Seppuku (Japanese: 切腹, "stomach-cutting" or "belly slicing") is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Seppuku is also known in English as hara-kiri (腹切り) and is written with the same kanji as seppuku but in reverse order with an okurigana. In Japanese, 'hara-kiri' is not in common usage, the term being regarded as gross and vulgar. The practice of committing seppuku at the death of one's master is known as oibara (追腹 or 追い腹) or junshi (殉死); the ritual is similar.
Seppuku was a key part of bushido, the code of the samurai warriors; it was used by warriors to avoid falling into enemy hands, and to attenuate shame. Samurai could also be ordered by their daimyo (feudal lords) to commit seppuku. Later disgraced warriors were sometimes allowed to commit seppuku rather than be executed in the normal manner. Since the main point of the act was to restore or protect one's honor as a warrior, those who did not belong to the samurai caste were never ordered or expected to commit seppuku. Samurai women could only commit the act with permission.
In his book The Samurai Way of Death, Samurai: The World of the Warrior (ch.4), Dr. Stephen Turnbull states:
Seppuku was commonly performed using a tantō. It could take place with preparation and ritual in the privacy of one's home, or speedily in a quiet corner of a battlefield while one’s comrades kept the enemy at bay.
In the world of the warrior, seppuku was a deed of bravery that was admirable in a samurai who knew he was defeated, disgraced, or mortally wounded. It meant that he could end his days with his transgressions wiped away and with his reputation not merely intact but actually enhanced. The cutting of the abdomen released the samurai’s spirit in the most dramatic fashion, but it was an extremely painful and unpleasant way to die, and sometimes the samurai who was performing the act asked a loyal comrade to cut off his head at the moment of agony.
Sometimes a daimyo was called upon to perform seppuku as the basis of a peace agreement. This would weaken the defeated clan so that resistance would effectively cease. Toyotomi Hideyoshi used an enemy's suicide in this way on several occasions, the most dramatic of which effectively ended a dynasty of daimyo forever, when the Hojo were defeated at Odawara in 1590. Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the retired daimyo Hojo Ujimasa, and the exile of his son Ujinao. With one sweep of a sword the most powerful daimyo family in eastern Japan disappeared from history.
In time, committing seppuku came to involve a detailed ritual. A Samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, fed his favorite meal, and when he was finished, a Tanto or Wakazashi was placed on his plate. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem. With his selected attendant (kaishakunin, his second) standing by, he would open his kimono (clothing), take up his wakizashi (short sword) or a tantō (knife) and plunge it into his abdomen, making first a left-to-right cut and then a second slightly upward stroke to spill out the intestines. On the second stroke, the kaishakunin would perform daki-kubi, a cut in which the warrior is all but decapitated (a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body). Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was often a skilled swordsman. The principal agrees in advance when the kaishaku makes his cut, usually as soon as the dagger is plunged into the abdomen.
This elaborate ritual evolved after seppuku had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and become a para judicial institution (see next section).
The second was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honorably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second.
From ages past it has been considered ill-omened by samurai to be requested as kaishaku. The reason for this is that one gains no fame even if the job is well done. And if by chance one should blunder, it becomes a lifetime disgrace.
In the practice of past times, there were instances when the head flew off. It was said that it was best to cut leaving a little skin remaining so that it did not fly off in the direction of the verifying officials. However, at present it is best to cut clean through.
Some samurai chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of seppuku known as jūmonji-giri (十文字切り, lit. "cross-shaped cut"), in which there is no kaishakunin to put a quick end to the samurai's suffering. It involves a second and more painful vertical cut across the belly. A samurai performing jumonji-giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until perishing from loss of blood.
Seppuku as capital punishmentEdit
While the voluntary seppuku described above is the best known form and has been widely admired and idealized, in practice the most common form of seppuku was obligatory seppuku, used as a form of capital punishment for disgraced samurai, especially for those who committed a serious offense such as unprovoked murder, robbery, corruption, or treason. The samurai were generally told of their offense in full and given a set time to committ seppuku, usually before sunset on a given day. If the sentenced was uncooperative, it was not unheard of for them to be restrained, or for the actual execution to be carried out by decapitation while retaining only the trappings of seppuku; even the short sword laid out in front of the victim could be replaced with a fan. Unlike voluntary seppuku, seppuku carried out as capital punishment did not necessarily absolve the victim's family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, half or all of the deceased's property could be confiscated, and the family stripped of rank.
