planning seppuku, wash yourself before and wear your best clothes.
What is seppuku’s origin and story?
The first documented case of seppuku dates from 1180. At that time, the Minamoto and Taira clans were at war, and the Taira decimated their enemy. The leader of the defeated clan, Minamoto no Yorimasa, saw his life collapsing around him.
Warrior and poet, preferred suicide to live a life of failure. There are several versions of the history of his death – according to one, he relied on a massive pillar in his home and opened his stomach.
Originally, the seppuku was a military act, usually held in battle or in the face of defeat. However, in the 1500s, it became a right allowed only to samurai and daimyo (feudal lords), being banned for some warriors.
Seppuku as an honorable alternative to execution by the samurai class and daimyo was, in theory, a right granted by the emperor. Those allowed to commit seppuku received an ornate ceremonial knife and used it to cut off her belly.
The decapitator returned the knife to the emperor as proof that the action was taken. Often committed as a result of dishonor or disloyalty to the emperor. In some cases, he himself acted as a judge, jury and executioner.
Such forced seppuku required little evidence or testimony. This form of mandatory seppuku continued until 1868, when it was finally banned. Seppuku was also allowed as an alternative to execution in the hands of the military or its enemy.
Instead of being killed, you could follow the honorable path of choosing to end your own life. In such cases, you can retain some form of personal honor in death. This voluntary method of seppuku has never been banned until today.
How did the Seppuku ritual work?
Only for samurai (Suicide ceremony had bath; sakê; last poem and even coup d’état.)
Harakiri, or seppuku, begins with the Samurai preparing with a bath, which he believed to serve to purify the body and soul. The warrior invited friends and relatives to witness his death and the reconquest of lost honor and could wear a special, white-colored costume to symbolize righteous and virtuous character.
The place chosen for the ceremony could be the interior of a house, but it was usually open in the open, in a Buddhist garden. The seppuku just could not be done in the gardens of Shinto temples, sacred places that should not be desecrated with death.
The samurai settled on his legs. He wrote the last poem on a wooden table and took the last sakê in two sips. Then he positioned the sword blade on the left side of his abdomen and struck himself.
After the first cut, the bravest brought the sword to the center of the body and lifted it, aiming to reach the center of the abdomen. The Japanese believed that there was a location of the soul.
To self-strike, the warrior used a short sword (30 to 60 centimeters) called wakizashi (いいいい). He wielded her holding a white scarf. After death, destroy all the blades used in seppuku.
Kaishakunin – Seppuku is not done alone
Seppuku is not something you can do alone (although some cut your own throat). You may have seen movies, shows or comics in which a samurai, sitting in silence and loneliness, stabs himself with a katana.
In reality, stabbing yourself in the stomach is only the first part of seppuku. You cut your abdomen to release your spirit from your body; after that, you are alive and in excruciating pain. Your assistant, a kaishakunin, beheads you.
Kaishakunin [介錯人] is a very skilled second samurai who accompanied the ceremony. He could be a friend of the suicidal man or even an enemy, who, in recognition of the bravery of his rival, offered to accompany his death.
Seppuku function was to inflict a fatal and painful injury to the suicidal. But as death sometimes took hours, kaishakunin could strike a coup d’état to end the warrior’s life, which had already proven his courage.
The single blow to the neck needed to be precise, keeping the head attached to the body by a piece of skin. In case he cuts herself whole, rolling across the floor, could be considered a great lack of respect.
The would-bebeheadings invited to participate in a seppuku could only refuse on the grounds that their sword technique is inadequate. If at any time your assistant sees you hesitate, he can cut off his head.
Jigai – Female Harakiri
Because the Seppuku was a popular act among warriors, most women were left out. What few know is that the woman had a ritual of Harakiri and could commit honorable suicide on some occasions.
If you were the wife of a samurai or a woman involved in war, were raped, had her husband dead, dishonored or lost her home, the woman could choose to end her life with a jigai, which in some cases was mandatory.
Committing jigai begins with tying the body in a specific pose with a rope, to prevent an ugly death (Japanese women were forced to be suitable and beautiful all the time).
Once trapped, take a very sharp knife and cut the artery into the neck at once. Jigai caused a very rapid death, but was also very confusing, creating a deluge of blood.
Seppuku and the Bushido – Samurai Code of Honor
The Seppuku is part of the samurai’ code of honor, the Bushido. He was taken quite seriously by the samurai at the time. They gave their lives to their master, they themselves did not accept flaws. We have seen that to this day the Japanese like to keep a perfect rhythm in things, and do not like flaws.
‘For a samurai, honoring the name of his family and his ancestors is said through death in a battle or duel, however, not necessarily. And failing, before his lord, was the greatest dishonor for the warrior, who finally had no choice but suicide. This is only possible by the standards governing the samurai warrior through the bushido.’
If the samurai did something dishonorable and did not perform seppuku. He would become a Ronin (いコ), a samurai without master, and would find no other master who would hire him.
Japanese who committed seppuku
Kusunoki Masashige (1294 to 1336). – He committed seppuku after the emperor he served ignored his counsel during a war, which resulted in the loss of battle.
Ōishi Kuranosuke Yoshio + 46 ronin were sentenced to commit seppuku after pnging into the death of Asano Naganori. Asano Naganori himself committed harakiri for his failed attempt to kill Kira Yoshinaka at Edo Castle.
General Akashi Gidayu committed harakiri for his master after he lost a battle in 1582. Miyamoto Musashi’s adopted son committed harakiri because of the death of his lord.
In 1970, renowned novelist Yukio Mishima and his followers committed harakiri while advocating a political revolution against the post-war constitution. Embarrassed by mockery, he marched to the general’s office and committed seppuku.
In the 19th century warriors killed French men for considering hostile during their arrival in Sakai. The Captain of the Ship demanded compensation, of these warriors 11 committed seppuku, the scene was so horrible that the captain could not watch.
Jumonji Giri – No cuts on the head
Isn’t Seppuku unpleasant enough for you? There is an alternate version called jumonji giri where there is no decapitation. That is, you just cut your belly in the traditional way and bleed to death.
Admiral Takijiro Onishi, responsible for kamikazi racing in World War II, killed himself in this way with the surrender of Japan. It took him 15 hours to die.
General Nogi also committed jumonji giri in 1912, and was so unconditional that he completely buttoned his military uniform over his wounds before waiting for an end.
How did Seppuko Influence Japan?
It’s very common to see references to seppuku in anime and mánga, I remember it in Love Hina, and in other animes that have fled me now.
And since not mentioning The 47Ron, despite the unrealities, was a tragic ending, the seppuku, was quite sad. I made an image highlighting some references in anime and film. See if they recognize each other.
We can certainly state that the culture of suicide in Japan had enough influence of Seppuku or Harakiri. Even the rate has dropped in the last 30 years, suicides in Japan exceed 20,000. Was Seppuku responsible?
Another great example is the kamikazes in World War II. We realized that both seppuku and the honor of samurai have culturally influenced Japan today.
Unfortunately thousands of Japanese commit suicide for dishonorable reasons. But they maintain their loyalty and take all work and life seriously, value things and strive to the fullest, to the point of feeling ashamed.
To finalize this article, let’s leave some videos showing the Seppuku process. If you liked the article, share and leave your comments. Thank you and until the next one!