What is Seppuku (Hara kiri)?

Seppuku is honorable death or ritualistic suicide by disembowelment that can only be conducted by a samurai. Hara-kiri means stomach-cutting in Japanese where the word hara refers to stomach and kiri refers to cutting. Harakiri and seppuku mean exactly the same thing in Japanese, but, Japanese people almost never use the word harakiri and prefer the word seppuku instead. Harakiri refers to the action of cutting stomach while seppuku represents the ritual and the traditional procedure of cutting the stomach.

The seppuku 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, seppuku was considered to be the noblest way for a samurai to die, and from eyewitness accounts of such ritualistic suicide, probably the most painful. Only samurai can perform harakiri; commoners cannot (they can, but the action would not have any significant value).

SEPPUKU HARAKIRI

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

What are the differences between seppuku and harakiri?

Seppuku and harakiri are in essence the words that have the same meanings. Both refer to the same form of self-execution via disembowelment, and both ostensibly mean “[to] cut the stomach.” The first mention of harakiri in the Western literature was in 1846 which underlined self sacrifice. On the other hand, the first mention of seppuku was in 1882 in a text referring to the punishment of criminals. Some etymological differences between harakiri and seppuku are:

  • a) the word seppuku emerged in the late 15th century, a few hundred years after the first honorable suicide in official records.
  • b) Japanese people usually do not use the word harakiri, it is more commonly used by foreigners.
  • c) Seppuku and harakiri are written by using the same Chinese characters which are read differently. In Japan, almost all Chinese characters can be read in two different ways: kun-yomi for root words and on-yomi for prefixes.
  • d) Hara-kiri (belly-cutting) emphasizes the action, setsu-puku (cutting the belly) is about the tradition and ritualistic aspect of the action.
  • f) Harakiri sometimes refers to solo self sacrifice which does not have clear rules. Seppuku usually refers to the ritualistic self sacrifice with the presence of others.
  • g) Seppuku is often associated with capital punishment for samurais after the 1600’s, but harakiri is not. Seppuku has clear rules and the helper cuts the head at the end. Harakiri does not have clear rules and usually the samurai ends his life on his own by jumping into flames or falling on his sword.

A samurai committing harakiri after writing hsi death poem. Since the sword is relatively long he wrapped it with a piece of fabric to make a straight cut.

Seppuku vs. Harakiri

” Seppuku is a compound Kanji of 切 (setsu means ‘to cut’), and 腹 (fuku means abdomen). Hara-kiri is also a compound word, but the order of Kanji is reverse, and reflects the Japanese syntax of “hara (abdomen) + wo (a case particle) + kiru (to cut = verb)”; 腹 (hara: abdomen) and 切り (kiri: to cut). ” from Aya Maeda, 2012

How is seppuku done?

Seppuku (harakiri) in its most common and recognizable form became a highly ritualized spectacle of noble and artistic suicide and also a form of capital punishment for the nobles especially after the 1600’s. 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.

Why did the samurai split the belly?

The short answer is because they believed the soul rested in the belly. At the same time, Andrew Rankin’s recent book mentions that the origins of stomach-cutting for a ritualistic purpose goes back to the 7th century BC in China. 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. Hesitating, grinning or showing the signs of weakness were perceived as cowardly and not honorable. Although it is reported that in some occasions the samurai lost themselves and collapsed before the ritual and were forcefully beheaded.

Meaning of stomach cutting

“This is stomach-cutting as an appeal to purity. The logic here is founded on a primitive symbolism: a man with nothing to hide shows his innocence by exposing his insides. The association of purity with wounding had religious provenance.”  Andrew Rankin, 2012  

Is seppuku a voluntary act?

There are actually 2 kinds of seppuku: 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. Some samurai also chose to end their lives by seppuku after their daimyo died: a practice called oibara. Japanese people care about their image in society even after death. Disgraceful death in the hands of an enemy would be shameful “haji.”