The Western experience Edit
The first recorded time a Westerner saw formal seppuku was the "Sakai Incident" of 1868. On February 15, twenty French sailors of the Dupleix entered a Japanese town called Sakai without official permission. Their presence caused panic among the residents. Security forces were dispatched to turn the sailors back to their ship, but a fight broke out and 11 sailors were shot dead. Upon the protest of the French representative, compensation of 15,000 yen was paid and those responsible were sentenced to death. The French captain was present to observe the execution. As each samurai committed ritual disembowelment, the gruesome nature of the act shocked the captain, and he requested a pardon, due to which nine of the samurai were spared. This incident was dramatized in a famous short story, Sakai Jiken, by Mori Ogai.
In the 1860s, The British Ambassador to Japan, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford (Lord Redesdale) lived within eyesight of Sengaku-ji where the Forty-seven Ronin are buried. In his book Tales of Old Japan, he describes a man who had come to the graves to kill himself:
I will add one anecdote to show the sanctity which is attached to the graves of the Forty-seven. In the month of September 1868, a certain man came to pray before the grave of Oishi Chikara. Having finished his prayers, he deliberately performed hara-kiri, and, the belly wound not being mortal, dispatched himself by cutting his throat. Upon his person were found papers setting forth that, being a Ronin and without means of earning a living, he had petitioned to be allowed to enter the clan of the Prince of Choshiu, which he looked upon as the noblest clan in the realm; his petition having been refused, nothing remained for him but to die, for to be a Ronin was hateful to him, and he would serve no other master than the Prince of Choshiu: what more fitting place could he find in which to put an end to his life than the graveyard of these Braves? This happened at about two hundred yards' distance from my house, and when I saw the spot an hour or two later, the ground was all bespattered with blood, and disturbed by the death-struggles of the man.
Mitford also describes his friend's eyewitness account of a Seppuku:
There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being displayed in the hara-kiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.
During the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa Shogun's aide committed Seppuku:
One more story and I have done. During the revolution, when the Taikun (Supreme Commander), beaten on every side, fled ignominiously to Yedo, he is said to have determined to fight no more, but to yield everything. A member of his second council went to him and said, “Sir, the only way for you now to retrieve the honour of the family of Tokugawa is to disembowel yourself; and to prove to you that I am sincere and disinterested in what I say, I am here ready to disembowel myself with you.” The Taikun flew into a great rage, saying that he would listen to no such nonsense, and left the room. His faithful retainer, to prove his honesty, retired to another part of the castle, and solemnly performed the hara-kiri.
As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the hara-kiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hiogo in the month of February 1868,—an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveller's fable.
The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all.
"After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:
"I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act."
Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.
A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.
The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of rice paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution.
The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburo had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple.
The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterised throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master."
Seppuku in modern Japan Edit
Seppuku as judicial punishment was officially abolished in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, but voluntary seppuku did not completely die out. Dozens of people are known to have committed seppuku since then, including some military men who committed suicide in 1895 as a protest against the return of a conquered territory to China; by General Nogi and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912; and by numerous soldiers and civilians who chose to die rather than surrender at the end of World War II.
In 1970, famed author Yukio Mishima and one of his followers committed public seppuku at the Japan Self-Defense Forces headquarters after an unsuccessful attempt to incite the armed forces to stage a coup d'état. Mishima committed seppuku in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita. His second, a 25-year-old named Masakatsu Morita, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed; his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga. Morita then attempted to commit seppuku himself. Although his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and he too was beheaded by Koga.
In 1999, Masaharu Nonaka, a 58-year-old employee of Bridgestone in Japan, slashed his belly with a sashimi knife to protest his forced retirement. He died later in the hospital. This suicide was said to represent the difficulties in Japan following the collapse of the bubble economy.
Well-known people who committed seppuku Edit
In pop culture Edit
In the recently aired "lost episodes" of Chappelle's Show, Dave Chappelle investigates "racist pixies" that urge moderate individuals of all races to give in to their stereotypical behavior, such as blacks eating chicken, Mexicans modifying their cars with Jesus Christ memorabilia, Japanese being unable to speak the letter L, whites being uptight and hypocritical, and so forth. All pixies are played by Chappelle in their respective "uniforms" or appearances. When a Japanese man does not give into his stereotypical tendency, the pixie commits seppuku.
Seppuku features prominently in Western depictions of pre-Meiji Japan in books, movies, videogames, etc. such as The Last Samurai or the novel Shogun. Some video games give players the option of committing seppuku: Mortal Kombat: Deception adds a new "Fatality" feature to the series called "Hara-kiri," which allows a defeated player to kill himself in a graphic manner before his opponent can (although none of them are literally under the proper seppuku method, except Kenshi who comes close). It could reappear in the upcoming game Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.
In American media, particular television and film from the 1940s-1960s era, the term "hara-kiri" was often mispronounced and misromanized as "Harry Carry". (See, for example, the TV series McHale's Navy). In the 1980s, it was morphed to "Harry Caray", due to the popularity of the eponymous baseball announcer.
