Vocabulary and etymologyEditSeppuku is also known as harakiri (腹切り, "cutting the belly"), a term more widely familiar outside Japan, and which is written with the same kanji as seppuku, but in reverse order with an okurigana. In Japanese, the more formal seppuku, a Chinese on'yomi reading, is typically used in writing, while harakiri, a native kun'yomi reading, is used in speech. Ross notes,
- "It is commonly pointed out that hara-kiri is a vulgarism, but this is a misunderstanding. Hara-kiri is a Japanese reading or Kun-yomi of the characters; as it became customary to prefer Chinese readings in official announcements, only the term seppuku was ever used in writing. So hara-kiri is a spoken term, but only to commoners and seppuku a written term, but spoken amongst higher classes for the same act."
The practice of committing seppuku at the death of one's master, known as oibara (追腹 or 追い腹, the kun'yomi or Japanese reading) or tsuifuku (追腹, the on'yomi or Chinese reading), follows a similar ritual.
The word jigai (自害) means "suicide" in Japanese. The usual modern word for suicide is jisatsu (自殺?). In some popular western texts, such as martial arts magazines, the term is associated with suicide of samurai wives. The term was introduced into English by Lafcadio Hearn in his Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, an understanding which has since been translated into Japanese. Joshua S. Mostow notes that Hearn misunderstood the term jigai to be the female equivalent of seppuku.
The first recorded act of seppuku was performed by Minamoto no Yorimasa during the Battle of Uji in the year 1180. Seppuku eventually became 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 and avoid possible torture. Samurai could also be ordered by their daimyo (feudal lords) to carry out seppuku. Later, disgraced warriors were sometimes allowed to carry out seppuku rather than be executed in the normal manner. The most common form of seppuku for men was composed of the cutting of the abdomen, and when the samurai was finished, he stretched out his neck for an assistant to decapitate him. 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 carry out seppuku. Samurai generally could carry out the act only with permission.
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. When the Hōjō were defeated at Odawara in 1590, Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the retired daimyo Hōjō Ujimasa, and the exile of his son Ujinao; with this act of suicide, the most powerful daimyo family in eastern Japan was put to an end.
RitualEditUntil this practice became more standardized during the 17th century, the ritual of seppuku was less formalized. In the 12th and 13th centuries, such as with the seppuku of Miyamoto no Yorimasa, the practice of a kaishakunin (infra) had not yet emerged, thus the rite was considered far more painful. Seppuku's defining characteristic was plunging either the Tachi (longsword), Wakizashi (shortsword) or Tanto (knife) into the gut and slicing the stomach horizontally. In the absence of a kaishakunin, the samurai 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.
During the Edo Period (1600 - 1867), carrying out seppuku came to involve a detailed ritual. This was usually performed in front of spectators if it was a planned seppuku, not one performed on a battlefield. A samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, and served his favorite foods. When he had finished, his instrument 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 (robe), take up his tantō (knife) or wakizashi (short sword)—which the samurai held by the blade with a portion of cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his grip—and plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The kaishakunin would then perform kaishaku, a cut in which the warrior was decapitated. The maneuver should be done in the manners of dakikubi (lit. "embraced head"), in which way a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body, so that it can be hung in front as if embraced. Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was a skilled swordsman. The principal and the kaishakunin agreed in advance when the latter was to make his cut. Usually dakikubi would occur as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen. The process became so highly ritualised that as soon as the samurai reached for his blade the kaishakunin would strike. Eventually even the blade became unnecessary and the samurai could reach for something symbolic like a fan and this would trigger the killing stroke from his second. The fan was likely used when the samurai was too old to use the blade or in situations where it was too dangerous to give him a weapon.
This elaborate ritual evolved after seppuku had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and became a para-judicial institution.
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.
In the Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote:
From ages past it has been considered an ill-omen by samurai to be requested as kaishaku. The reason for this is that one gains no fame even if the job is well done. Further, if 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.
A specialized form of seppuku in feudal times was known as kanshi (諫死, "remonstration death/death of understanding"), in which a retainer would commit suicide in protest of a lord's decision. The retainer would make one deep, horizontal cut into his stomach, then quickly bandage the wound. After this, the person would then appear before his lord, give a speech in which he announced the protest of the lord's action, then reveal his mortal wound. This is not to be confused with funshi (憤死, indignation death), which is any suicide made to state dissatisfaction or protest. A fictional variation of kanshi was the act of kagebara (陰腹, "shadow stomach") in Japanese theater, in which the protagonist, at the end of the play, would announce to the audience that he had committed an act similar to kanshi, a predetermined slash to the stomach followed by a tight field dressing, and then perish, bringing about a dramatic end.