Obligatory seppuku,  was used as a means of capital punishment for disgraced samurai who had committed acts of treason or violent crimes. 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. The type of forced seppuku against the will of the samurai is called tsumebara. Ordinary criminals’ heads were chopped without any ceremony, only the samurai were given the chance of cutting their own belly. Obligatory seppuku was prohibited in 1873.

In general, having the ability to do a seppuku was seen as an honor rather than a punishment.   In the case of the47 samurai the harakiri was obligatory handed by the shogunate. During the obligatory harakiri, the blade without the “handle” wrapped with a piece of fabric or white paper is given to the samurai to make sure he does not fight back.

obligatory harakiri

The scene of an obligatory harakiri

Who did seppuku?

According to the historian Steve Turnbull, PhD, the earliest record of seppuku was that committed by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180 when he lost the battle of Uji. Without any accompanying ritual or codified way of performing the act, early seppuku was likely a painful and drawn out process. Some other 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.

Who is the last to commit harakiri?

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 his requests 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. This video shows him moments before the seppuku took place.

 

Seppuku today

As mentioned above, if hara-kiri is conducted by people who are not a samurai, it would not have much meaning. However, there are currently more than a dozen academic papers that argue how the high suicide rates in Japan may relate to the old seppuku tradition where a dishonourable behavior  is paid by a personal sacrifice. As Maeda mentions “…this type of suicide to take responsibility for social, political, or corporate blunders in modern days. Because legal responsibility and moral responsibility are closely related in Japanese culture, suicide continues as a means for individuals to make atonement for legal stigma. This kind of suicide is also committed to protect the group to which the individuals belong.” The list of Japanese politicians who ended their lives after a dishonorable action can be found here.

While Japan has the highest suicide rates among the G7 countries, disembolvement is very rare. “Today in Japan, the number of suicide cases by sharp instruments is roughly 2% of the total suicides. Furthermore, the number of suicide cases by stab wounds and incised wounds in the abdomen, virtually equivalent to harakiri, is only 0.2% of the total suicide cases.” Watanabe, et. al., 1973.

Seppuku, pain and death

When performing harakiri, it is also difficult to continue to cut the belly after the pain of the first incision kicks in. Historic records show that samurais ended the harakiri by either jumping into flames or falling on to their swords. After the 1600’s, there were often other people next to the deceased finishing the job. Pain usually depends on the sharpness and length of the blade, the depth of the cut, the speed of cutting, the age and health of the performer, the straightness of the incision and whether the bones or the abdomen wall are cut or not. Most of the time death is long and painful because of the blood loss, not the dysfunction of the intestines or other internal organs. It is also important if the mesenteric artery is cut or not, if this artery, which is in the middle of the abdomen laying horizontally, is cut, the performer dies rather quickly. As rankin Mentions:

“Strictly speaking, stomach-cutting is not a mode of suicide, since the wound is not immediately, or even necessarily, fatal. The imperialist zealot Takayama Hikokurō (1747–93) survived for nineteen hours after completely severing his small and large intestines (see p. 158). A surgeon’s report on the death of a samurai who committed seppuku in April 1754 notes that he achieved a stomach cut that was approximately five inches long and one and a half inches deep, yet he continued breathing for fourteen hours (see p.155). Admiral Ō nishi Takijirō (1891–1945), known as the father of the Special Attack (“kamikaze”) Squadron, slashed his stomach and stabbed his throat, yet did not expire until fifteen hours later. In each of these cases the cause of death was hemorrhaging.”

Female samurai seppuku

Female samurai seppuku. Ukiyoe representing the seppuku of the wife of Onodera Junai, who was one of the 47 samurais to be charged with seppuku after killing a judge in 1703. Female samurai’s death was often called jigai as they used a knife to cut their neck for a quick and less painful death. Image

Did female samurai commit seppuku?

