Seppuku is a method of suicide that involves cutting the abdomen with a sword. It is a uniquely Japanese custom that was mainly practiced by samurai. In the early modern period it came to be used as a method of capital punishment in addition to a form of ritual suicide. It is also known as harakiri, kappuku and tofuku.
History and summary
It believed that the late Heian period samurai MINAMOTO no Tametomo (1139 - 1177) was the first to commit seppuku. The practice became established as samurai customs and bushido (the code of the samurai) disseminated throughout Japanese culture during the Kamakura period and is believed to have been practiced from the middle ages until the early modern period.
With certain exceptions, the examination of early modern period examples shows that seppuku was limited to serving as a means of committing suicide in order to avoid being beheaded after being captured by one's enemy. It was not the case that one would immediately commit seppuku upon being defeated in battle, as there were many samurai who would go underground (escape and live under a false identity) and plan a comeback. A heroic act of seppuku is associated with a certain reverence but seppuku itself was nothing more than an act of suicide and was not considered to be particularly honorable. All samurai who faced execution were beheaded and even those of high status would be beheaded or killed following incarceration if captured by an enemy.
However, it is thought that the significance of seppuku gradually changed after Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI united the nation, with individuals such as Hidetsugu TOYOTOMI and SEN no Rikyu being ordered to commit seppuku as a form of punishment. On the other hand, commanders of the armies defeated at the Battle of Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka were all beheaded, whereas those deemed to be yoriki (police sergeants) of the Toyotomi faction including Shigenari FURUTA and Okiaki HOSOKAWA were forced to commit seppuku. Subsequent extremely rare examples, such as those of daimyo including Naganori ASANO, who committed seppuku after having their domains confiscated are particularly worthy of attention.
A widely repeated theory for the reason why seppuku became an established custom is that it is based on the "ancient anatomical belief that a person's soul and love resides within the abdomen" as stated by Inazo NITOBE in "Bushido: The Soul of Japan" (1900), which claims that the heroic act of disembowelment was a fitting method of suicide for the code of bushido.
Motives for committing seppuku included oibara (following one's master into death), tsumebara (being forced to commit seppuku as a result of one's professional responsibility or duty) and munenbara (suicide in mortification), as well as being committed by commanders of defeated armies in order to avoid the disgrace of capture by one's enemies, and by commanders of besieged armies in order to have the lives of family members and castle garrison soldiers spared. There were also cases in which individuals who acted dishonorably during battle (attacking preemptively) were ordered to commit seppuku as punishment. Ieyasu TOKUGAWA imposed particularly strict military law which stated that the entire family and all retainers of anyone attacking preemptively would be forced to commit suicide.
After Mishima Geki Nyudo followed Muromachi period kanrei (Shogun's deputy) Yoriyuki HOSOKAWA into death, the custom of committing seppuku during peacetime following the death of one's master due to natural causes began. At the beginning of Edo period, the practice became popular due to the increased reputations of those retainers who followed Tadayoshi MATSUDAIRA and Hideyasu YUKI. This custom continued until it was banned in June 1665. The Meiryo-kohan historical records established in 1684 categorize such acts of seppuku into three categories; gibara (arising from true devotion to one's master), ronbara (in order to conform to the actions of one's peers) and akinaibara (in order to achieve the proliferation and advancement of one's descendants). However, there are no cases of the families of an individual who committed suicide to follow another into death achieving proliferation and advancement, and akinaibara is not thought to have been a historical fact.
The best ways in which to commit seppuku are considered to be ichimonji-bara (single-line disembowelment) in which a single cut is made across the abdomen and jumonji-bara (crosswise disembowelment) in which a single cut is made across the abdomen followed by a second vertical cut from the pit of the stomach to below the navel. Although there are many physically difficult aspects to this and it is thought that the throat was often cut in order to bring a swift death. It later became established that the role of kaishaku (suicide assistant) would serve to behead one who has committed seppuku.
For details, refer to 'Ritual.'
Since the early modern period, seppuku has been used as a method for not only suicide but also capital punishment, and in such cases permission to die was granted by one's master so that one could atone for misconduct, leading seppuku to become viewed as an honorable way to die (in contrast to beheading and crucifixion which were considered dishonorable punishments not befitting members of the samurai class). Seppuku as a method of punishment was abolished in 1873, since which time capital punishment in Japan has been by hanging.