In the World War II era propaganda film Across the Pacific, Japanese agent Dr. Lorenz, played by Sydney Greenstreet, attempts to commit seppuku when his plot to sabotage the Panama Canal is foiled by Humphrey Bogart's Rick Leland. His nerve fails, and he is captured instead.
In the manga/anime Ranma ½, Genma promised his wife Nodoka that he would raise his son Ranma to be a man among men. If he failed, both he and Ranma would commit seppuku. Ranma falls into a cursed spring that causes him to turn into a girl when splashed with cold water, and Genma (who changes into a panda with cold water) hides Ranma and himself whenever Nodoka comes around. Ranma often called him/herself Ranko to spend time with his mother, although she doesn't find out until late in the manga. Eventually Nodoka finds out and declares Ranma to be a man despite the curse, so no one had to commit seppuku.
For the most part, seppuku is depicted in popular culture as marking a true warrior's ethos and the (stereotypical) mystical Eastern understanding of death. The dutiful suicide of seppuku is often seen as a uniquely Japanese cultural trait, although the Western tradition has its share of historical figures who have killed themselves when facing dishonor, death or both at the hands of their enemies.
In Raymond Benson's James Bond book The Man with the Red Tattoo, the main villain, Yami Shogun Goro Yoshida commits seppuku just before Bond could capture him. Yasutake Tsukamoto, yakuza leader and Yoshida's secundant, tells Bond that Yoshida won, because he "robbed Bond of the ultimate victory". Bond tells Tsukamoto that he does not care about it, because "he's bloody dead and that's all that matters."
Unit leaders in computer strategy game Shogun: Total War may commit seppuku if the units they command are defeated in combat too many times.
In the computer game Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo (Firebird Software, 1988), game character Usagi Yojimbo automatically commits seppuku when dishonorable actions performed by the player make karma counter reach zero.
Microprose's 1989 role-playing/strategy game Sword of the Samurai allowed a character to commit seppuku following any sudden loss of honor, usually after being captured or recognized whilst attempting murder or treachery against his lord or feudal rivals. At the initial samurai and hatamoto levels, this 'option' presents as a capital punishment handed down by the player's lord; anything short of immediate compliance would see the character and his family (including any heirs) hunted down and executed. In the later stages of the game, daimyo-ranked characters so dishonored were given the option to commit seppuku but were under no compulsion to do so beyond the strategic disadvantages arising from dishonor.
In the fighting game series Tekken and Soul Calibur, the character Yoshimitsu has a move (the "Turning Suicide") wherin he turns away from the enemy and stabs his sword through his stomach and out his back. If the sword connects with Yoshimitsu's opponent, it causes devastating damage to them, and minor damage to Yoshimitsu himself. However, if it misses, it drains half of Yoshimitsu's life.
In the action/stealth video game Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory the antagonist, Admiral Toshiro Otomo, wishes for Japan to once again assume the mantle of imperialism and tries to lure the USA and the Koreas into war. When Otomo's plan falls through, he commits seppuku in front of Sam Fisher rather than be brought to justice. In a ironic twist however, Otomo is saved by Fisher and he is brought to justice.
In the action/stealth videogame "Tenchu: Stealth Assassins", Lord Gohda orders his ninja to execute a corrupt minister named Kataoka. If the player confronts him as Ayame, he refuses to be insulted by a woman and they fight to the death. But as Rikimaru, Kataoka respects Gohda's request to be killed and commits seppuku, with Rikimaru acting as his second.
In the American film Harold and Maude, the character Harold, a young man obsessed with death, fakes his own suicide in a multitude of ways. At one point, he brings out a blade and educates a woman in the art of "hara-kiri" before going through with the (faked) ritual.
In the motion picture Airplane! a japanese man is literally 'bored to death' by Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) describing his war record, and commits seppuku by disemboweling himself with a sword while sitting in his airplane seat.
Seppuku is depicted twice on the American film The Last Samurai, at the beginning of the movie after the general of the Japanese newly formed army faces defeat in the hands of Katsumoto's (played by Ken Watanabe) forces, and later, near the end of the film, with Katsumoto committing seppuku after his army is killed to the last man (all but Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise). In the first instance, we see Katsumoto in the role of kaishaku, beheading General Hasegawa to quickly end his suffering. This action comes as a shock to Algren, who sees it as a barbaric form of execution. Finally, defeated on the battlefield it is Algren who helps Katsumoto to end his life with honor by pushing the dagger all the way into his friend's stomach.