As a general rule, if a female samurai were to be captured, she must have committed seppuku (harakiri). There were not many examples of forced seppuku for criminal female samurais, however, it was very common for the wives of high level daimyos to commit voluntary seppuku when their husbands were defeated in a battlefield. Female samurais often tied their legs together to make sure not their certain body parts are exposed after they died. Based on the historic records, female samurais seppuku, often incorrectly called jigai, was usually solo and did not involve a kaishakunin. Thus, most seppuku were a cut to the neck with a knife which makes the process easier and faster.

The most famous seppuku of a female samurai is the case of Nakano Takeko in 1868. During the Boshin War, she formed the female samurai unit in the Aizu domain and fought against the mighty imperial army. She even approached the enemy forces and killed 5-6 soldiers by just using naginata. After she got wounded, she was worried about being captured alive and asked her sister to behead her. More information about female samurai can be found in Steve Turnbull’s book mentioned in the references.

Why seppuku is “honor given,” not “punishment taken?”

In Japanese we refer to the samurai who was charged with seppuku by saying the person was given the honor of committing seppuku, not that the person was punished with seppuku. This is because of a military rule that was clearly explained in the book Sho Rin Yawa around the 1590s. The book states that if a samurai failed to meet with his responsibilities, he were to face these 6 major disciplinary actions from the lightest to the heaviest

  1. House arrest
  2. Disbandment of guards
  3. Confiscation of the land
  4. Banishment
  5. Death by seppuku
  6. Confiscation of family swords (all family members lose the samurai status)

Clearly, seppuku is not the heaviest sentence. As the matter of fact, in 1560 a samurai who was punished by Uesugi Kenshin with the loss of the samurai status. The family later appealed and the sentence was downgraded to seppuku. (Cited in Andrew Rankin, 2012)

Who is the kaishakunin, a.k.a. the 2nd, or retainer?

The word kaishaku is believed to be derived from the word baishaku which means “to assist.” Kaishakunin refers to the person who stands behind and makes the finishing cut during the seppuku to reduce the pain of the samurai which otherwise should be endured for hours. Although this person can be a government official or a person from the enemy clan, most of the time kaishakunin is the retainer, especially during the voluntary seppuku. Historic records also show that most voluntary seppuku of famous daimyos followed by kaishakunin’s own suicide by cutting his stomach or neck. During the forced seppuku, the jailer is usually the kaishakunin and he often does not use his own sword for decapitation. 

Samurais must be mentally strong and not reject if they are called for such a duty which may involve chopping the head of their closest friend. Kaishakunin also have to be calm when the body of the deceased moves a few seconds or the eyes blink after the decapitation. At the beginning the kaishakunin tells the condemned something like “I have been asked to be your kaishakunin. I will do my best to nat fail you.” In certain occasions there are three kaishaku: one to bring the tray and sword, one to make the cut and one to display it to the witnesses.

When was the first Harakiri?

Professor Turnbull notes that Minamoto Yorimasa’s killing himself at the battle field  in 1180 in order to be not to be captured alive has been the first historic mention of hara kiri. However, according to Andrew Rankin’s book seppuku, splitting the belly for self sacrifice was mentioned earlier in the Japanese annals dating 713 AD and later in the 11th century. Rankin notes that Minomoto no Tametomo who split his belly when surrounded by the imperial forces in 1170 was the first samurai which is mentioned in the official documents of the Tokugawa Shogunate authored by Ise Sadatake. The legend goes that Tametomo committed many atrocities during the Hogen Rebellion but when Emperor Go Shirakawa’s forces came to punish him , he let his outnumbered men flee, kills his oldest son and ends his life by slitting his belly. See the bottom of this article to see the timeline of harakiri.

Are all seppuku the same?