Examples of seppuku as a method of suicide following the Meiji period can be seen among soldiers and members of the right wing. Well known examples include the group seppuku of Daitojuku juyonshi (14 members of Great Eastern School) committed in accordance with tradition in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo on August 25, 1945 and the seppuku of author Yukio MISHIMA on November 25, 1970 committed following a speech given at the Ichigaya Camp of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
During the Warring States period and early Edo period, seppuku took the extreme form of jumonji-bara without the aid of kaishaku and followed by the pulling out the internal organs, with depictions of such scenes found within military records (although medical opinion is that one would lose consciousness before reaching the internal organs).
In the early modern period, seppuku became established as a method of capital punishment for those of the samurai class, and certain rituals came to surround the practice.
The individual committing seppuku is called 'seppukunin.'
The individual who serves to behead the seppukunin and present the severed head to the coroner is called 'kaishakunin.'
Death from cutting the abdomen alone requires a long duration of time, during which the seppukunin would have to endure terrible agony, so it was usual practice that the kaishakunin would carry out his duty as soon as seppuku had been committed. During the Edo period, seppuku became established as a complicated and refined ritual in which kaishaku assistants were present. Various theories exist regarding when the procedures of seppuku became established but the most prominent among these state that it was at the beginning of the 18th century.
There were usually two or three individuals who served as kaishakunin. In the event that three kaishakunin were present, the 'kaishaku' (also called 'daikaishakunin') would be responsible for severing the head, the 'tenkaishaku' (also called 'jokaishaku' would serve to bring the shiho (a sanbo Shinto offering stand with four holes) on which the tanto (knife) is placed, and the 'shokaishaku' would present the severed head for inspection.
During the mid-Edo period, seppuku itself became a formality in which it was not a short sword but rather a fan that was placed on the shiho, and it became standard practice that the kaishakunin would behead the seppukunin the instant the seppukunin reached for the fan (ogi-bara, sensu-bara). With the exception of several individuals with a relatively high status such as Kuranosuke OISHI, the famous Forty-seven Ronin used a fan or wooden sword. There is an anecdote that one among them asked as follows.
I do not know the procedure of seppuku.'
What am I to do?'
However, although not true in all cases, it is recorded that the original form of seppuku was revived at the end of the Edo period.
Seppuku by high-ranking samurai including daimyo was committed on the property of the azukarinin (guarantor), whereas the act would be performed in the garden of the azukarinin for lower ranking samurai, and in jail for those of even lower status. Foot soldiers (who were not considered to be warriors) and commoners were not permitted to commit seppuku.
According to ancient tradition, seppuku was committed at a Buddhist temple and later came to be performed at the home or garden of the azukarinin.
Here the procedure of involuntarily seppuku (used as punishment in many cases) established during the Edo period is explained.
First, the seppukunin is notified when the order to commit seppuku is made. Before the act, preparations are made and the individual bathes to cleanse himself. The water used is poured into a tub and topped up with hot water to adjust the temperature (during this period, it was common that the living would add cold water to hot water to lower the temperature when bathing). The method used by the seppukunin is the opposite of this and the water used to wash the corpse for burial is prepared according to the same procedure). The seppukunin would then dress his hair but would tie it higher than normal and fold it in the opposite direction. Therefore the paper cord was wound four times on the left and the topknot folded downwards. The clothing worn during seppuku consisted of a plain white kosode (a kimono with short sleeves) and a light yellow linen kamishimo (ceremonial costume) with outer pleats and no family crest, and the back of the collar of the kosode was sewn in such a way that made it easy for the kaishakunin to behead the seppukunin. As when dressing the dead, the right of the lapel of the kamishimo was folded over the left (with the front lapel on the left of the wearer).
Individuals of high rank would have a mogari (room in which the dead were put or laid in state) with an area of approximately 10.8 m² while it would be about 3.6 m² for those of intermediate rank, and a windows would be opened in both the north and the south with the one in the south representing the shugyomon (gate of practice) and that in the north representing the nehanmon (gate of Nirvana).
