Harakiri (腹切り), seppuku (切腹), or jigai (自害, “suicide”) is a ritual disembowelment originally reserved to the samurai, the warrior class of Japan. Priests, peasants and merchants were not allowed to commit seppuku as it was commonly believed that they were unable to tolerate the agony and pain.
Samurai committed ritual suicide either
Seppuku literally means “stomach-cutting” and is also referred to as harakiri (腹切 or 腹切り) which is contrary to common belief, not a vulgarisation, but a native kun’yomi reading of the more formal seppuku, a Chinese on’yomi reading. Therefore, harakiri is used in colloquial context, while seppuku is more common in written language.
- voluntarily to die in honour in case of their capture by enemies or to avoid capture or
- as a token of fidelity and loyalty in case they had lost their master known as oibara (追腹 or 追い腹, kun’yomi) or tsuifuku (追腹, on’yomi) or
- as a measure of protest or indignation over the way they had been treated by their lords (無念腹 munen-bara) or funshi (憤死) or
- to protest a lord’s decision (諫死 kanshi, “remonstration death” or “death of understanding”) or
- if they were found guilty of serious crimes or acts of shame as a means of capital punishment.
The ritual of seppuku
The ritual of disembowelment changed significantly over the centuries. In most instances, the samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes (symbolizing spiritual purity) and offered his favourite meal. Usually, a shintō priest and scribes were present. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem. The ritual took either place on the samurai’s own estate, in front of the local shintō shrine (but not on sacred ground) or at the local daimyō‘s court. There are rare cases documented where seppuku would take place inside the premises on special tatami mats featuring white edgings that were discarded of after the samurai‘s cremation.
One of the most important institutions of seppuku was the second (介錯人 kaishakunin), a skilled swordsman who beheaded the samurai committing seppuku in order to quicken the death and thereby to spare him any further unnecessary pain and ugly sights. The selection of the second was arranged in accordance with the rank of the samurai committing seppuku. It was customary for a samurai, therefore, to choose and designate as second someone renowned for his swordsmanship.
It was common at the seppuku ceremony that a samurai about to commit seppuku and the second exchange a few words before the act of disembowelment and let each other know their respective status, names and the second’s school of martial arts in which he had been trained. Next, the samurai would open his kimono (robe), take up his tantō (knife) or wakizashi (脇差, short sword) — which the samurai held by the blade with a portion of cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his grip—and plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The kaishakunin would then perform kaishaku, a cut in which the warrior was decapitated. The maneuver should be done in the manners of dakikubi (抱き首, lit. “embraced head”), in which way a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body, so that it be hung in front as if embraced.
By the middle of the Tokugawa period it had become quite common for the second to behead the man the moment he started stabbing his abdomen in order to spare him any prolonged and unnecessary pain. Sometimes a white fan was used as a “symbol” in lieu of a sword for seppuku, and the moment a samurai picked up the fan, the second instantly beheaded the man with a masterly stroke, maximizing speed and minimizing pain.
A specialized form of seppuku in feudal times was known as kanshi (諫死, “remonstration death” or “death of understanding”), in which a retainer would commit suicide in protest of a lord’s decision. The retainer would make one deep, horizontal cut into his stomach, then quickly bandage the wound. After this, the person would then appear before his lord, give a speech in which he announced the protest of the lord’s action, then reveal his mortal wound. This is not to be confused with funshi (憤死, indignation death), which is any suicide made to state dissatisfaction or protest. Some samurai chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of seppuku known as jūmonji giri (十文字切り, “cross-shaped cut”), in which there is no kaishakunin to put a quick end to the samurai‘s suffering. It involves a second and more painful vertical cut on the belly. A samurai performing jumonji giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until perishing from loss of blood, passing away with his hands over his face.
The female suicide ritual
Women had their own ritual suicide. Some females belonging to samurai families committed suicide by cutting the jugular vein with a knife such as a tantō (短刀 “short sword”, see image above) or kaiken (懐剣, a short dagger). The main purpose was to achieve a quick and certain death in order to avoid capture. Before committing suicide, a woman would often tie her knees together so her body would be found in a dignified pose, despite the convulsions of death. Jigai, however, does not refer exclusively to this particular mode of suicide. Jigai was often done to preserve one’s honor if a military defeat was imminent, so as to prevent rape. Invading armies would often enter homes to find the lady of the house seated alone, facing away from the door. On approaching her, they would find that she had ended her life long before they reached her.
Seppuku as capital punishment
The most common form of seppuku was actually obligatory seppuku, used as a form of capital punishment for disgraced samurai, especially for those who committed a serious offense such as unprovoked murder, robbery, corruption, or treason. The samurai were generally told of their offence in full and given a set time to commit seppuku, usually before sunset on a given day. If the sentenced was uncooperative, it was not unheard of for them to be restrained, or for the actual execution to be carried out by decapitation while retaining only the trappings of seppuku; even the short sword laid out in front of the offender could be replaced with a fan. Unlike voluntary seppuku, seppuku carried out as capital punishment did not necessarily absolve the offender’s family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, half or all of the deceased’s property could be confiscated, and the family stripped of rank.
Abolition of seppuku
In 1873, judicial seppuku was officially abolished by the Meiji administration, but cases of voluntary seppuku continued to occur. Despite the abolition many Japanese feared after the capitulation of the Japanese Imperial Army on August 15, 1945 that Emperor Hirohito might ask the military to commit seppuku over their defeat, but that order was never given. However, high-ranking officers and members of the general staff such as War Minister Anami Korechika (阿南 惟幾) committed voluntary seppuku on the very day of the capitulation.
The most recent known cases of voluntary seppuku involve the famous Japanese author Mishima Yukio (三島 由紀夫, 1925-1970) who committed suidice in the headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the judoka Inokuma Isao (猪熊 功, 1938-2001).
- Bushido: Mode or Ethic?
- The fine art of seppuku
- Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide (PDF)
Postcard depicting a re-enacted seppuku ritual (the death of Lord Asano who would later be avenged by the 47 ronin)
A woodblock print depicting the wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven ronin. She prepares herself to follow her husband into death. (Photo credit)
Woodblock print by Kunikazu Utagawa (歌川 国員), pupil of Kunisada (Photo credit)
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005