Some samurai chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of seppuku known as jūmonji giri (十文字切り, "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 on the belly. A samurai performing jumonji giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until perishing from loss of blood, passing away with his hands over his face.
Female ritual suicideEditFemale ritual suicide known as Jigaki was practiced by the wives of samurai who have committed seppuku or brought dishonor.
Some females belonging to samurai families committed suicide by cutting the arteries of the neck with one stroke, using a knife such as a tantō or kaiken. The main purpose was to achieve a quick and certain death in order to avoid capture. Women were carefully taught jigaki as children. Before committing suicide, a woman would often tie her knees together so her body would be found in a dignified pose, despite the convulsions of death. Jigaki, however, does not refer exclusively to this particular mode of suicide. Jigaki was often done to preserve one's honor if a military defeat was imminent, so as to prevent rape. Invading armies would often enter homes to find the lady of the house seated alone, facing away from the door. On approaching her, they would find that she had ended her life long before they reached her.
Stephen R. Turnbull provides extensive evidence for the practice of female ritual suicide, notably of samurai wives, in pre-modern Japan. One of the largest mass suicides was the 25 April 1185 final defeat of Taira Tomomori establishing Minamoto power. The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven Ronin, is a notable example of a wife following by suicide the seppuku (disemboweling) of a samurai husband. A large number of honour suicides marked the defeat of the Aizu clan in the Boshin War of 1869, leading into the Meiji era. For example in the family of Saigō Tanomo, who survived, a total of twenty-two female honour suicides are recorded among one extended family.
Voluntary death by drowning was a common form of ritual or honour suicide. The religious context of thirty-three Jōdo Shinshū adherents at the funeral of Abbot Jitsunyo in 1525 was faith in Amida and belief in afterlife in the Pure Land, but male seppuku did not have a specifically religious context. By way of contrast, the religious beliefs of Hosokawa Gracia, the Christian wife of daimyo Hosokawa Yusai, prevented her from committing suicide.
In literature and filmEdit
The expected honour-suicide of the samurai wife is also frequently referenced in Japanese literature and film, such as in Humanity and Paper Balloons and Rashomon.
The word jigai (自害?) means "suicide" in Japanese. The usual modern word for suicide is jisatsu (自殺). Related words include jiketsu (自決), jijin (自尽) and jijin (自刃). In some popular western texts, such as martial arts magazines, the term is associated with suicide of samurai wives. The term was introduced into English by Lafcadio Hearn in his Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, an understanding which has since been translated into Japanese and Hearn seen through Japanese eyes. Joshua S. Mostow notes that Hearn misunderstood the term jigai to be the female equivalent of seppuku. Mostow's context is analysis of Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly and the original Cio-Cio San story by John Luther Long. Though both Long's story and Puccini's opera predate Hearn's use of the term jigai, the term has been used in relation to western japonisme which is the influence of Japanese culture on the western arts.
Seppuku as capital punishmentEdit
While the voluntary seppuku described above is the best known form, 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, rape, robbery, corruption, or treason. The samurai were generally told of their offense in full and given a set time to commit seppuku, usually before sunset on a given day. On occasion, if the sentenced individuals were uncooperative or outright refused to end their own lives, it was not unheard of for them to be restrained and the seppuku carried out by an executioner, or for the actual execution to be carried out instead by decapitation while retaining only the trappings of seppuku; even the short sword laid out in front of the offender could be replaced with a fan. Unlike voluntary seppuku, seppuku carried out as capital punishment did not necessarily absolve, or pardon, the offender's family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, half or all 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.
Seppuku was considered the most honorable capital punishment apportioned to Samurai. Zanshu (斬首) and Sarashikubi (晒し首）, decapitation followed by a display of the head, was considered harsher, and reserved for samurai that committed greater crimes. The harshest punishments, usually involving death by torturous methods like Kamayude (釜茹で), being boiled to death, were reserved for commoner criminals.
Seppuku in modern JapanEdit
Seppuku as judicial punishment was 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. This behavior had been widely praised by propaganda, which made many a soldier captured in the Shanghai Incident (1932) return to the site of his capture to commit seppuku.
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.