What is Harakiri (Seppuku)?

Harakiri is honorable death or ritualistic way of ending the life of a samurai. Only samurai can perform harakiri, commoners cannot (they can, but the action would not have any significant value). The harakiri 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, harakiri was considered to be the noblest way for a samurai to die, and from eyewitness accounts of such ritualistic suicide, probably the most painful. Harakiri and seppuku mean exactly the same thing in Japanese.

Seppuku vs. Harakiri

 The word “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. 

 

SEPPUKU HARAKIRI

A samurai before the obligatory harakiri Image Source: Le Tour Du Monde Japan

How is harakiri done?

Harakiri (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 and then downwards which looks like the word L. Please look at the image below.

How harakiri seppuku

How harakiri is conducted. Image source

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.


Two kinds of Harakiri

There are 2 kinds of Harakiri. Harakiri could be either voluntary or obligatory.

Voluntary Harakiri

Voluntary harakiri 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.

Death poem by a samurai

A samurai writing his death poem before committing to harakiri during a voluntary harakiri

Obligatory Harakiri

Obligatory harakiri 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.

obligatory harakiri

The scene of an obligatory harakiri

Why did the samurai 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 harakiri?

Harakiri (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 getting wounded during the Satsuma rebellion and and Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in 1970 after a failed coup d’état.


The last harakiri in Japan

Yukio Mishima last harakiri

Yukio Mishima, the last Harakiri Image Source : Wikimedia

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.

Sen-no-Rikyu’s Harakiri

-Sen-no-rikyu

Sen no Rikyu (1522- 1591), the founder of Tea ceremony

Before he committed the act, Sen-no-Rikyu held one final Tea ceremony. As the ceremony came to an end, he presented each of the guests with a gift; one of the utensils that he used. The tea bowl he did not give away however. Instead, he cursed it by saying “never shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man”. Then he smashed it. Then all but one of the guests left the tea room. This final person was to act as Sen-no-Rikyu’s witness and record his Jisei,or death poem: “A life of seventy years Strength spent to the very last With this my jewelled sword I kill both patriarchs and Buddhas. I yet carry one article I had gained, The long sword, and now at this moment I hurl it to the heavens”

Matsunaga Hisahide, another tea master and lesser known warlord of the Sengoku Period also committed seppuku in a notable way. He was lord of Shigisan Castle, a fortress in the mountains of western Nara Prefecture and a bitter enemy of Oda Nobunaga. When Oda laid siege to the Castle, Hisahide knew that he would not be able to win. He didn’t want to suffer the shame of defeat or the humiliation of having his head put on display. He also didn’t want Oda to claim his prized tea bowl. He threw the tea bowl from the mountain top and then, with his son assisting, performed seppuku. Once his son had removed Hisahide’s head, and with it in his hands, he jumped off the mountain himself to prevent Oda from taking it

The Sakai Incident and the Samurai who Committed Harakiri for Killing Foreigners

Another much more shocking example took place in 1868 in the city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture (incidentally the same city where Sen-no-Rikyu was born). On the 15th of February in that year a junior officer and several sailors from a French ship called the Dupleix attempted to dock their launch in the harbour so that they could perform a survey. Although the port was open to foreign ships, there was a great deal of tension and these uncouth foreigners were not made to feel welcome. Shortly after the launch docked, a fight broke out between the sailors and a group of warriors from the Tosa Clan. The skirmish ended when the Tosa opened fire, killing several Frenchmen. Wishing to avoid making this huge diplomatic incident worse, the government rounded up 20 of the Tosa guards responsible, including the head guard Minoura Inokichi and sentenced them to death. They were led to Myokokuji temple and ordered to commit seppuku, in the presence of a French officer. Starting with Minoura, the Tosa men began to cut their own bellies open and let their intestines fall to the floor. By the time the 11th man had finished, the French officer was so appalled and horrified by this act, he determined to show clemency to the remaining nine men and had their sentence reduced to banishment. This is thought to have been the first time that seppuku had been witnessed by a foreigner and it caused such a stir that it was even reported in newspapers as far as England.


Sakai Incident harakiri cemetery

The cemetery of the samurai died during the Sakai Incident. The area is inside a kindergarten today.

Summary of Harakiri

  • Samurai committed the ritualistic suicide, harakiri, in situations when they are taken as a hostage, failed to demonstrate strength, failed to follow the code of the samurai or had to improve the status of their family or clan.
  • Harakiri and seppuku mean the same thing. These two word sound different but are written exactly the same. The difference comes from the fact that Chinese characters in Japanese could be read in two different ways.
  • It is stated that ”In the world of the warrior, harakiri 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.” Usually when someone does seppuku, it becomes very painful after the first incision, that is why there is always another samurai (kaishakunin) chopping the head.
  • The person who is doing harakiri wears a white kimono first. Then he is given time to write his death poem and offered his favorite meal. In the last plate he is given a dagger, chokuto or a short sword tanto. He wraps half of the dagger with fabric and starts the incision. Meanwhile there would be a samurai (kaishakuin) standing behind to chop the head after a short moment because the incision would be too painful to continue. The samurai chop the head by leaving some skin so that the head does not fly away and just softy drops in to the space between the two hands of the samurai as if he is holding his head. The samurai used to cut their belly because they belied the mind and spirit were in the belly not in the brain.
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