Samurai Suicide: Seppuku (Harakiri)

  • ‘Seppuku’ (widely known as ‘Harakiri’ by foreigners) is a Japanese highly ritualized suicide by disembowelment. This ritual is specifically reserved for the samurai, by which they can regain the honour for his family that are left alive, and for him to die in an honourable way. The act of Seppuku itself is not technically a suicide, but merely inflicting fatal injury upon oneself. The Kaishakunin is the one who commits the actual killing by beheading the samurai right after he finished the Seppuku ritual.

    Reasons For Committing Seppuku

    Seppuku was not done out of mere frustration towards life like many modern-day suicides. It was done to express anger for a certain situation, as a protest against one’s Lord for his behaviour, to atone for dishonourable actions of one’s own, to avoid capture and disgrace (probability of torture and execution) in battle, as a self-punishment for failing the Lord, or as a capital punishment for the crime that they had done.

    No matter what reason Seppuku is done for, it can only be carried out with permission and approval from the lord of the clan (with an exception made for those who do it during battle to avoid capture).

    The Ritual

    Before the Edo period (1600-1867), Seppuku was done in a less formal way and with a more painful effect compared to the more formal ritual during the Edo period. The samurai will use either a Tachi (longsword), Wakizashi (short sword) or Tanto (knife) to cut his gut and slice his stomach horizontally. He would then remove the blade from his stomach, and stab himself in the throat, or fall from a standing position with the blade positioned against his heart.

    With the coming of the Edo period, Seppuku was done in a more formal ritual, done in front of spectators (only for planned seppuku), with a quick death.

    Types of Seppuku

    Planned Seppuku

    The ritual started with the samurai bathed, dressed in a white kimono, and served his favourite meal as his last meal. He will be seated at the designated place in seiza position (legs drawn up under the body so that one is actually sitting on one’s heels). A Kaishakunin, whose job is to chop the head off the Seppuku practitioner once he had finished cutting his stomach, will be ready by his side. A Kasihakunin can be a person appointed by the Shogunal government or the practitioner’s close friend.

    A sake cup, a sheaf of Washi (paper handmade from mulberry bark) and writing instruments, and the Kozuka (disemboweling blade) will be put on a wooden table, and placed in front of the Seppuku practitioner. The most common blade used for the disembowelment is the Tanto (knife). The blade will have a cloth-wrapped portion so that it would not cut the hand of the practitioner, or cause him to lose grip while he is holding the blade. However, if the practitioner is of a tender age, or judged to be too dangerous to be given a blade, the blade will be substituted with a fan.

    The practitioner will then drink sake in two drinks of two sips each. One sip would stand for greed, while the other three would stand for hesitation. The total of four sips, or ‘shi'(four) in Japanese, symbolizes death. Then he will write a death poem which is graceful and natural, without any mention of the fact he is about to die.

    He would then take off his outer garment, and tuck his sleeves under his knees to prevent him from falling backwards. He himself will plunge the blade deep into the left side of his belly, and draws it across to the right, with a sharp upward cut at the end. Then, the Kaishakunin will perform the Kaishaku by cutting off the head of the practitioner in one strike, but leaving it attached by a strip of skin at the throat. This is to avoid the head flying off towards the spectators or spinning around the room, spraying blood as it went. Only low-class criminals were beheaded completely. The Kaishakunin will strike at the first sign of pain or hesitation from the practitioner. For the practitioner whose blade is substituted with a fan, the Kaishakunin will strike when the practitioner touches his stomach with the fan.

    After the seppuku is done, the wooden table and the blade will be discarded as it has been defiled by death.

    A volunteered seppuku was considered a good gesture towards the lord and the aggrieved party. In some cases, it could even be considered a ‘killed in action’ death which ensured a good reputation for his own family, and allowing them to keep using the benefits awarded for his services during his life.

    Jumonji Giri (Crossed-shaped cut)

    Some samurai chose to perform a more taxing form of Seppuku called Jumonji Giri. For this type of Seppuku, there is no Kaishakunin involved, to put a quick end to the practitioner’s suffering. The practitioner struck a second vertical cut to his stomach after the first horizontal cut. After the seppuku is done, the practitioner would sit quietly and bleed to death, passing away with his hands covering his face.

    Kanshi (Remonstration Death)

    Kanshi is a more specialized form of Seppuku. This was done as a way to protest against the clan’s lord decision. The practitioner will make a deep, horizontal cut in his stomach, then quickly bandage the wound. He will then appear before his lord and say his words of protest against the lord’s decision, and reveal his mortal wound.

    This form of seppuku is different from Funshi, which is a form of Seppuku done to state dissatisfaction towards other people.

    Jigai (Female Ritual Suicide)

    Movies and dramas always show samurai men as the ones who committed Seppuku. However, we know that females of the samurai family have their own suicide ritual, called Jigai. The females had been taught about Jigai since they were children. It was usually practiced by the wives of samurai who have committed Seppuku, or by those who have brought dishonour to the family. It was also done by females of the samurai family to preserve one’s honour if a military defeat was imminent, and to prevent rape.

    The practitioner would often tie her knees together so that her body would be found in a dignified pose, despite the convulsions of death. She would then cut the arteries of the neck with one stroke, using a knife. The main purpose was to achieve a quick and certain death in order to avoid capture.

    Capital Punishment

    Seppuku was also practiced as a capital punishment. It was a punishment for disgraced samurai who have committed crimes such as rape, robbery, corruption, and treason. Seppuku was considered as the most suitable punishment given to a Samurai. Rather than imposing other punishments, Samurai who have committed a crime were given the opportunity to end their own life, and die with dignity.

    Unlike voluntary seppuku, seppuku carried out as a capital punishment did not necessarily absolve, or pardon, the offender’s family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, all or part of the property of the condemned could be confiscated, and the family would be punished by being stripped of rank, sold into long-term servitude, or execution. Unless and until the family received a pardon from the clan’s lord for the crime committed by the condemned, their status will remain the same.

    However, Seppuku as a capital punishment has been abolished in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, by an imperial decree. This is because it seemed like punishing samurai with seppuku does not deter other samurai from committing crimes such as killing.

    Commonly seen as a mere suicide or punishment to oneself, Seppuku is actually a symbol of Japanese integrity, and sense of responsibility for their acts. It mirrored the importance of honour of one’s clan, family, and life. Life is sacrificed so the honour can be regained. Although seppuku is no longer relevant in the modern days, the integrity and sense of responsibility for one’s acts are still very much part of the daily life of Japanese people.

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