The Hara-Kiri by the West or famously known as Seppuku is a Japanese form of ritual suicide. Similarly, Japanese Samurai considers this as an honorable death. They do the ritual Seppuku when they are captured because it symbolizes as their final stand.
Even more, there are also instances where the Samurai do the ritual voluntarily. Although it may come off to you as weird, it comes to them as maintaining their dignity and not ruining their family name.
Top 8: Seppuku’s Origin
In the 12th Century, as a symbol of a Samurai honorable death, the suicidal ritual Seppuku was born. Thus, Seppuku or Hara-Kiri by the West is done for three reasons: First, to avoid capture in the battlefield; secondly, a sign of grievance over the death of their leader; and lastly, a punishment for a crime they have committed.
In addition, Seppuku was first used in the 1180 CE during the Gempei War, which focused on the clash between the two clans: Minamoto and Taira clan.
However, the beginning of the war ended abruptly when the first leader of Minamoto Clan, Minamoto no Yorimasa, performed the ritual inside the Phoenix Hall of Byōdō-in. It’s because he chose to commit Seppuku than his enemies capture him. As a result, this led to Minamoto no Yoritomo’s rise and took over leadership of the Minamoto clan.
During that short time, Seppuku was introduced to the world of Samurai. Therefore, they prefer this method of doing such ritual to avoid torture and embarrassment than being captured and humiliated.
Result of Yorimasa’s Action
Due to Minamoto’s actions, many legends were born. But one thing is for sure: he has sparked the creation of Seppuku as a symbol of an honorable death.
As a result, the ritual Seppuku became a form of punishment for Samurai who committed crimes in the 1400s. Consequently, when a Samurai commits an unforgivable crime such as betrayal to the capital and their leader, they instead choose to kill themselves than be executed.
Furthermore, self-sacrifice is a sign of bravery based on Bushido, their ancient warrior code.
Meanwhile, there was a decline in the practice of Seppuku during the 19th Century. The ritual, however, did not entirely disappear.
Top 7: Seppuku isn’t as easy as you think it is.
Seppuku isn’t just the act of stabbing oneself in the belly using a short sword. When he slices his stomach open, he will then turn the blade upwards, which causes a fatal wound as a result.
Thus, a Kaishakunin’s task is to decapitate the Samurai while experiencing excruciating pain. So, the Kaishakunin must be someone he trusts. But if he is in a battle and performs the ritual, then he will do the action immediately without assistance.
Top 6: The process of self-stabbing isn’t as fun as it sounds.
The act requires a specific technique. First, the Samurai inserts the blade in the side area of the belly, which is close to the ribs. Then, the side chosen depends on where the Samurai’s dominant sword hand is. After, they draw sharply across the gut to disembowel themselves, and then rotate the knife upwards. As a result, this will spill all of the Samurai’s innards.
The Samurai may have a high pain tolerance and wants an honorable death, but imagine having wounds like that and voluntarily dissecting yourself up. Still, consider it fun?
Moreover, when a Kaishakunin sees the Samurai doubt, hesitate, or even show indication of pain, he must behead the Samurai.
Top 5: Any last words?
‘Any last words?’ – a common phrase for execution from West. Meanwhile, in the ritual Seppuku, a Samurai is allowed to drink sake and compose a short ‘death poem’ before committing Seppuku.
In fact, this is the first poem that the first known Samurai to perform Seppuku created, translated to English:
Like a fossil tree
From which we gather no flowers
Sad has been my life
Fated no fruit to produce
Top 4: Japanese women must be beautiful at all times (even in death).
Japan had a special suicidal ritual for women from Samurai families who were raped, dishonored, or even when their husband dies from war. With this, women are taught this method of killing themselves ever since they were children. Unlike Seppuku, Jigai is a quick method of suicide and less painful.
Aside from that, a woman should have dignity in her body position, even in death. Therefore tying their body in a way that looked majestic was still a must. It’s because a Samurai woman, even in death, is embarrassed to have an ugly death. So, after deciding the pose she’d like, she will proceed to use a knife called Tanto to cut the arteries of her neck with just one stroke. It is a quick death, but it is also very messy with a lot of blood.
Top 3: The French and isolated Japan
One of the most gruesome acts of Seppuku happened during the 19th Century, just when Japan ended its centuries-long period of isolation.
It all started when 11 French sailors arrived unannounced in the land of Sakai, Japan. Unfortunately, those sailors are killed by a group of Samurai guarding the village who assumed that the French were hostile. When the French captain learned what has happened, he demanded Japanese compensation.
Afterwards, the Japanese then agreed that as compensation, one by one in front of the French captain, 11 Samurai committed Seppuku. Apparently, after the 11th death, the captain walked away. Rumors were he couldn’t bear watching the ritual, so he walked away. Besides, who would bear watching 11 Samurai perform the acts of Seppuku one by one?
Top 2: Jumonji Giri: A brutal version of Seppuku
There is an alternate version of Seppuku which is more likely bound to make you writhe in pain. This version, called Jumonji Giri, has no beheading, and you will be sitting for hours with an open belly, slowly bleeding to death.
For instance, in 1912, Japanese General Nogi Maresuke disemboweled himself to show loyalty to the deceased Meiji Emperor.
Another instance is during World War II; Admiral Takijiro Onishi performed Jumonji Giri upon Japan’s surrender. As a result, it took him 15 hours of excruciating pain to die.
Top 1: Swords and wonders: Should you keep the knife and sword used in Seppuku?
Media usually portray a Katana being used to perform the ritual Seppuku. But, in reality, a short knife called Tanto is what’s used by the Samurai make cuts quickly and cleaner. It’s because it is a lot easier to wield than a Katana, which is usually longer than 60cm or 23 1/2 inches. Aside from that, the Kaishakunin uses the Katana to behead the practitioner.
After death, everything used and touched by the Samurai is discarded or destroyed. Even the Katana and Tanto will never be used again. It is a belief by the Japanese Samurai that once the soul is released from the body, all that remains are objects that have been darkened and unpurified.
So, there you have it! Eight awesome facts about one of the most significant suicidal rituals there is. Just knowing that an honorable suicide exists is pretty mind-blowing already, don’t you think?
Just think how brave these warriors are to do Seppuku. It may be done for various reasons, but one thing is for sure: Samurai who do Seppuku is remarkable!