There are different types of seppuku identified in the literature:

  • Oibara: Committing seppuku after one’s superior dies. Before the 1500s many kaishakunin committed seppuku following the seppuku of their master.
  • Tsumebara: Forced seppuku to punish a samurai. Seppuku against one’s will.
  • Tachibara: Committing seppuku while standing. Tachi means “to stand” in Japanese.
  • Kanshibara: Committing seppuku to protest the behavior of another samurai. An example would be Hirate Masahide’s seppuku in 1553 to protest Oda Nobunaga.
  • Kamabara:  Committing seppuku by using a sickle.
  • Kagebara: Committing seppuku but hiding the wound to shock the audience. Mostly used in kabuki plays.

Types of Seppuku Cuts

  • Jumonji: This is the most common form of seppuku. One horizontal and one vertical cut made to the abdomen which at the end look like number 10 (十) in Japanese. The first cut is usually not deep enough to make sure the entrails do not spill out early. The first cut is usually below the navel from left to right. The 2nd cut is from bottom to top starting right above the groin. The order of the cuts is not so consistent.
  • Ichimonji: One horizontal cut from left to the right side. Occasionally samurais cut diagonally from navel to the right nipple which was acceptable.
  • Hachimonji: Making two slightly tilted vertical cuts that look like number 8 (八) in Japanese.
  • Sanmonji: Making three horizontal cuts that look like number 3 (三) in Japanese.

What are the rules of seppuku?

There are no strict rules of harakiri in the battle field. Some common practices were adopted during the Edo Period when performing the capital punishment for the samurai. These practices included

  • The samurai usually wears a white kimono, half naked above the waistline. When wearing the kimono, the right side should be worn over the left side. Japanese people always put the kimono the other way around except for funeral ceremonies.
  • It is believed that some samurais who looked afraid were tied to the floor so they cannot try to escape. Female samurais’ feet were also tied so there wouldn’t be any undignifying scene after the head is chopped.
  • The samurai writes the death poem or a farewell. Sometimes this is done by using a war fan instead of a piece of paper.
  • If this is an execution, white curtains are erected for the audience. Two tatami mats are set on the floor along with a basket for the head and a water bucket to clean up. The condemned must enter the area from the north.
  • The sakaki tree leaves which are sacred in the Shinto religion, are placed in front of the samurai. The samurai is given his last meal along with a cup of sake served in the sanbo tray. Ceremonial sake drinking is an act of purification that brings people and god together. Just like the last dish of a meal, the samurai is served a tanto ( short blade) or wakizashi (small katana) without a handle so that he cannot fight back.
  • The sanbo tray must be placed about 3 feet away from the condemned.
  • The samurai holds the blade with two hands and starts cutting the belly from left to right. A common pattern is making the L shape by turning the blade upwards from the right. Another cut called jūmonji giri is making two straight lines one from left to right and top to the bottom which looks like number 10 (十) in Japanese.
  • The Kaishakunin, or the 2nd, stands in the back to do the final cut to the neck and finish the ritual. This final cut is called “kaishaku” and there are usually 2 kaishakunin who must be talented swordsmen so they don’t make a mistake or splash blood on the viewers.
  • When the samurai who is performing harakiri can no longer continue the cutting, he moves his head forward or reaches his fan to give the signal to the person standing behind.
  • The kaishakunin leaves a sliver of skin on the neck so that the head does not fly towards the viewers. If the head rolls over, this would be very disrespectful to the samurai whose life just ended. At the end, it looks like the samurai is holding his head on his lap between his hands.
  • Finally the head is washed and cleaned in a very respectful manner and presented to the daimyo or the ruler.
Harakiri scene

This is the text that describes the capital punishment of  Taki Zenzaburo in 1868 after the Kobe Incident  reported in the book “Bushido” by Inazo Nitobe (Page 69).

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.

