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Staged seppuku with ritual attire and kaishaku, 1897 Seppuku.jpg
Staged seppuku with ritual attire and kaishaku, 1897

From ages past it has been considered an ill-omen by samurai to be requested as kaishaku. The reason for this is that one gains no fame even if the job is well done. Further, if one should blunder, it becomes a lifetime disgrace. In the practice of past times, there were instances when the head flew off. It was said that it was best to cut leaving a little skin remaining so that it did not fly off in the direction of the verifying officials.

A specialized form of seppuku in feudal times was known as kanshi (諫死, "remonstration death/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 abdomen, 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 protest or state dissatisfaction.[ citation needed ]

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 jūmonji giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until he bled to death, passing away with his hands over his face. [24]

Female ritual suicide

Female ritual suicide (incorrectly referred to in some English sources as jigai), was practiced by the wives of samurai who have performed seppuku or brought dishonour. [25] [26]

Some women belonging to samurai families died by suicide by cutting the arteries of the neck with one stroke, using a knife such as a tantō or kaiken . The main purpose was to achieve a quick and certain death in order to avoid capture. Before dying by suicide, a woman would often tie her knees together so her body would be found in a "dignified" pose, despite the convulsions of death. 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.[ citation needed ]

The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven Ronin, prepares for her suicide; note the legs tied together, a feature of female seppuku to ensure a decent posture in death Femme-47-ronin-seppuku-p1000701.jpg
The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven Ronin, prepares for her suicide; note the legs tied together, a feature of female seppuku to ensure a decent posture in death


Stephen R. Turnbull provides extensive evidence for the practice of female ritual suicide, notably of samurai wives, in pre-modern Japan. One of the largest mass suicides was the 25 April 1185 final defeat of Taira no Tomomori. [25] The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven Ronin, is a notable example of a wife following seppuku of a samurai husband. [27] A large number of honour suicides marked the defeat of the Aizu clan in the Boshin War of 1869, leading into the Meiji era. For example, in the family of Saigō Tanomo, who survived, a total of twenty-two female honour suicides are recorded among one extended family. [28]

Religious and social context

Voluntary death by drowning was a common form of ritual or honour suicide. The religious context of thirty-three Jōdo Shinshū adherents at the funeral of Abbot Jitsunyo in 1525 was faith in Amida Buddha and belief in rebirth in his Pure land, but male seppuku did not have a specifically religious context. [29] By way of contrast, the religious beliefs of Hosokawa Gracia, the Christian wife of daimyō Hosokawa Tadaoki, prevented her from dying by suicide. [30]

As capital punishment

While voluntary seppuku is the best known form, [6] in practice, the most common form of seppuku was obligatory seppuku, used as a form of capital punishment for disgraced samurai, especially for those who committed a serious offense such as rape, robbery, corruption, unprovoked murder or treason. [31] The samurai were generally told of their offense in full and given a set time for them to commit seppuku, usually before sunset on a given day. On occasion, if the sentenced individuals were uncooperative, seppuku could be carried out by an executioner, or more often, the actual execution was carried out solely by decapitation while retaining only the trappings of seppuku; even the tantō laid out in front of the uncooperative offender could be replaced with a fan (to prevent uncooperative offenders from using the tantō as a weapon against the observers or the executioner). This form of involuntary seppuku was considered shameful and undignified. [32] Unlike voluntary seppuku, seppuku carried out as capital punishment by executioners did not necessarily absolve or pardon the offender's family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, all or part of the property of the condemned could be confiscated, and the family would be punished by being stripped of rank, sold into long-term servitude, or executed.

Seppuku was considered the most honourable capital punishment apportioned to samurai. Zanshu (斬首) and sarashikubi (晒し首), decapitation followed by a display of the head, was considered harsher and was reserved for samurai who committed greater crimes. The harshest punishments, usually involving death by torturous methods like kamayude (釜茹で), death by boiling, were reserved for commoner offenders.

Forced seppuku came to be known as "conferred death" over time as it was used for punishment of criminal samurai. [32]

Recorded events

Oishi Yoshio was sentenced to commit seppuku in 1703 Oishi Yoshio Gishi Seppuku No Zu Painting.png
Ōishi Yoshio was sentenced to commit seppuku in 1703

On February 15, 1868, eleven French sailors of the Dupleix entered the town of Sakai without official permission. Their presence caused panic among the residents. Security forces were dispatched to turn the sailors back to their ship, but a fight broke out and the sailors were shot dead. Upon the protest of the French representative, financial compensation was paid, and those responsible were sentenced to death. Captain Abel-Nicolas Bergasse du Petit-Thouars was present to observe the execution. As each samurai committed ritual disembowelment, the violent act shocked the captain, and he requested a pardon, as a result of which nine of the samurai were spared. This incident was dramatized in a famous short story, "Sakai Jiken", by Mori Ōgai.

