What is Harakiri (Seppuku)?

It can be considered as honorable death or ritualistic way of ending the life of a samurai. Only samurai can perform harakiri, commoners cannot (They can but no-one would care). The custom dates back to the 12th century as a means for the upper and samurai classes exclusively to atone for crimes, regain lost honour, or avoid disgraceful capture. When executed correctly it was considered to be the noblest way for a samurai to die, and from eyewitness accounts of such ritualistic suicide, probably the most painful.

How is it done?

Seppuku in its most common and recognizable form became a highly ritualized spectacle of noble and artistic suicide in the 1700s. The condemned man wore a ceremonial white death kimono and was permitted a final meal. The execution blade, which could range in size from a long sword to a ceremonial knife, was then served in the last plate, and he would be expected to write a death poem before stabbing himself in the abdomen and cutting first from left to the right and then upwards. Upon completing the cut, his second (kaishakunin) would step forward to issue the killing blow to the condemned man’s exposed neck. However if honour was to be preserved in the act, it was expected that this cut would not severe the neck completely, but allow just enough flesh attached for the head to fall naturally forward into the executed man’s arms. In this way, not only the viewers clothes are not stained with the blood but also the head drops among the two hands of the samurai as if he is holding his head. Women who performed seppuku–often the wives of samurai wishing to avoid capture–would tie their legs together before cutting to preserve a modest posture in death. Variations of the ritual exist without seconds, in which case the condemned man would be expected to strike the final blow to his own throat or heart.

Are Seppuku and Harakiri the same?

Seppuku and harakiri are in essence the same thing. Both refer to the same form of self-execution via disembowelment, and both ostensibly mean “[to] cut the stomach.” The difference between the two words is entirely etymological. Seppuku derives from an on-yomi or Chinese reading of the kanji characters 切腹, while harakiri is a kun-yomi, or native Japanese reading of the same characters in reverse. Due to the historico-political association of Chinese characters with early Japanese aristocratic and governmental literature, the term “seppuku” is almost always used in a written context, while “harakiri” is its verbal equivalent.

There are 2 kinds of Harakiri

Seppuku could be either voluntary or obligatory.

Voluntary seppuku was often committed to restore honour for a misdeed or a failure, or else to avoid capture by an invading army. Obligatory seppuku could be requested by the victor of a conflict as a term of surrender and subsequent peace. In such cases, the leader(s) of the losing side were compelled to commit seppuku, thus removing all further political and military opposition to the victor.

Obligatory seppuku was also used as a means of capital punishment for disgraced samurai who had committed acts of treason or violent crimes. Those who resisted such punishment were restrained while it was acted upon them by another. In the case of the “47 samurai” the seppuku was obligatory handed by the shogunate. During the obligatory seppuku, the blade without the “handle” wrapped with a fabric is given to the samurai to make sure he does not fight back.

The last harakiri in Japan

Yukio Mishima is one of the most interesting characters who ever lived in Japan. He was a famous author who worked as an actor and model. After studying martial arts and kendo, he founded his own private militia (tatenokai) consisting of martial arts students with the focus on the far right ideology and the importance of the emperor of Japan. In 1970 he and his four men from tatenokai trespassed into a Japan Self defense Forces outpost in Tokyo. Mishima encouraged the troops at the base to rise up to reinstate to imperial constitution. This was an obvious attempt for a coup in Japan. But the soldiers did not take him seriously and he ended his life by seppuku on Nov. 25, 1970. Mishima’s seppuku is especially noteworthy because of the failure of his second to correctly deliver the killing blow, resulting in an agonizing series of hacks at Mishima’s neck until his head was finally fully removed.

Why did they cut the belly?

In ancient Asia many believed that the spirit rested inside the belly, slitting the belly let the spirit go free. Also one has to be very brave and mentally strong to be able to perform such kind of act which can only be carried by a true samurai. Although it is reported that in some occasions the samurai lost themselves and collapsed before the ritual and were forcefully beheaded.

Why did the samurai commit seppuku?

Seppuku began on the battlefield as a means for routed samurai to avoid capture, torture, and dishonour. As it evolved, it became a way for disgraced samurai to regain honour by their own hands, as opposed to being executed by another. Seppuku was thus an act that required some form of permission by a figure of authority. Although in the Sengoku period some samurais committed seppuku after their lord died, this practice was banned during the Edo period.

Who did harakiri?

The earliest record of seppuku was that committed by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180. Without any accompanying ritual or codified way of performing the act, early seppuku was likely a painful and drawn out process. Some historically notable acts of seppuku include that of Oda Nobunaga, who engaged in ritual suicide to avoid capture when surrounded at Honno-ji temple in 1582; philosopher and tea master Sen-no-Rikyu who was ordered to commit seppuku in 1591 by his lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi over differences of political opinion; Torii Mototada who in 1600 bravely and held his garrison of 300 samurai at Fushimi Castle against the overwhelming siege by the forces of Toyotomi Hideyori; Saigo Takamori who committed seppuku in 1877 after he got wounded during the Satsuma rebellion and and Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in 1970 after a failed coup d’état.

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