The Honorable Death: Samurai and Suicide in Feudal Japan

The Honorable Death: Samurai and Suicide in Feudal Japan

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While martial suicide is a practice found in a lot of cultures, the act of seppuku, or ritual self-disembowelment, is peculiar to Japan. The earliest known acts of seppuku were the deaths of samurai Minamoto Tametomo and poet Minamoto Yorimasa in the latter part of the 12th century. Seppuku is known in the west as hara-kiri. However, the term seppuku is considered a more elegant usage.

Portrait of prominent Japanese poet Minamoto no Yorimasa.

Portrait of prominent Japanese poet Minamoto no Yorimasa. ( Public Domain )

As the human spirit was believed to reside in the stomach, slitting the stomach open was considered to be the most straightforward, and bravest, way to die. Therefore, this act was a privilege reserved for the samurai. Commoners were allowed to hang or drown themselves, and samurai women could slit their own throats, but only a samurai was allowed to commit seppuku. By committing seppuku , a samurai would be able to maintain or prevent the loss of honor for himself and his extended family. Therefore, a samurai who committed seppuku was often revered after his death. Defeated or dishonored samurai who chose surrender rather than suicide often found themselves reviled by society.

The Ritual of Seppuku

By the Edo Period, the act of seppuku had become a fully developed ritual. Great emphasis was placed on a strict adherence to the ceremony. In a typical seppuku, a large white cushion would be placed and witnesses would arrange themselves discreetly to one side. The samurai, wearing a white kimono, would kneel on the pillow in a formal style. Behind and to the left of the samurai knelt his kaishakunin (his “second” or assistant).

The seppuku ritual, circa 1900.

The seppuku ritual, circa 1900. ( Public Domain )

The duty of the kaishakunin was to prevent the samurai from experiencing prolonged suffering by cutting the samurai’s head off once he had slit his stomach. Contrary to popular belief, the ritual of seppuku for a samurai did not technically involve suicide, but inflicting fatal injury, leaving the kaishakunin to strike the death blow. The kaishakunin needed to strike the samurai’s neck hard enough to sever the spine but also delicate enough to still leave the head attached. As severing the head completely dishonored both the samurai committing seppuku and the kaishakun, the role of “second” was given only to men who possessed superior control of their swords.

A servant would place a wooden table before the samurai, which would contain a sake (rice wine) cup, a sheaf of washi (paper handmade from mulberry bark) and writing utensils, as well as the kozuka (disemboweling blade) although the samurai would be allowed to use his own sword if he preferred. The sake cup was then filled from the left by an attendant. The samurai then emptied the cup in two drinks of exactly two sips each, as one sip would show greed, and three or more sips would show hesitation. This would make a total of four sips (the character shi, which means “four”, also means “death”).

A tanto blade for the seppuku ritual.

A tanto blade for the seppuku ritual. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 FR )

Before committing seppuku, a samurai would write a jisei (death poem) which was considered important as a person facing imminent death was believed to have special insight into the nature of death and the value of life. The poem should be graceful and natural, usually in the theme of transient emotions. Mentioning the samurai’s impending death in the poem would be considered poor form and uncouth. This was also important for the samurai as the poem would serve as a written glimpse into his nobility of character and how he wished to be remembered after his death. Asano Naganori, for example, whose seppuku precipitated the famous incident of the “forty-seven ronin”, is said to have written a particularly poor death poem, possibly because he implied the impending end to his life, thereby showing his immaturity and lack of character.

Asano Naganori (September 28, 1667–April 21,1701)

Asano Naganori (September 28, 1667–April 21,1701) ( Public Domain )

According to tradition, when he felt ready, the samurai would loosen the folds of his kimono, exposing his stomach. He would then lift the knife with one hand and unsheathe it with the other, setting the sheathe to one side. After mentally preparing himself, he would drive the knife into the left side of his stomach, then draw it across to the right. He would then turn the blade in his wound and bring it upward. Most samurai did not have to endure this last agony, as the kaishakunin would cut their heads off at the first sign of pain. The cut in seppuku carried out to its finish was known as the jumonji (crosswise cut), and to perform it in its entirety was considered a particularly impressive seppuku.

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