In the 1860s, the British Ambassador to Japan, Algernon Freeman-Mitford (Lord Redesdale), lived within sight of Sengaku-ji where the Forty-seven Ronin are buried. In his book Tales of Old Japan, he describes a man who had come to the graves to kill himself:

I will add one anecdote to show the sanctity which is attached to the graves of the Forty-seven. In the month of September 1868, a certain man came to pray before the grave of Oishi Chikara. Having finished his prayers, he deliberately performed hara-kiri, and, the belly wound not being mortal, dispatched himself by cutting his throat. Upon his person were found papers setting forth that, being a Ronin and without means of earning a living, he had petitioned to be allowed to enter the clan of the Prince of Choshiu, which he looked upon as the noblest clan in the realm; his petition having been refused, nothing remained for him but to die, for to be a Ronin was hateful to him, and he would serve no other master than the Prince of Choshiu: what more fitting place could he find in which to put an end to his life than the graveyard of these Braves? This happened at about two hundred yards' distance from my house, and when I saw the spot an hour or two later, the ground was all bespattered with blood, and disturbed by the death-struggles of the man.

Mitford also describes his friend's eyewitness account of a seppuku:

Illustration titled Harakiri: Condemnation of a nobleman to suicide. drawing by L. Crepon adapted from a Japanese painting, 1867 Hara-kiri by Crepon 1867.png
Illustration titled Harakiri: Condemnation of a nobleman to suicide. drawing by L. Crépon adapted from a Japanese painting, 1867

There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being displayed in the harakiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.

During the Meiji Restoration, the Tokugawa shogun's aide performed seppuku:

One more story and I have done. During the revolution, when the Taikun (Supreme Commander), beaten on every side, fled ignominiously to Yedo, he is said to have determined to fight no more, but to yield everything. A member of his second council went to him and said, "Sir, the only way for you now to retrieve the honor of the family of Tokugawa is to disembowel yourself; and to prove to you that I am sincere and disinterested in what I say, I am here ready to disembowel myself with you." The Taikun flew into a great rage, saying that he would listen to no such nonsense, and left the room. His faithful retainer, to prove his honesty, retired to another part of the castle, and solemnly performed the harakiri.

[ citation needed ]

In his book Tales of Old Japan, Mitford describes witnessing a hara-kiri: [33]

As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the harakiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hyōgo in the month of February 1868, an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveler's fable.

The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado (Emperor) himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all. After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:

I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.

Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.

The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of rice paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution. The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburo had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple. The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master.

In modern Japan

Seppuku as judicial punishment was abolished in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, but voluntary seppuku did not completely die out. [34] [35] Dozens of people are known to have committed seppuku since then, [36] [34] [37] including General Nogi Maresuke and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, and numerous soldiers and civilians who chose to die rather than surrender at the end of World War II. The practice had been widely praised in army propaganda, which featured a soldier captured by the Chinese in the Shanghai Incident (1932) who returned to the site of his capture to perform seppuku. [38] In 1944, Hideyoshi Obata, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Japanese Army, committed seppuku in Yigo, Guam following the Allied victory over the Japanese in the Second Battle of Guam. [39] Obata was posthumously promoted to the rank of general. Many other high-ranking military officials of Imperial Japan would go on to commit seppuku toward the latter half of World War II in 1944 and 1945, [40] as the tide of the war turned against the Japanese, and it became clear that a Japanese victory of the war was not achievable. [41] [42] [43]

In 1970, author Yukio Mishima [44] and one of his followers performed public seppuku at the Japan Self-Defense Forces headquarters following an unsuccessful attempt to incite the armed forces to stage a coup d'état. [45] [46] Mishima performed seppuku in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita. [46] [47] His kaishakunin, a 25-year-old man named Masakatsu Morita, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed, and his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga, a former kendo champion. [47] Morita then attempted to perform seppuku himself, [47] but when his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and was beheaded by Koga. [48] [45] [46]

Notable cases

List of notable seppuku cases in chronological order.

In Joseph Keppler's cartoon published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on March 8, 1873, Uncle Sam is shown directing U.S. Senators implicated in the Credit Mobilier Scandal to commit harakiri, clearly showing that by that time the general American public was already familiar with the Japanese ritual and its social implications. Keppler Credit Mobilier Hari-Kari.png
In Joseph Keppler's cartoon published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on March 8, 1873, Uncle Sam is shown directing U.S. Senators implicated in the Crédit Mobilier Scandal to commit harakiri, clearly showing that by that time the general American public was already familiar with the Japanese ritual and its social implications.