The floor of this room would consist of two inverted tatami mats (earth color tatami mats with white borders) laid out on wooden boards, with the vertical tatami covered with four 6-shaku (approximately 181.8 cm) pale yellow or blue cloths or futons (white sand was scattered on top of these on some occasions). The four corners were adorned with the Four Devas, a torii shaped frame 8-shaku (approximately 242.4 cm) high and 6-shaku (approximately 181.8 cm) long made of medake bamboo wrapped in white silk was erected, and cloth was hung on all four walls. An upside-down (or reversed) folding screen was stood at the rear.
Before the seppukunin were placed two sake cups (the top one made of unglazed earthenware and the bottom one lacquered) and yuzuke (hot water on cold rice) with three slices ('migire' in Japanese) of pickled vegetables (symbolizing the cutting of the flesh - also pronounced 'migire'), salt, a miso dish and inverted chopsticks (the final meal of the seppukunin).
The coroner's seat was placed facing that of the seppukunin. The seppukunin would enter through the nehanmon and sit facing north on the white silk covering the tatami mats. The kaishakunin would enter through the shugyomon and may be aided by two or three assistants. Because of the precision necessary in order to remove the head in one cut, the kaishakunin had to be a skilled swordsman, as an unskilled kaishakunin could easily require several strikes in order to sever the neck. It was propriety that the kaishakunin would be a member of the azukarinin's family, so failure in conducting the duty of kaishaku would bring shame to the family of the azukarinin. In the event that there was no family member skilled enough to serve as kaishaku, a request for assistance may be made to another family.
The sake decanter used by the seppukunin had a single opening from which four drinks would be taken according to the predetermined method of pouring twice into each of the two cups using sashaku (a way of pouring alcohol), after which the server would remove the utensils, place the tanto to be used to commit seppuku on a shiho and bring it to the seppukunin, who, due to the impropriety of drunkenness, would not be given any more alcohol at this time even if it was demanded.
The blade used for seppuku is a knife with mountings (with a scabbard made not from plain wooden but from braided cloth. However, as previously stated, wooden swords and fans symbolizing the knife came to be used as the ritual developed). The blades of these tanto which measure 9-sun 5-bun (28.785 cm) were wrapped with cloth or paper 28 times so that 5-6 bun of the blade was visible and if it had a hilt, the rivets were removed.
The main kaishakunin would say his name to the seppukunin and bow. He would then walk round behind the seppukunin and purify the kaishaku sword with water using a mizuhishaku (water ladle) and assume the hasso stance (various theories exist regarding the stance). The seppukunin would silently bow to the coroner and bear the waist by removing the robe from the right. The blade is taken with the left hand and held out supported by the right hand, the tip of the blade is pointed to the left as the tanto is taken into the right hand, the abdomen is bushed thee times with the left hand, the blade is used to slit the abdomen 1-sun (approximately 3.03 cm) above the navel from left to right (alternatively 3-sun or 5-sun below the navel) and, as the seppukunin turns the blade, the kaishakunin severs the head, leaving a single piece of skin to keep the head attached to the body. The severing of the head while leaving it attached by a single band of skin is called 'daki-kubi' and etiquette dictated that this is how the kaishakunin was to perform his duty.
Daki-kubi was performed in order to prevent the severed head from falling to the ground and getting dirty, and is also thought to be due to the influence of the Confucian ideology that 'dividing up the body displays a lack of filial piety.'
However, there were difference among different areas, such as the practice of completely severing the head in Tosa as well as instances in which the seppukunin wished that his head be completely severed, so it was not the case that 'daki-kubi' absolutely had to be carried out.
When the duty of the kaishaku was completed, white folding-screens would be erected in order to hide the body from view. The seppuku ritual was complete when the assistant kaishakunin showed the head to the coroner in order to confirm the death of the seppukunin. The handle of the water ladle is then inserted into the neck and the severed head reattached before the laid-out silk is used to wrap the body which is placed inside a coffin.
The seppuku ritual later became simplified so that the seppukunin would wear a kamishimo and be served yuzuke, omitting the hatamaku, while all that was used to dress the room were two tatami mats covered with white silk and a white folding screen, the dish eaten was a single serving of konbu served on a sumioshiki (wooden tray) before the seppukunin nods to the kaishakunin to receive one cup of sake which was raised to the kaishakunin, and the coroner sat diagonally opposite the seppukunin at a distance of 3-ken (approximately 5.45 m). After the kaishakunin had beheaded the seppukunin, the coroner would take the sword, take a step forward with his left leg and turn anti-clockwise.
