Home Art and cultureSeppuku: Honorable Samurai Suicide in Feudal Japan
Seppuku: Honorable Samurai Suicide in Feudal Japan

Seppuku: Honorable Samurai Suicide in Feudal Japan

Honor suicide is common as a process when a person wanting to end their life to rid of shame in their immoral action. But the Seppuku “cutting the belly” is the special ritual belonging only to the Japanese. Seppuku is the deed of honorable samurai suicide in Feudal Japan. In fact, this Samurai Suicide is still alive in this day and age.

The Japanese believed that our spirit rested in our stomach. So thrusting and opening the stomach with something sharp was the most direct and bravest way to die. This way of suicide was honorable and only the Japanese samurai could practice this. Seppuku could be carried out by the samurai themselves or forced to carry out.

The Japanese would respect the samurai who committed seppuku. Because it meant they felt the shame in their immoral action. But it is important to remember that only the samurai could carry out the Seppuku. The normal people in Japan could commit suicide by hanging or drowning, the samurai women by cutting their throats. But only the male samurai could carry out the Seppuku.

How Seppuku Samurai Suicide was carried out

During the Edo Period, the ritual of Seppuku reached its complete development. In the ritual of the Seppuku, a white cushion would be used as a witness for the samurai suicide. The samurai who was to commit Seppuku would knee on the white cushion and behind and to the left of him were the kaishakunin (the assistant) and servants. The samurai wore the white kimono.

Assistant and servants would help the samurai

The kaishakunin was responsible for cutting the head of the samurai to end his suffering when he split his stomach. So technically, the Samurai suicide was not completely a suicide because it sometimes included the external fatal blow from the kaishakunin.

This assistant must partly cut the head. This meant the samurai committing Seppuku would become nearly headless. This showed the great control and skills of wielding the Japanese sword. If the kaishakunin completely cut the head of the samurai, it was a shame because it meant he lost his control over his sword and lost his credibility.

Samurai suicide was among the traditional ritual in Feudal japan
The assistant of the samurai would stand behind. If the samurai showed a sign of agony, his assistant would end his suffering by beheading the samurai

The servants behind him would sit and prepare the last drink for him. Servants prepared things on the wooden table, including cup of sake (rice wine), washi (paper), ancient pens, and kozuka (blade). In fact, the samurai could use his sword if he wanted. The servants would filled the cups two times and four sips must the samurai emptied the cup, two sips each. The reason why the samurai emptied each drink with two sips was that one sip showed greed, three sips revealed his scare. Two was just enough. And the four number (“shi”) also means “death” in Japanese.

Prior to the main ritual of splitting the stomach, the samurai would write his death letter showing the belief in the value of life. His last words would present his nobility of himself and presented his wish that people would remember his name after his death.

He loosened his folds and exposed his stomach

Once he was ready, the samurai would loose his folds in the kimono, traditionally kneeing on the white cushion. He exposed his stomach. He lifted the blade with one hand and hold it tight with the other. Once mentally prepared, he thrust the blade into his stomach from the left drawing to the right, turning the blade to split upward. But most samurai didn’t have to experience his last suffering as he became his assistant would cut his head once he showed a sign of agony. The last cup upward by the samurai was the jumonji the crosswise cut. Any Seppuku consisted of this last cut was impressive.

A samurai must keep his composure and showed the suicide was just an easy thing for them. Their composure during their last moment meant they could control their mind and their body. They deserved the honor. But many Japanese texts in the 18th century showed that samurais were beheaded as they showed the sign of agony.

Different reasons for Samurai Suicide

In some cases, there was not enough time for the samurai and his servants to prepare for the ritual. They could cutting their throat, throwing themselves off the horse with blade in their mouth, or simply jumping off the cliff.

In fact, there were different reasons for Samurai Suicide.

The first was Junshi – the death for the loss of their lord. During the Genpei War, when losing all hope to win the battle, General Tomomori of Taira Clan chose to end his life. Tomomori called for his foster brother who then helped him wear the second armour. They together jumped into the sea. His samurai saw the death of their master chose to escort their master too. They put on the heavy armor and jumped into the sea. They never let their master leave them behind because they chose to support their master wherever he went.

Funshi was a way of suicide showing one’s anger to the situation. In 1970, a novelist, Mishima Yukio, split his stomach to show his anger and protest the loss of traditional values in this country. However, the Japanese abolished Seppuku in the end of the 19th century. So his suicide had nearly no impact.

Mishima Yukio on his protest. He was a writer who commit seppuku to express his protest against the loss of traditional value in his country
Mishima on his protest.

Kanshi was also a type of suicide showing the protest. A samurai would carry out the Kanshi suicide if he wanted to show his lord that the leading method was ineffective. A famous case was Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide in 1553. He wanted to tell his master to change his way. The suicidal of Hirate affected his master who later indeed changed his way.

Is Japanese Samurai Suicide still Alive?

Yes, it is. In 2001, Isao Inokuma who won a gold medal for heavyweight division in Olympics committed Seppuku when his company suffered from the financial losses. At that time, he was the CEO of Tokai Construction from 1993.

In 1999, a Japanese worker also found dead near the office of his company president’s office. During this period, many of the Japanese suffering from the financial instability had to reduce the number of their workers. This Japanese worker was forced to retire early and in his despair, he chose to commit the honorable Seppuku.

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