The Honorable Death: Samurai and Seppuku in Feudal Japan
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.
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 male samurai was allowed to commit seppuku.
Onodera Junai's wife (one of the 47 ronin) preparing for jigai (female version of seppuku) to follow her husband in death : legs are bound as to maintain a decent posture in agony ; death is given by a tanto cut at the jugular vein. Kuniyoshi woodcut, Seichu gishin den series ("Story of truthful hearts"), 1848. (Public Domain)
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 to surrender rather than commit 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. 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. (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 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.
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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 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”).
The Importance of the Death Poem
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) (Public Domain)
Completing the Death Ritual of Seppuku
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 sever the neck 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.
A samurai must keep his composure even on the brink of death, showing strength and full control of his mind and body in his last moments. Any previous reputation of a samurai would be meaningless if he were to die in an unseemly manner. However, although a calm and composed state was ideal for the samurai committing this act, the eighteenth century book Hagakure and other Edo works relate stories of samurai losing their composure just before committing seppuku, and in some cases they had to be forcibly decapitated.
Different Reasons for a Samurai to Commit Suicide
Of course, there were circumstances where there was not enough time for the samurai to undergo the whole ritual of seppuku. Therefore, acts such as cutting his own throat, throwing himself from a running horse with a sword in his mouth, or throwing himself off cliffs were also allowed.
There were a few reasons for a samurai’s suicide. The first is Junshi, an act of suicide by following one's lord in death, which was common in the days of open samurai warfare. With the final confrontation of the Gempei War imminent and all hope lost, general Taira Tomomori resolved to end his life.
He summoned his foster brother, who then assisted Tomomori into a second suit of armor and donned another himself. Hand in hand, they jumped into the sea. Seeing this, at least 20 samurai then put on their heavy armor, bore weighty objects on their backs to make sure they would sink, took one another by the hand, and jumped, determined not to stay behind after their master was gone.
Funshi is an act of suicide to express one’s indignation at a situation. A well-known occurrence was in 1970, when the novelist Mishima Yukio disemboweled himself in protest against what he believed was the loss of traditional values in his country. However, as the act of seppuku was abolished in 1873, his suicide was mostly seen as anachronistic and something of a national embarrassment.
General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem, which is also visible in the upper right corner. (Public Domain)
Kanshi is an act of suicide due to remonstration. A samurai would commit suicide to state his case or make his point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion had proven ineffective. This was done by Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide in 1553. He committed suicide to make his master Oda Nobunaga change his ways.
Nobunaga’s behavior as a young man was said to be disgraceful. Hirate wrote a letter urging Nobunaga to change his ways and then committed Kanshi. His death is said to have had a dramatic effect on Nobunaga. He did mend his ways, and built the Seisyu-ji in Owari to honor Hirate.
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Finally, Sokotsu-shi is an act of suicide as a means for an offending samurai to make amends for his transgression. An example of a transgression is striking his fellow retainer with a sword in anger, which was punishable by death, and often the option of suicide was given. A samurai would also commit suicide due to his failure in his duty of protecting his lord from being killed in battle, or by an assassin.
A scene of seppuku. (Public Domain)
Top Image: ‘The Suicide of Saigō Takamori’ by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This color woodblock shows the moments before the seppuku of an influential samurai. Source: National Gallery of Victoria
Updated on July 2, 2020.
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