Seppuku: Honorable Suicide by the Samurai

The Samurai is the most powerful military caste who is famous to wield a sword. Their dedication and skill in using a sword are their greatest assets. But little do we know about their honorable way of dying when the battle turns against them.

What is Seppuku or Harakiri?

Seppuku or Harakiri is a Japanese ritual suicide. Samurai warriors do this by cutting open their stomach with a short sword or a dagger. They usually use the Wakizashi sword. The word “Seppuku” comes from the words Setsu, meaning “to cut,” and Fuku meaning “abdomen.” It is disembowelment of oneself.

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They either choose to bleed or have a friend or a servant, who would serve as a second, to cut off their heads. When defeated, they would cut their stomachs on the battlefield and bleed to their death. Some men would even fling their guts and others would write a poem with their blood.

Decapitation is a way to release the Samurai from the pain of the abdominal cuts. To achieve the perfect decapitation, the second must be skillful in wielding a sword.  This is also known as Kaishaku which means “embraced head”. The technique is to leave a small flap of skin attached at the front of the neck when decapitating the Samurai. Afterward, the head would fall forward and look like it was being cradled by the dead Samurai’s arms.

What is the purpose of a Seppuku?

Samurai perform Seppuku for many reasons. They do it out of honor, patriotism, love and narcissism. But mostly because of grief, panic, protest, revenge, shame, hatred, and desperation. A defeated Samurai, even if he is living and breathing, would perform Seppuku because of the shame he felt.

The single horizontal cut is the most common form of performing Seppuku. Followed by decapitating the Samurai who committed suicide. Jumonji Giri is another version of Seppuku. The only difference is that it is more painful than the other. It both has vertical and horizontal cuts, wherein the Samurai bleeds to death without having his head cut off. Another type of Seppuku is the Kanshi, where one does a horizontal cut and sews it up.

Where do they perform Seppuku?

The location where Samurai performs Seppuku varies. The most common location would be at a battlefield when they’re defeated. It can be atop of castle towers, in mountain caves, and in grand mansions.  

They also perform it in peasant huts, in jail, at roadsides, at temples, in graveyards, on horseback, and at sea. When it is no longer possible to live proudly, the Samurai should die proud. The proudest Samurai death is by Seppuku.

What are the origins of Seppuku?

The practice of Seppuku may be a unique Japanese suicide ritual but this did not originate in Japan. In fact, the early Chinese explorers visited Japan and introduced the swords. Japan at that time, only used bow and arrows. The Japanese emperor Shomu acknowledged the use of swords from then on.

Warrior culture was thriving for thousands of years. During the Western Zhou Dynasty, men would fall on their swords if the battle went against them. General Xiang Yu, a rebel general, cut his throat on the bank of the Wu River in 202 BC. Away from the battlefield, suicide is a form of martyrdom.

The Chinese History of Stomach-Cutting

The Annals of Lu Buwei, a book that contains a massive compendium of histories was completed in 239 BC. One of the chapters of the book talked about the cannibal barbarians of the Di army. It talked about how the Di army found Duke Yi at Rongze and killed him. They ate his flesh but left the liver.

Later, Hong Yan, one of the duke’s men, saluted the duke’s remains. He wept in grief and offered to cloak the duke’s liver using his body. He cut open his belly, placed the liver inside, and died. This is where the legend of the loyal warrior who rips open his stomach started.

Stomach-cutting is not only done because of shame and guilt. Another reason is to prove one’s innocence and purity. An example of this is an 18-year-old boy named Rong Liang who worked at the local government office. His superior Zhuge Li liked his work and promoted him. Soon, one of the junior workers started to spread a rumor about Rong. To prove his innocence to Zhuge Li, he cut open his stomach and pulled out his entrails.

Another example would be during the reign of Empress Wu, in the second half of the seventh century. Rumors came that one of her sons has a plot against her. The empress sent one of her advisers, Lai Junchen, to investigate.

When Lai arrived at the prince’s house, one of the prince’s men, An Jingzang, pleaded for his master’s innocence. He tore open his chest and his blood gushed and his internal organs spilled out. An didn’t die because the physicians put his organs back and sewed his wound. He received high praise for his loyalty from the Empress herself.

Do female Samurai commit Seppuku?

The art of performing Seppuku isn’t only for male Samurai. Female Samurai perform Seppuku when their husband dies in battle. They also do Seppuku when they’re on the brink of defeat like when enemies besieged their castle. This is to avoid being raped.

How the female Samurai perform Seppuku is a lot more elegant than that of a male Samurai. Women would first bind their legs together with a silk cloth. It is their choice to either cut open their stomachs like the male Samurai or slit the jugular vein on their neck. One example would be during the end of the Boshin war. The Saigo family had twenty-two women commit Seppuku instead of surrendering.

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Seppuku and the Arrival of Foreigners

Japan closed off of Western influence before the Europeans and Americans forced trading with them. Japan only had occasional contact with the Chinese and Dutch trade ships. When the Europeans and Americans came, the rise of modern society came in to view. The Japanese government started to form as well as the resistance of the Samurai.

Killing foreigners wasn’t an uncommon phenomenon by the Samurai. In fact, during the year 1868, the Samurai soldiers killed 11 unarmed French sailors. They were in the coastal town of Sakai trade. Japan’s French consul, Léon Roches, sought for justice and insisted to execute the Samurai. Roches thought that the execution would be by beheading or a firing squad.

He sent one of his captains, Bergasse du Petit-Thouars, to witness it. Little do they know about the Japanese suicide ritual. Each Samurai performed Seppuku followed by decapitation from their peers. When he had enough of seeing 11 men perform Seppuku, he stopped the order of the execution of the 20 Samurai.

We could trace a lot of stories and history among Japanese swords. Like the 47 Ronins who had to commit Seppuku after their act of vengeance.

After that incident, the Western diplomats declared an imperial decree. It stated that Samurai who killed foreigners would be stripped down from their rank. Punishment replaced Seppuku. The Japanese could no longer perform Seppuku honorably.

Seppuku towards the Modern Times

But during World War 2, Japanese soldiers performed Seppuku. They do it rather than admitting defeat from the Allied forces. The Allied forces took control of Japan. They mandated to adopt the Constitution of Japan over the Meiji Constitution. The emperor became a figurehead as the parliamentary government took place. The Seppuku suicidal ritual had no place in the emergence of the second half of the 20th century.

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