Seppuku is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. It is also known as hara-kiri (‘lacerating the belly’), which sometimes is communicated in English as ‘harikari.’
It was originally engaged by the Samurai soldiers. Seppuku was usually performed voluntarily by the Samurai as part of the Samurai code of conduct known as Bushido; it was better to die with dignity rather than fall into the hands of their enemies and suffer torture. It was also a type of capital punishment for Samurai soldiers who had committed serious crimes or brought shame upon themselves. The ritualistic evisceration, which is usually part of a more complex ceremony and usually performed in front of spectators, entails the thrusting of a short blade, traditionally a tantō, into the stomach and pulling the blade from left to right, slicing the abdomen open.
In the year 1180, Minamoto no Yorimasa performed the first act of seppuku during the Battle of Uji. Seppuku eventually became a key part of the code of honor of the Samurai warriors; it was used to prevent the warriors from falling into enemy hands, to lessen shame, and to prevent imminent torture. The Samurai warrior could also be commanded to carry out seppuku by their daimyo (feudal lord). As time went on, dishonored warriors were occasionally permitted to perform seppuku rather than be put to death in the usual manner. The most customary method of seppuku for men was comprised of the lacerating of the abdomen; when the samurai was finished, he extended his neck for an associate to sever his spinal cord by slicing halfway into the neck.
The condemned Samurai warrior was not to be completely beheaded but only cut through halfway, since the focal point of this act was to restore or safeguard one’s honor as a warrior. If one didn’t belong to the Samurai standing, it was never expected or ordered to carry out seppuku. Generally, the Samurai warrior required permission to perform seppuku.
Sometimes a vanquished leader or feudal lord was called upon to perform seppuku as the basis of a peace agreement. This would ultimately ensure the end of resistance by the defeated clan. On numerous opportunities, Toyotomi Hideyoshi used an enemy’s seppuku in this way. One of the most dramatic occasions, which put an end to a daimyo’s dynasty, was when the Hōjō were defeated at Odawara in 1590 – Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the defeated daimyo Hōjō Ujimasa and the banishment of his son Ujinao. Consequently, the most powerful daimyo family in eastern Japan was put to an end with this act of suicide.
Before the 17th century, the ritual of seppuku was quite informal, but the practice did become more standardized after that. As with the seppuku of Miyamoto no Yorimasa, the practice of a kaishakunin (meaning, the Samurai’s ‘second’) had not yet emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries, thus the rite was unimaginably far more painful. Seppuku’s defining characteristic was thrusting either the ‘Tachi’ (long sword), ‘Wakizashi’ (short sword) or ‘Tanto’ (knife) into the stomach and slicing the gut horizontally.
As mentioned previously, there was no kaishakunin during this time period, so the Samurai warrior would extract the sword or knife from his abdomen and then plunge a blade into his throat, or fall on the blade, which would be positioned to strike him in the heart.
Performing seppuku during the Edo period (1600–1867) came to involve a detailed ceremony. If it was a planned seppuku, not one performed on a battlefield, it was almost always performed in front of spectators. The Samurai warrior was cleansed, dressed in white robes, and served the last meal of his chosen foods. When he had finished his meal, the knife and cloth were placed on a tray and given to the warrior. Dressed ceremonially, the Samurai soldier would prepare for death by writing a death poem with his sword placed in front of him and occasionally the Samurai would be seated on personally chosen clothing.
With his designated kaishakunin ready, he would open his kimono (robe), pick up his Tantō (knife) or Wakizashi (short sword) – which the warrior held by the blade wrapped in cloth so he wouldn’t slash his hand and make him drop the blade – and thrust it into his stomach, making a left-to-right cut across his torso.
Prior to the plunge, most likely he would consume a drink of sake; an essential part of the ceremony. He would also give his assistant a drink of sake. Once the Samurai made the horizontal cut, the kaishakunin would then perform kaishaku, a cut in which the warrior is nearly decapitated. The maneuver should be done in the custom of dakikubi (literally meaning – ‘embraced head’), by which a slight strip of flesh is left attaching the head to the body so that it can hang in front as if being embraced.
Because of the accuracy required for such a maneuver, the assistant had to be a very skilled swordsman. The warrior and the kaishakunin have agreed in advance when the second was to make his cut. Usually, dakikubi would transpire as soon as the blade was thrust into the stomach. The procedure became so highly ritualized and evolved such that, as soon as the Samurai reached for his blade the attendant would strike with his sword. Eventually, even the blade became needless for the Samurai and he could pick up something symbolic and this would trigger the killing stroke from the kaishakunin. The symbolic article was likely used when the Samurai was too old to use the sword or knife or in situations where it could be too perilous to allow him to have a weapon.
This elaborate ceremony developed in phases after seppuku had ceased being primarily a wartime or battlefield custom and became an institution that was beyond judicial interference.
The kaishakunin was typically, but not always, a friend. If a defeated Samurai warrior had fought honorably, there were occasions when the opponent, who wanted to salute his bravery, would volunteer to act as his second.
For many centuries, it was considered bad luck by the Samurai to be requested as a kaishaku. The reason for this is that a second achieves no distinction even if dakikubi is well done. Furthermore, if the kaishakunin should make a mistake, it becomes a disgrace for a lifetime.
Many times in the past, during the ritual there were instances when the head was actually decapitated. It was always said and was always the intention that it was best to make a cut, which left a bit of skin remaining, so that the head did not fly off in the direction of the authenticating administrators.
During Japanese feudal times, there was a specific form of seppuku known as kanshi (‘a death of understanding’), in which a daimyo’s Samurai retainer would commit hara-kiri in protest of a lord’s judgment. The Samurai retainer would make one deep, horizontal cut into his abdomen, and then quickly bandage the gash. Immediately thereafter, the Samurai retainer would appear before his lord, verbally announced that he was protesting the lord’s action, and then reveal his fatal wound. This form of seppuku is not to be confused with funshi, (‘an outraged death’), which is any suicide made to state dissatisfaction or protest.
The Japanese theater portrayed a fictional variation of kanshi – the act of kagebara (‘shadow stomach’), in which the central character, at the end of the play, would announce to the spectators that he had executed an act similar to kanshi, a prearranged gash to the stomach followed by a tight bandage and then succumb, bringing about a dramatic end to the production.
Some Samurai warriors chose to carry out a considerably more demanding form of seppuku known as jūmonji giri (‘cross-shaped cut’). For this type of seppuku, there is no kaishakunin to bring about a swift conclusion to the samurai’s suffering. It entails a second and a more painful vertical incision on the belly. The Samurai executing jūmonji giri was expected to tolerate his suffering silently until he bled to death and passed away with his hands over his face.