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Seppuku

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  • Japanese: 切腹 (seppuku) - Ritualized suicide done by cutting the stomach

The act of slitting one's own belly is such an unbelievable way in which to commit suicide that it is possibly the most famous element of the samurai mythos. Known in the West as hara-kiri (probably never commonly used by the samurai themselves), the origin of disembowlment as suicide is impossible to pinpoint but the first notable acts were provided by Minamoto Tametomo and Minamoto Yorimasa in the latter part of the 12th Century. The original motivations for this method of death may well have been purely practical. Miura Yoshinobu's example aside, cutting off one's own head is a bit difficult, and as the spirit was felt to reside in the stomach, slitting the belly open was felt to be the most straightforward (if not quickest) way to die. Over the centuries, the philosophy behind seppuku was refined. One samurai wrote many centuries after the deaths of Minamoto Tametomo and Yorimasa that the spirit of a man was like that of an apple's core, unseen and locked within the skin.

The apple certainly exists, but to the core [soul] this existence as yet seems inadequate; if words cannot endorse it, then the only way to endorse it is with the eyes. Indeed, for the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light-to the same light, that is, as the surface skin. Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.[1]

The above was clearly an esoteric point of view. Others have written that the act of belly slitting required an exceptional bravery, and over the years it became a 'privilege' reserved for the samurai. Commoners might hang or drown themselves, whilst samurai women might slit their own throats; only samurai could commit Seppuku. To be simply executed was a mark of particular shame, and generally reserved for notorious traitors.

By the Edo Period, the act of seppuku had become a fully developed ritual with Shinto undertones.

First, tatami edged with white would be set out, upon which a large white cushion was placed. Witnesses would arrange themselves discreetly to one side, depending on how important the coming suicide was considered.

The samurai, often garbed in a white kimono, would kneel on the pillow in formal style on his heels, hopefully in a composed manner. Just over a meter behind and to the left of the samurai knelt his kaishakunin, or 'second'. The second was often a close friend of the deceased, although his duty was not a popular one. His job was to prevent the samurai committing suicide from experiencing undo suffering by cutting the doomed man's head off once he had slit his belly. Botching this duty could be a shameful disgrace, and a steady hand was required.

In front of the samurai lay a knife on a lacquered tray. When he felt ready, the samurai would loosen the folds of his kimono and expose his belly. He would then lift the knife with one hand and unsheathe it with the other, setting the sheathe to one side. When he had prepared himself, he would drive the knife into the left side of the stomach, then draw it across to the right. The blade would then be turned in the wound and brought upward. Many samurai did not have to endure this last, unbelievable agony, as the second would lop their heads off at the first sign of pain. The cut carried out to its finish was known as the jumonji, or 'crosswise cut', and to perform it in its entirety was considered a particularly impressive seppuku.

Needless to say, one's frame of mind was of particular importance when approaching this act. The Hagakure and other Edo works relate stories of samurai losing their composure just prior to committing suicide, and in some cases having to be forcibly decapitated. Samurai were, after all, only human, and perhaps only through a lifetime of preparation could seppuku be faced with the prerequisite coolness.

Why would a samurai be expected or decide to slit open his own belly? The reasons are many, and much is made of them elsewhere. We'll content ourselves here with the briefest of lists of those reasons not involving a direct punishment.

  • Junshi: this act of suicide involved following one's lord in death. Not entirely uncommon in the days of open samurai warfare, junshi was banned in the Edo Period as wasteful. The last famous example was that of the General Nogi Maresue in 1912 following the death of the Emperor Meiji.
  • Kanshi: Suicide through remonstration. Not common, this involved killing one's self to make a point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion had failed. Perhaps the best known example of this is provided by Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide (1493-1553), who commited suicide to make a youthful and irreverant Oda Nobunaga change his ways.
  • Sokotsushi: Here, a samurai would kill himself as a way of making amends for some transgression. This is possibly the best-known reason for seppuku, and has perhaps been popularized far out of proportion to its frequency. One well-known instance involves the Takeda general Yamamoto Kansuke Haruyuki (1501-1561), who flung himself into the enemy after his plans had put his lord in grave danger. Badly wounded, he withdrew from the fray and commited suicide.

Notes to Text

  1. Way of the Samurai pg. 32
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