Seppuku and Harakiri Myths

  • Samurai pushed the dagger straight into their stomach to commit seppuku like how it is shown in the movie 47 Ronin. No, the standard procedure is making a cut from left to the right around the waist line, not pushing the blade straight to the stomach or heart.
  • Kaishakunin chopped the head off completely for painless death. No, kaishakunin always leaves some skin attached to the neck so that the head does not roll over on the floor which is disrespectful.
  • Harakiri started in the warring states period. No, most history books refer to the harakiri of Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180 during the battle of Uji as the first act of seppuku. See the references.
  • Samurais always committed seppuku after their lord died. This act is called junshi, oi-bara or toma-bara where oi and toma mean “to accompany” in Japanese. However, this was rare and definitely not a set rule. Junshi was officially banned by the shogunate in 1663. The last similar act would be the seppuku of General Nogi in 1912 after the death of Emperor Meiji.
  • Seppuku was also required for the wives of the samurai.  This is incorrect. If the husband commits seppuku after a wrongdoing, the family’s honour is regained. However, the wives of daimyos often killed themselves if their husbands were captured and killed by a rival clan. It would be shameful for the wife of an elite samurai to maintain an upscale lifestyle after the husband was killed disgracefully.
  •  The female seppuku is called jigai. No, this is not true. Jigai means committing suicide by a knife or tanto with a quick cut to the jugular vein on the neck. Even though this type of suicide was common for female samurais, the word does not mean “seppuku for females.”
  • Samurai committed suicide to pressure other samurai to commit suicide which is called sashi-bara. Respected samurai books and Japanese studies do not mention such an act. 

Some Interesting seppuku facts (See References for the sources)

  • There is no example of revoking the seppuku decision in Japanese history books. Once the decision is made, everyone agrees with it gracefully.
  • The sumo wrestling referees (gyoji) carry special knives to convey the message that they are ready to commit seppuku if they make a mistake when judging.
  • Today, only .2% of suicides in Japan are related to stomach cutting.
  • Seppuku was officially banned by the Meiji Government in 1873 and outlawed in the new constitution.
  • Although high level samurais often showed bravery and chose honorable death over disgraceful survival, the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu totally ignored his retainer’s recommendation of seppuku after the great defeat of the shogunate forces in 1868. While his retainer later committed seppuku, the shogun enjoyed a long retirement life.
  • Not all samurais are given the chance of seppuku. For instance, Ishikawa Goemon, who was coming from a samurai family but turned into a thief, was boiled alive in a big pot in front of the Chion In Temple of Kyoto.
  • The largest surge in the number of unofficial seppuku was in 1876 when the Meiji Government implemented the Sword Abolishment Edict (廃刀令, Haitōrei) which prohibited the samurai carrying swords.
  • The seppuku that was viewed by the highest number of people is likely to be the seppuku of Shimizu Muneharu and his family members by the Takamatsu River in 1582. It is said that there were 60,000 men in stand by as the seppuku was the condition for the peace agreement.
  • A low level samurai should not commit seppuku at his superior’s property unless the crime is serious.
  • Samurai should not wash their head with hot water before seppuku as it increases bleeding.
  • The traces of real samurai blood from mass seppuku of Tori Mototada’ retainers, can be seen at the Yogen In Temple in Kyoto.
  • Seppuku is related less to cutting the stomach and more to splitting the area below the stomach to spill the intestines. Death usually occurs by the sword cut of the helper or the samurai falling on the sword.
  • It was dishonorable for the samurai to show any signs of weakness or cowardliness while cutting the belly. That’s why they were often given a piece of fabric to hold in their mouth during the seppuku. When the intense pain hit, they could squeeze the fabric in the mouth thus preventing them from screaming or making unintended sounds.

Harakiri and tea ceremony

-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

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.

