The Art of the Seppuku: The Japanese Ceremonial Suicide

What is Seppuku: Seppuku Definition

Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri, is a ritualistic act of suicide. It is the act of which a short knife is used to cut the abdomen. It involves a specialized procedure for which the individual committing it will surely achieve immediate death.  According to the dictionary, hara-kiri literally means belly slicing where hara means belly and Kiri mean cutting. This is why the term hara-kiri is actually a slang term for the seppuku.

The concept originated from the samurais when they would want to escape being shamefully imprisoned or tortured. There was a time when the Japanese were governed entirely by the military class, especially during the Edo period. An individual belonging to the warrior classes of the samurai was considered with the highest social ranking and was strongly revered by people.

Because of their social status and image portrayed towards the people, anything involving controversies for the samurai is almost as grave as suffering from death. For the samurai warriors, rather than face the shame, they would rather die an honorable death by committing hara-kiri. It is their way of preserving their integrity and decency than suffer in the hands of the enemy or face execution. An honorable death – that was what the seppuku was originally for.

According to some sources as well, the samurai have done it to show protests against possible propaganda. Through the years, they have even committed seppuku to express grief when a respected leader passes. They believed that it would be an honor as well to die alongside their beloved leader.

More than a century later, the purpose of the hara-kiri has expanded beyond just an ‘honorable death’. Experts also believe that samurais also commit seppuku to atone for their acts that would bring dishonor and disgrace to their clans. Instead of suffering from execution, they would rather kill themselves and preserve their grace.

Ultimately, the act of seppuku or hara-kiri is considered by all as a form of bravery and self-sacrifice. The willingness of the samurai to take their own life certainly takes courage. Both of these traits personifies the ancient code of the samurai known as the Bushido.

For the Japanese, honor is one of the most important aspects of their life. People consider themselves as a representative of their family or clan and believe that it would be important to preserve their honor in the best possible way. When people think that they have disgraced their family or clan, they take it upon themselves to find ways to either restore it, bring themselves into exile or even kill themselves.

The Seppuku Ritual

In history, there are normally two people involved in the practice of the seppuku – the person performing it and the other individual who would make sure that whoever is doing the seppuku will be instantly killed. It is important to note that killing one’s self in the act of the hara-kiri is a slow, painstaking process. Individuals don’t immediately die from the piercing, knife wound. In fact, the person will surely wait a few minutes to a few hours before eventually succumbing to excessive bleeding.

This fact is why there is another individual waiting for the other to successfully perform the ritual. Every hara-kiri activity always involves what is known as the Kaishakunin. This person is tasked to decapitate the other’s head in the event that the individual is in obvious pain. The kaishakunin will often drop a giant samurai sword onto the neck of the individual performing the hara-kiri. The sharp edge will surely make the individual’s suffering less as it would be able to execute the individual within seconds.

How the Seppuku Knife can Kill

The knife that will be used during the seppuku ritual is called kozuka which is an 11.5-inch short blade. There are two ways for which the knife could be wielded to ensure that the seppuku will be done. One is to cut across the belly and the other is to strike directly at the upper abdomen ready to hit the organs such as liver, kidney or stomach.

Both types of blows would normally take some time to end a person’s life which is why the presence of the kaishakunin is a must. There are circumstances that If the role of the kaishakunin is not immediately fulfilled, another person shall do the task and the current kaishakunin must also be killed.

The correct ritual procedure

The individual must wear light and loose ceremonial robes during the ritual. It must be held open at the moment the sambo containing the knife arrives. The knife will be cut across the abdomen and will be jerked upwards. The knife will be removed and replaced back to the sambo. Lastly, when the knife is replaced back to the sambo, one must immediately inform the kaishakunin to proceed with the decapitation.

Seppuku in History and Japanese Culture

Jigai: The Seppuku for Women

What many people don’t know is that there is a female version of the seppuku which has been part of the Japanese culture for centuries as well. If the hara-kiri involves disemboweling the abdomen to achieve immediate death, the jigai is even faster because it involves cutting the jugular veins in one’s throat.

In the same way that the seppuku was an honorable suicide, the jigai was a means for women to end their lives honorably when they are charged or accused of anything involving shame and disgrace. For instance, a married woman was caught making a home for another man is surely disgraceful. Instead of being charged with execution, they would perform jigai and end their lives in secret.