Fictional depictions of seppuku
Scenes of seppuku committed by seppukunin sitting atop tatami mats covered with white cloth wearing white clothing and using blades with no mountings are depicted in television period dramas. However, such seppuku did not actually take place during any period or in any location.
White kamishimo were worn when attending the funeral of another person and therefore not worn when committing seppuku. This is because using white at the scene of seppuku would cause the color of the blood to stand out too much and cause a unpleasant scene. In reality, this is related to the hekketsu event (see 'hekketsu-hi'), and the clothing worn as well as the covers laid on the floor were pale yellow (pale yellow + red = green).
If no mountings are attached to the tanto wrapped in paper, there is the possibility that the blade will slip when making the cut, resulting in improper seppuku. In addition, the shirasaya (white scabbard) originally served to protect the blade, and was not put to practical use by samurai. The commonly seen seppuku scenes are created mainly for show and differ from reality in many ways.
Seppuku since the Meiji period
In the Meiji period, seppuku was outlawed but the idea of seppuku as an honorable, samurai-like method of suicide remained. For this reason, it was often committed by soldiers and members of the right wing.
Notable individuals who have committed seppuku since the Meiji period include army general Maresuke NOGI who followed Emperor Meiji into death, vice admiral Takijiro ONISHI - known as "the father of kamikaze," army general Korechika ANAMI - Army Minister in Kantaro SUZUKI's cabinet, and the author Yukio MISHIMA (it is said that a blunder as described above was committed by the kaishakunin during this act of seppuku).
Outside of Japan, the German geopolitician Karl Haushofer committed seppuku.
Research into seppuku
As a uniquely Japanese custom, seppuku has drawn attention as the subject of research and interest. In English, seppuku is referred to as 'harakiri' and is included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
In his 1900 book, "Bushido: The Soul of Japan," Inazo NITOBE states that the cutting of the abdomen in seppuku originated from the ancient anatomical belief that a person's soul and love resides within the abdomen.
Considering both the practice of beheading during battle and the customs of surrounding peoples, one concludes that seppuku originated from a belief of life that was shared by southern peoples. This belief was that life resides in the abdomen and the head, so it is thought that the head was cut off in order to take the soul of a brave samurai for oneself, while the abdomen was cut in order to display one's own soul.
In the field of life sciences, one of the genes that induce apoptosis is called 'Harakiri'. The Harakiri gene induces the death of neurons during cerebral ischemia and neurodegeneration in Altzheimers-type dementia. This name was given due to the fact that apoptosis is a form of self-induced cell death.
It is said that the seppuku had a major effect on Japanese culture and national character after the national education system of the post Meiji period incorporated bushido into the national morality. Today, a majority of Japanese citizens have a positive position regarding capital punishment, and there are still very few who are calling for its abolition.
There is the opinion that this is due to the seppuku principle of 'redeeming one's own honor and atonement through death' becoming established as 'the culture of the Japanese people.'
Seppuku' in China
Seppuku is considered to be a uniquely Japanese custom but a similar practice of committing suicide by cutting the abdomen also exists in China (called 'pou fu' in Chinese'). In the 'Hongyan Nagan' story of "Lushi Chunqiu" (The Annals of Lu Buwei), the bravery and loyalty of the retainer Hongyan who ended his life by cutting his own abdomen, removing his internal organs and inserting the liver of his master who had been brutally murdered is praised by many. Rong Liang in "Xie Cheng Hou Han Shu" and An Jinzang in the 137th volume of "Jiu Tang Shu" both cut open their abdomen or chest with a sword and removed their internal organs for all to see in order to prove their devotion (An Jinzan survived due to surgery and his loyalty and bravery were highly praised by Wu Zetian). Even in the modern era, there are examples of Communist Party members accused of crimes that they did not commit taking their own lives by cutting their abdomens in public during the Cultural Revolution. The relationship between Chinese suicide by disembowelment and Japanese seppuku is unclear. However, this method of suicide as practiced in China was different to Japanese seppuku, as it was a method of suicide that was used by people other who were not warriors in order to express their sincerity. The favored method of suicide among Chinese warriors was not by disembowelment but by the slitting of one's own throat using a sword (zi wen) ("Kairyoku Ranshin", Toru KATO, p. 66-72).