A Word or Two About Seppuku

Seppuku (sometimes also referred to as hara-kiri) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide.

13D17 Seppuku

Throughout most of Japanese history, only samurai were allowed to commit seppuku. The first recorded seppuku was that of Minamoto no Yorimasa, a warrior and poet who committed suicide by slashing his stomach open with his sword after suffering defeat in battle.

During the medieval period, samurai committed seppuku for several reasons, most commonly to avoid being captured after suffering a defeat (in the manner of Minamoto no Yorimasa), as a penalty for shameful or criminal activity, or to expunge the shame of surviving a battle in which the samurai’s lord was killed.

Although many Westerners think of suicide as an “escape” from life, the practice of seppuku focused on honor rather than death. Seppuku permitted a samurai to maintain, regain, or prevent the loss of honor. For that reason, samurai who committed seppuku were revered, while defeated men who chose surrender instead of suicide often found themselves reviled.

During the seppuku ritual, the samurai stabbed himself in the stomach with a dagger or short sword and then made a horizontal cut across his own abdomen. (In some cases, the samurai then reached into his belly and removed his own entrails.)

As the ritual developed, a second samurai (called the kaishakunin) would sometimes stand behind the person committing seppuku and cut off the dying person’s head to end his suffering. In some cases, the decapitation came as soon as the person committing seppuku plunged the dagger into his belly, but the bravest samurai ordered the kaishakunin to wait until the dagger had completed the cut that opened the abdomen. A more painful death, but also a more honorable one.

Have you ever seen a film, or read a book, involving a samurai seppuku? What do you think about ritual suicide to purge dishonor?

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4 Responses to A Word or Two About Seppuku

  1. Janet Lane says:

    Fascinating topic. Shogun is one of my favorite books, Susan, and there were several significant seppukus committed in that book, one of them being a woman, very memorable. I think honor or dishonor comes from how one lives, not how one dies. Very Western, I know.

    • Susan Spann says:

      The seppuku ritual definitely highlights some big differences between the eastern and western mindsets. I loved SHOGUN too – I’ve read it many times and it never gets old. The seppuku rituals in that story made a big impression on me the first time I read the book (in sixth or seventh grade, if I remember correctly). In fact, SHOGUN was one of the things that sparked my initial interest in Japan – so in a circuitous way it’s partially responsible for the Shinobi series, too!

  2. Kevin says:

    The version practiced by female samurai was called Jigai. Instead of stomach (hara) cutting (kiri), which was deemed unsavory for women, the female samurai would cut her own neck arteries with a tanto (small knife). Before doing so, she would tie her ankles together, so that when she died, she would still appear graceful and beautiful (in that, when she fell out of the seiza sitting position, her legs would stay together). It is interesting that even in this brutal act, there was an aesthetic awareness.

    • Susan Spann says:

      It’s so typical of Japanese thinking – to maintain proper form, even in death, because doing so increases the honor inherent in the act of self-determination. The medieval Japanese systems could be brutal, but the dedication to honor (even in death) is a fascinating concept.