Good faith was considered a prime virtue of a samurai in old Japan. It was believed that an honest man’s word is as good as his bond. Japanese samurai also believed that an honorable death was more desirable than a life of shame. That’s why committing suicide in the battlefield became the habit rather than suffering a gruesome death at the hands of one’s enemies.
Sepukku, which means “cutting the belly,” is also known as harakiri. The first ever recorded seppuku ritual is thought to have been done by Minamoto no Yorimasa, a prominent Japanese poet. He was also a warrior who led the armies during the Genpei War, which was a conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans in the late Heian period.
In the year 1180, the first battle of Uji began. At this time, Prince Mochihito was chased by the Taira forces to the Mii-dera temple. It was Minamoto no Yorimasa who led them out towards the Nara. They were accompanied by warrior monks who were also battling with bows and arrows, as well as swords and daggers but the Taira forces caught up with them. Yorimasa tried helping the Imperial Prince get away, but they were too weak to fend off the enemies. His sons were killed trying to protect him. Knowing that there was no escape, he then committed seppuku instead of choosing to surrender.
It was a privilege to be given a chance to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. When not done on the battlefield, it was done in a formal, procedural manner. Before the ritual, a samurai would be given the chance to write his death poem – a common practice for those in the noble classes. Then, he’ll be seen wearing a white kimono. After, he’ll have to take a short dagger to slice his abdomen from the lower left side upwards and across to the right. This was followed by the cutting off of the samurai’s head by a kaishakunin, the assistant who stands beside the man performing the ritual. This important maneuver concluded the ceremony and sealed the samurai’s honorable fate.