The timeline of Harakiri

  • 700 BC. The Chinese historical records dating back to the 1st century BC mention the Zhou Dynasty warriors that ruled Western China between 11th century and 7th century BC and used to purposefully fall on their swords if they were to lose a battle.
  • 500. Chinese historical compilations mention a young man named Ron Liang who cut open his stomach and pulled out his intestines to prove that he is innocent and rumours about him are untrue.
  • 713. The ancient Japanese records named Fudoki from the Harima prefecture refer to the goddess Aomi who could not find her husband god Hananami and cut her belly open when she was mourning.
  • 1140. The Konjaku Monogatari includes a chapter about a thief who could not be caught because of his intelligent tricks. Finally, he gets surrounded by the local guards of Kyoto in the forest and slit opens his belly instead of surrendering.
  • 1170. Minomoto no Tametomo becomes the first samurai to commit harakiri. Tametomo committed many atrocities during the Hogen Rebellion but got away with everything as he was from the noble Minamoto Clan. When Emperor Go Shirakawa’s forces finally came to his island to punish him, first he let his outnumbered men flee, then killed his oldest son and eventually ended his life by slitting his belly.
  • 1180. Minamoto no Yorimasa commits the first battle field harakiri. Being defeated at the battle of Uji, Minamoto no Yorimasa retreated into a temple, wrote his death poem on his war fan and cut-opened his belly. His self sacrifice was mentioned in many Japanese books.
  • 1186. Sato Tadanobu becomes the first general to make a cross-shaped cut to the belly and taking out intestines in the presence of the enemy forces.
  • 1333. When Emperor Go Daigo overthrew the bakufu in 1333, there was chaos among rival clans. It is reported that on two separate occasions, 432 and 900 samurais committed mass seppuku after losing a battle.
  • 1438. Ashikaga Mochiuji who fought against Ashikaga Yoshinori lost the Eikyo War. Before he was captured in the Engakuji Temple, he committed seppuku.This has been the first forced seppuku in history. When his son was informed about the father’s fate, he also voluntarily cut his belly after reciting Buddhist sutras.
  • 1582. Hideyoshi Toyotomi managed to conquer a heavily fortified castle by changing the path of a major river and overflowing the town. The defeated commander Shimizu Muneharu agreed to peacefully give the domain of Takamatsu to Hideyoshi if he forgave the lives of everyone in his clan. Hideyoshi agreed and Shimizu committed seppuku in front of a big army.
  • 1590. The book of Echigo Province History cites the 6 steps of samurai punishment. The heaviest penalty is not a forced seppuku but the forfeiture of samurai status.
  • 1596. Hideyoshi Toyotomi had no heir to take over, so he designated his nephew, Hidetsugu, as the next regent. However, just after a short while Hideyoshi’s son was born. Hidetsugu Toyotomi was first sent to exile to Mount Koya and a few weeks later he was asked to commit seppuku. In the following week all of his children, wives and concubines, 31 people in total, were decapitated by the Sanjo River in Kyoto.
  • 1600. Tori Motodata defended Fushimi Inari for days against the huge army of Ishida Mitsunari which helped Tokugawa Ieyasu prepare for the Battle of Sekigahara. Mototada was outnumbered and the castle fell. Dozens of samurais reported to have committed seppuku.
  • 1703. The 47 Ronin. The Chushingura Incident. The 47 samurai from the Ako region went to Edo and killed the judge who insulted their master and caused their master to be charged with seppuku. The shogunate charged all 47, except the youngest, with seppuku which is the topic of the movie “47 Ronin.”
  • 1877. Saigo Takamori. The famous commander Saigo Takamori, who helped Emperor Meiji come to power, was angry with the abolishment of the samurai system. He went to Kyushu and led a rebellion against the govt. He was wounded and committed seppuku, which is considered to be the last seppuku of a samurai in history.
  • 1912. General Nori Maresuke and his wife committed seppuku right after the funeral of Emperor Meiji. In his death note he said he was responsible for the casualties during the Port Arthur Siege.
  • 1962. Masaki Kobayashi directed a famous movie called Hara kiri where a jobless samurai tries to commit seppuku but gets discouraged by his mentor. Kobayashi’s movies emphasized the corruption in the old samurai system.
  • 1970. Actor and Model Yukio Mishima wanted to bring back the imperial rule and set up a group called Tatenokai. He raided an army base in Tokyo and urged the men at the base to rise up against the government. He was not taken so seriously and eventually committed seppuku on the spot.

