Japanese culture is everywhere in today’s world. However, one particularly grisly aspect has affected our general consciousness—seppuku. You may not get the same sensation when reading it, but the evocative image of a samurai stabbing himself in the gut with a tanto is one you’re not likely to forget. But why did this form of honorable suicide take hold in Japan? What would cause someone to commit Japanese seppuku? Does it still exist today?
First, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term samurai. They were, in fact, the cool sword-wielders that you see in Hollywood movies. More importantly, samurai were mercenaries for hire. Due to a host of political and social factors during the medieval and renaissance periods in Japan, samurai were effectively more powerful than the emperor. Rice was the lifeblood of common Japanese peasants. It was easy to grow, crops could be produced in large numbers, and you could sell it at a reasonably high price. However, when you dedicate your entire life to your crops, and renegade bandits and ne’er-do-wells steal or burn them, you sure as hell will want something done about it. This is why the peasantry of Japan would hire mercenaries—samurai—to protect them.
But samurai weren’t just lackeys off the street who could swing a sword. In fact, many samurai would go through rigorous training to become experts in their craft. It was for this high skill level that they were internationally renowned. But they were also known to be fiercely loyal, due to a code by which they lived called the bushido. The bushido code is quite complex, and it changed frequently over the course of the evolution of the samurai order. It was this code by which the samurai lived and died—in a literal sense. This is where Japanese seppuku comes into the picture.
Early Development of Seppuku
The first recorded instance of seppuku was performed by Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180 after the battle of Uji. At this point, it hadn’t yet been adopted into the Bushido, but the morbid popularity of the sacrificial act would soon set in motion its canonization. Minamoto performed seppuku in order to avoid falling into the hands of his enemy and giving them information via torture. Therefore, seppuku was eventually defined as an honorable and distinctly Japanese act. However, seppuku would soon be used more often when a samurai had failed in his mission and killed himself out of shame.
It’s pretty heavy stuff, but this was the way that the honor-rigid Japanese lived. It may seem outlandish to us from a modern perspective, but for them, it was more than natural. Families would have been disappointed in their relatives who had failed in their missions if they did NOT commit seppuku. We don’t know much about the actual emotions of those who killed themselves, but the absence of any record seems to indicate that they did so with little hesitation.
This sacred movement came about largely in the 12th century, and until the 17th century Japanese seppuku was a very unorganized affair (mostly spread by hearsay and local means). There was no set ritual, and methods of killing oneself varied from the most popular—sticking a tanto in your gut and slicing horizontally—to the most obscure—like placing a knife blade up and falling onto it. This lack of uniformity in seppuku changed significantly during the Edo period (from around 1600-1867). By this point, the higher-ups of society had crafted the affair into a rigid ritual which included many intricate steps.
Seppuku Rises as the Edo Period Falls
The first major change came from the setting in which the ritual took place. Usually, seppuku would have been committed on the battlefield when all hope had been lost. This was changed in the Edo period. Instead of committing seppuku on the spot, the disgraced warrior would kill himself in front of a large crowd, dressed in a pure white robe and served his favorite food for his last meal. Despite the fact that the suicidal warriors were seen as failures, the act of seppuku redeemed them in the eyes of Japanese society. Seated peacefully in his ritualistic robes and his tanto by his side, the warrior would then write a death poem, which would serve as his final words and testimony.
When he was ready and had selected his knife, he would open his robes and pick up his tanto (which he held by a small portion of cloth so that he would not cut his hand and lose his grip). Then he would plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. Beforehand, the samurai in question would have selected a close and trusted friend to be his second—his kaishakunin. Before the ritual, he would share a cup of sake with his kaishakunin. Then, when he had made the cut into his abdomen, the kaishakunin would stand behind him and make a final cut to the back of the samurai’s head, decapitating him.
However, the kaishakunin would not cut all the way through. By this point, the samurai would be long dead, but the cut that the kaishakunin made would be precise enough so that a thick strand of flesh would be left attached. From behind, this would make the samurai look as if his head is bowing downwards. Due to the precise nature of this move, the kaishakunin was usually a very skilled swordsman.
As the process developed well into the 1800s, the kaishakunin became a far more central role in the entire process. Japanese seppuku became so ritualized that the final blow was usually delivered just as the samurai had struck himself in the abdomen. However, as time went on, the kaishakunin would sometimes deliver the blow before the samurai had even managed to make the incision in his abdomen, or before he managed to grab his tanto. The redundancy of the knife made it ripe for replacement of something poetic, like a fan, with which the Japanese of this time were absolutely obsessed. Some historians believe that a fan was also used when the samurai was deemed too dangerous to wield a weapon, or was too old to make the necessary maneuvers fatal. If the samurai was declared a great warrior by his opponent, the opponent himself would usually offer to be the kaishakunin. This way, he could have the honor of finishing the samurai off in a faux polite manner.
Different Forms of Seppuku
Depending on how many movies you’ve seen depicting seppuku, you may be a little confused about all of this. Usually, in the movies, seppuku is committed as a form of protest against a lord or politician. This was a form of seppuku, but it had its own specific name—kanshi, or remonstration death. This involved a samurai or warrior committing suicide in protest of a lord’s decision. Differing from seppuku, the samurai would make a single deep cut into his gut and then bandage the wound as fast as he could. Then he would deliver a speech, usually in front of a crowd. He would finish by revealing his mortal wound in a dramatic fashion.
Many are quick to warn, however, that this is completely different from funshi, or indignation death. This is the most prominently depicted form of seppuku. This is when the samurai or warrior would commit seppuku to make a powerful statement of dissatisfaction or protest. This was usually a more impulsive action, and was far less common than the movies would have you believe. However, it was just as dramatic.
Japanese theater even has a fictional version of seppuku, known as kagebara. The protagonist would announce to the audience that he had committed kanshi, resulting in a dramatic ending to the play. Some samurai would opt to undergo a form of seppuku known as jumonji giri, or cross-shaped cut. In this ritual, a kaishakunin was not allowed. Instead, the samurai would make the normal horizontal cut, but then pull out his tanto and slash downwards through his chest. This was known to be a particularly painful method of seppuku, and those who committed it were expected to be quiet as they slowly bled to death, usually with their hands over their face.
After the Meiji restoration, seppuku was promptly abolished as a form of capital punishment in 1873. This meant that it was no longer a judicial punishment. However, the practice itself has not died out entirely; several major Japanese military generals in the 1890s, 1910s, and 1940s committed seppuku upon failing to achieve victory in their battles. Some of the most vocal protestors in modern Japan have also used seppuku as a method of garnering media attention. Seppuku is a strange facet of Japanese culture, and although morbid, it is nevertheless interesting to know the surprising intricacies of an inherently simple act.