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Seppuku: Ritual Suicide in Samurai Japan

by Susan Spann

Seppuku (sometimes also referred to as hara-kiri) is a form of Japanese ritual suicide.

Many Westerners recognize this Japanese form of suicide, in which a person (often, but not always, male) slits his own stomach with a sword, disemboweling himself and causing his own death.

Seppuku has a long and complex history in Japan. The first recorded act of seppuku was committed by a samurai warrior and poet named Minamoto no Yorimasa, who committed suicide rather than letting his enemies capture him at the end of a battle (which Yorimasa lost).

14H01 Seppuku

Throughout most of Japanese history, only samurai were allowed to commit seppuku. Commoners committed suicide too, but usually accomplished their “self-determination” in other ways.

During the medieval period, samurai committed seppuku for several reasons, most commonly to avoid being captured after losing a battle (following the example of Minamoto no Yorimasa), or as a penalty for shameful or criminal activity. Samurai also committed seppuku to expunge the shame of outliving their liege lord, particularly if the lord was killed in battle or by an assassin — things the lord’s retainers were supposed to prevent.

Many Westerners think of suicide as an “escape” from life, but the practice of seppuku focused on the samurai’s honor rather than on his death. By committing seppuku, a samurai could maintain, regain, or prevent the loss of honor, for himself and also for his extended family. Because of this, a samurai who committed seppuku was often revered after his death. Defeated or dishonored samurai who chose surrender (or punishment) rather than committing suicide often found themselves reviled and disdained.

During the seppuku ritual, the samurai stabbed himself in the stomach with a dagger or short sword and then made a horizontal cut across his abdomen. (In some recorded cases, the samurai then reached into his belly and pulled out his own entrails.)

As the ritual developed during the medieval period, samurai committing seppuku often arranged for a “second” (called the kaishakunin) whose role was to stand behind the samurai committing seppuku and cut off the dying person’s head to end his suffering. In some cases, the decapitation came as soon as the samurai committing seppuku plunged the dagger into his belly, but the bravest samurai ordered the kaishakunin to wait until the dagger had completed its cut across the abdomen. This meant a much more painful death, but gained the dying samurai much more honor.

When helping with a suicide, the kaishakunin tried to strike the dying man’s neck hard enough to sever the spine but also delicately enough to leave the dead man’s head attached–if possible hanging from the neck by a narrow strip of skin. Severing the head completely dishonored both the samurai committing seppuku and also the kaishakunin, so the role of “second” was given only to men who possessed superior control of their swords.

Traditionally, a kaishakunin was only available to samurai who committed seppuku for honorable reasons. Men who were forced to commit suicide because of disgraceful actions or as a result of criminal acts were not permitted kaishakunin, and were forced to die an agonizing death from disembowelment alone. (This death which could take anywhere from several minutes to several days.)

14G01 Akashi_Gidayu_writing_his_death_poem_before_comitting_Seppuku

Before committing seppuku, a samurai typically wrote a “death poem” (jisei) which the Japanese considered important because a person facing imminent death was believed to have special insight into the nature of not only death, but the value of life as well.

People interested in learning more about this unique and historically important ritual may want to read Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, by Andrew Rankin, whose book contains a great deal of historical and anecdotal information about seppuku and its role in Japanese culture.

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Susan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014, from Minotaur Books.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

* Both images: public domain, original copyright expired by law due to length of time after original creation.

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