The expected honour suicide of the samurai wife is frequently referenced in Japanese literature and film, such as in Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa, Humanity and Paper Balloons , [49] and Rashomon . [50] Seppuku is referenced and described multiple times in the 1975 James Clavell novel, Shōgun ; its subsequent 1980 miniseries Shōgun brought the term and the concept to mainstream Western attention. It was staged by the young protagonist in the 1971 dark American comedy Harold and Maude .

In Puccini's 1904 opera Madame Butterfly , wronged child-bride Cio-Cio-san commits seppuku in the final moments of the opera, after hearing that the father of her child—although he has finally returned to Japan, much to her initial delight—had in the meantime married an American lady and has come to take her child away from her.

Throughout the novels depicting the 30th century and onward Battletech universe, members of House Kurita—who are based on feudal Japanese culture, despite the futuristic setting—frequently atone for their failures by performing seppuku.

In the 2003 film The Last Samurai , the act of seppuku is depicted twice. The defeated Imperial officer General Hasegawa commits seppuku, while his enemy Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) acts as kaishakunin and decapitates him. Later, the mortally wounded samurai leader Katsumoto performs seppuku with former US Army Captain Nathan Algren's help. This is also depicted en masse in the film 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves when the 47 ronin are punished for disobeying the shogun's orders by avenging their master. [51] In the 2011 film My Way , [52] an Imperial Japanese colonel is ordered to commit seppuku by his superiors after ordering a retreat from an oil field overrun by Russian and Mongolian troops in the 1939 Battle of Khalkin Gol.

In the video game Mortal Kombat: Deception , a finisher known as the "Hara-Kiri" allows the defeated character to kill themselves in a brutal fashion before the victor can perform a Fatality on them. Only one of the characters, Kenshi, actually performs harakiri.

In Season 15 Episode 12 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit , titled "Jersey Breakdown", a Japanophile New Jersey judge with a large samurai sword collection commits harakiri when he realizes that the police are onto him for raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl in a Jersey nightclub. [53]

Seppuku is depicted in season 1, episode 5, of the Amazon Prime Video TV series The Man in the High Castle (2015). In this dystopian alternate history, the Japanese Imperial Force controls the West Coast of the United States after a Nazi victory against the Allies in World War Two. During the episode, the Japanese crown prince makes an official visit to San Francisco but is shot during a public address. The captain of the Imperial Guard commits seppuku because of his failure of ensuring the prince's security. The head of the Kenpeitai, Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido, states he will do the same if the assassin is not apprehended. [54]

In the 2014 dark fantasy action role-playing video game Dark Souls II , the boss Sir Alonne performs seppuku if the player defeats him within three minutes or if the player takes no damage, to retain his honour as a samurai. in the 2015 re-release Scholar of the First Sin, this only occurs if the player takes no damage whatsoever.

In Chapter 25, "Ryoma", of the Conquest route of the 2015 tactical role-playing video game Fire Emblem Fates , Hoshidan high prince Ryoma takes his own life by committing seppuku, for both honour and to spare Corrin the grief of killing him, telling them "I'm counting on you" before dying. [55]

In the 2017 revival and final season of the animated series Samurai Jack , the eponymous protagonist, distressed over his many failures to accomplish his quest as told in prior seasons, is then informed by a haunting samurai spirit that he has acted dishonourably by allowing many people to suffer and die from his failures, and must perform seppuku to atone for them. [56]

In the 2022 dark fantasy action role-playing video game Elden Ring , [57] the player can receive the ability "Seppuku", which has the player stab themselves through the stomach and then pull the blade out, coating it in blood to increase its damage. [58] [59] [60]

In the Amazon Prime TV show The Forgotten Army - Azaadi Ke Liye, an Imperial Japanese Army Major dies by Seppuku after the failure of his company against the British forces in Burma.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Further reading

Seppuku (Chinese characters).svg
"Seppuku" in kanji
"That the custom of following a master in death is wrong and unprofitable is a caution which has been at times given of old; but, owing to the fact that it has not actually been prohibited, the number of those who cut their belly to follow their lord on his decease has become very great. For the future, to those retainers who may be animated by such an idea, their respective lords should intimate, constantly and in very strong terms, their disapproval of the custom. If, notwithstanding this warning, any instance of the practice should occur, it will be deemed that the deceased lord was to blame for unreadiness. Henceforward, moreover, his son and successor will be held to be blameworthy for incompetence, as not having prevented the suicides."