There are several jugular veins in the neck, which are large veins carrying blood from the body to the head. A very large cut in this area of the body can cause severe continuous bleeding that could only cause death in several minutes. As it is quite a morbid and horrible way to die, it does not cause immediate death. This means that when a woman during the earlier Japanese times committed jigai, they were vaguely aware while they were awaiting their death.

Samurai Seppuku

The Seppuku was a horrific ritual but for the samurai, it was considered as a sign of self-sacrifice. They were particular to the stomach or abdominal area because the people believed that the human spirit resided here. If this part of the body is severed, it is as if the human spirit is immediately released. It was considered as a straightforward means of death.

The important thing to remember about the seppuku is that it is exclusively reserved for the samurai. Common people were allowed to be hanged or drowned. The women were allowed to slit their throats. But only the samurai can perform the seppuku. If a samurai performs the seppuku, it is like saving his entire family from dishonor and disgrace.

During the earlier times, any samurai who would choose to be captured than commit hara-kiri was considered a coward. These samurais are often given more disgrace and bad mouth. They are considered as a disgrace not only to their family but to the entire community for which they live. Those who do commit hara-kiri are celebrated like heroes – revered by the community.

However, there came a time that the emperor abolished the hara-kiri. It became more like a punishment than an act of bravery. Soon, less and fewer incidents of the seppuku are recorded until it completely became silent.

Seppuku in the Second World War

Although the act of the seppuku was abolished in the 1800s, there were still a number of incidents after that. The most noteworthy are those that occurred during the Second World War. The only difference is that other aspects of the procedure are gone and only the belly cutting remained.

For instance, the famous story of Admiral Takijiro Onishi was one of the most gruesome seppuku stories of the World War II. According to historical accounts, this man was the mastermind behind the kamikaze attacks – or suicide air bombings. These are young Japanese men who would plunge to their death to detonate bombs equipped with their aircraft into enemy warships. This was their means to ultimately kill the Johnnys of America.

It was believed that he felt guilty for sending thousands of men to their deaths. This guilt was his sole reason for committing seppuku. The only difference was that he did not have a kaishakunin. According to historical accounts, he bled to death for 15 hours.

There are more stories of the seppuku during the Second World War, it was a means for high-ranking officials to escape capture. Sending a dagger from one side of the abdomen to the other was also a means for high-ranking officials to atone for their guilt for sending their young men to their deaths in battle.

The seppuku was not only reserved for all the high ranking officials of the time, it was also committed by Japanese soldiers to escape interrogation and torture during capture. There are hundreds of seppuku accounts from the Second World War.

Seppuku in Real life: The Mishima Incident

Mishima Yukio was considered as one of Japan’s greatest writers of all time. His works were so popular and well read that he was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature a total of three times.

His beliefs are all well documented, there were a number of media outlets that have interviewed him countless of times about his views on many things. However, months before his death he has started to focus more on his idea that Japan was starting to lose what he termed as “great causes” that are worth dying for.

He believes that post-war Japan has lost a great part of its rich culture and that the people are starting to embrace westernization even more. With the influence of America to the new Japanese constitution, Japan was moving fast towards change. This has both saddened and angered Mishima. On the 25th day of November 1970, he did what many people couldn’t believe he did – he committed seppuku.

He originally planned to rouse coup d’ Etat. He went to the headquarters of the National Self-Defense Forces and faced thousands of military men. He hoped that he could motivate them to join his cause to protest against the country’s new constitution. However, he failed at every circumstance and the military men merely laughed at him. At his failure, he committed the world’s last seppuku at the commandant’s office. His performance of the seppuku was well documented with gore photos of his act.

Months before his death, he has been known to write creepy death poetry – an act many believed was already a call for help. Many people believed that Mishima simply wanted a dramatic death and the coup was just an added bonus if it was successful. Some people thought that whether or not the coup attempt was successful, Mishima would still perform the hara-kiri.

Seppuku in the Modern Times

The act of the seppuku is still studied until today by students in different parts of the world, mainly because it was such an important part of the Japanese culture during its military era. However, it was in the 1800s when the act of the seppuku was abolished in Japan.

During the Second World War, the act of the seppuku gained its popularity again when battalion leaders of the Japanese army killed themselves before they were captured as prisoners of war. At the time, they were then equipped with a katana or traditional Japanese swords. Other soldiers kill themselves using guns when they do not have any blade within reach to escape the shame of being captured and avoid the possibility of being tortured.

The last known man to perform the seppuku would be Mishima in the 1970s. Today, it is still considered abolished and there are no other records of anyone performing the act. Although in history, it is a brave and self-sacrificing concept, it only remains in movies and art.