Summary

  • 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.
  • The first harakiri was committed in the 12th century and the last known informal harakiri was committed by Yukio Mishima in 1970. Seppuku was officially banned in 1873 when the samurai system was abolished.
  • 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.

References

Annual Report of the Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, Volume 36 (pp 109).

Maeda, A. (2012). 10. How suicide has been conceived in Japan and in the Western World: Hara-kiri, Martyrdom and Group Suicide. Facing Finality, 10.

Nitobe, I. (1911). Bushido: the soul of Japan. Teibi publishing company.

Okuma, M. (1973). Seppuku no Rekishi [History of Seppuku]. Tokyo: Yuzankaku.

Pierre, J. M. (2015). Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku, and terrorist martyrdom. World journal of psychiatry5(1), 4.

Rankin, A. (2012). Seppuku: A history of samurai suicide. Kodansha USA.

Turnbull, S. (2011). Warriors of medieval Japan. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Turnbull, S. (2012). Samurai Women 1184–1877. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Watanabe, T., Kobayashi, Y., & Hata, S. (1973). Harakiri and suicide by sharp instruments in Japan. Forensic Science2, 191-199.

 

The procedures of seppuku

In his famous book dedicated only to harakiri and seppuku, Andrew Ranking identifies and lists the steps of seppuku as follow:

Cutting the Stomach

The condemned takes his seat, and bows in silence to the witnesses. He removes his upper garment, the right side first, then the left. He takes the sword in his left hand, then also with his right. He puts the tip to the left side of his belly, and then switches the grip to his right hand. Now with his left hand he strokes his stomach three times, an inch or so above or below his navel. He thrusts the blade into his left side and drags it to the right. It is best to make a shallow incision and slice across quickly: no deeper than roughly one inch and no wider than six inches. Cutting should be directed by the right hand, with the left for support. As for the correct grip, while many assume that the right fist should be palm-up, so that the thumb is farthest from the belly, greater strength is in fact achieved with the fist inverted, so that the thumb is nearest the belly.

Rules for Stomach-cutting recommends a nine-step procedure:

  1. Pull the table closer.
  2. Pick up the sword.
  3. Press the tip of the blade to the left side of the abdomen.
  4. Cut above the navel.
  5. Force the blade across to the right side.
  6. Turn the angle of the blade ninety degrees.
  7. Make a downward cut.
  8. Using both hands if necessary, force the blade down to below the navel.
  9. [Remove the blade and] rest the sword on the right knee.

Decapitation

Once the condemned is in position, the kaishaku should stand to the rear left, taking care to hold his sword at such an angle that it is not visible to the condemned: this is a matter of courtesy. The kaishaku assumes striking position as the condemned removes his arms from his kimono. If necessary, the kaishaku should adjust his right sleeve for ease of motion.The precise moment of striking is a matter for the kaishaku’s discretion…”

FAQs

Who commits seppuku?

Seppuku is honorable death or ritualistic suicide by disembowelment that can only be conducted by a samurai.

When was seppuku practiced? Does it still exist?

The seppuku 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. The practice was abolished in 1873 during the Meiji restoration so modern-day suicides are not referred to as such. However, there are currently more than a dozen academic papers that argue how the high suicide rates in Japan may relate to the old seppuku traditional a form of atonement.

Did women commit seppuku?

Women who performed seppuku were often the wives of samurai or samurai themselves wishing to avoid capture or to atone for their mistakes.

What is the difference between harakiri and seppuku?

Harakiri refers to the action of cutting the stomach while seppuku represents the ritual and the traditional procedure of cutting the stomach. They mean exactly the same thing but the Japanese almost never use the word harakiri.

Has anyone survived seppuku?

It is near impossible to survive seppuku, even if a cut to the stomach is not immediately fatal. One would either die of blood loss or by being beheaded by the assistant during the ritual.

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