Seppuku and other forms of suicide are looked upon with disfavor in the popular anime/manga series Rurouni Kenshin. Paricularly in the anime series, Kenshin often talks well meaning opponents or people in despair out of suicide, explaining that their deaths will not make up for the mistakes they have made, nor give them any honor. Instead, the best way to atone for ones past or to be truly honorable is to continue living and doing all the good one can in the world. This is Kenshin's own form of penance for his bloody past as an assassin and the death of his first wife, and several of the characters he speaks to about it comment that living with and struggling to overcome such guilt and doubt is a harder fate than death.
In Internet culture, there is a type of 'scavenger hunt' game known as Google Seppuku, where participants type in a (usually Japanese) word or phrase into Google's image search tool, and look for the most disturbing picture among them. The name derives from the fact that, like modern-day beliefs of committing seppuku, the participants are willfully submitting themselves to something inexplicably awful and painful for glory and honor (in this case, finding the most disturbing picture on the internet that no one can top).
In the Playstation videogame, Bushido Blade, the player can commit seppuku on their own character. It serves no actual function in the game other than adding authenticity.
In The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, the winning character, Mr. Rogers, commits seppuku.
Seppuku is a common theme in the manga Gin Tama.
In the popular anime/manga One Piece, the CP9 member Kumadori often attempts to commit seppuku for his partners lack of respect or failure, but his superhuman strength prevents it from working.
Towards the end of Hideo Kojima's MGS:2, a computer A.I. operating under the alias of Colonel Campbell gets infected by a virus and begins spewing nonsensical messages including, "I hear its amazing when the famous purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space with the tuning fork does a raw blink on Hari Kiri Rock. I need scissors! 61!"
In the Futurama episode The 30% Iron Chef being dishonored (for framing Fry) Dr. Zoidberg grabs a host's ceremonial Wakazashi, but when he trys to plunge the sword into himself and commit seppuku the blade bends and folds instead of cutting him open.
In the second episode of the Singapore dub of One Piece, Zoro says to Luffy that, if Luffy gets in the way of his dream to be the world's greatest swordsman, Zoro will have to commit hari-kari, where as in the original japanese it is Luffy who has to commit hara-kiri if he gets in the way.
In Yakitate! Japan, the rather exaggerated samurai bread baker Suwabara Kai mentions seppuku a few times, once saying to his teammate Kawachi Kyosuke who has ruined a bread the team was going to enter in a contest that if he were a real Japanese man, he should take responsibility for his mistake by committing seppuku. Another time Suwabara says that if he loses his Yakitate 9 match against Azuma, he will commit seppuku. He is talked out of this in the end, of course.
In the film Scary Movie 4, the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations committed seppuku upon seeing the US President nude during the demonstration of the reverse-engineered alien heat ray weapon. In this case, it was more out of disgust rather than dishonor.
In the computer game series Wing Commander, the Kilrathi is known to commit ritual suicides akin to seppuku.
In Xenosaga Episode III, Margulis commits seppuku after losing his final battle against Jin.
In a more adult sketch from the black comedy series Hale & Pace commedian Hale commits seppuku infront of his comedy partner Pace having moments before inadvertedly sliced Pace horizontally in half. With this action being delayed for comic affect and not occuring to Pace until after Hale has died.
In The Adventures of Tintin story The Blue Lotus, Tintin catches sight of a headline in the local newspaper about one of the villans having commited suicide by "hara-kiri" after being exposed as a drug dealing terrorist.
In the video/arcade series Darkstalkers, the character Bishamon can execute a move that, if it connects, forces the opponent to commit seppuku.
See also Edit
Further reading Edit
- Jack Seward, Hara-Kiri: Japanese Ritual Suicide (Charles E. Tuttle, 1968)
- Seppuku - A Practical Guide (tongue-in-cheek)
- An Account of the Hara-Kiri from Mitford's "Tales of Old Japan" provides a detailed description: http://www.blackmask.com/thatway/books162c/taja.htm
- The samurai way of death --a chapter from "Samurai: The World of the Warrior" by Dr. Stephen Turnbull
- The Fine Art of Seppuku
- Zuihoden - The mausoleum of Date Masamune -- When he died, twenty of his followers killed themselves to serve him in the next life. They lay in state at Zuihoden
- Seppuku and "cruel punishments" at the end of Tokugawa Shogunate 
- Tokugawa Shogunate edict banning Junshi (Following one's lord in death) From the Buke Sho Hatto (1663 AD)--
- "That the custom of following a master in death is wrong and unprofitable is a caution which has been at times given of old; but, owing to the fact that it has not actually been prohibited, the number of those who cut their belly to follow their lord on his decease has become very great. For the future, to those retainers who may be animated by such an idea, their respective lords should intimate, constantly and in very strong terms, their disapproval of the custom. If, notwithstanding this warning, any instance of the practice should occur, it will be deemed that the deceased lord was to blame for unreadiness. Henceforward, moreover, his son and successor will be held to be blameworthy for incompetence, as not having prevented the suicides."
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