Seppuku: A Samurai’s Code of Honor

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This morning, while looking for some Japanese material, I found a very interesting article about Seppuku, the Japanese suicide ritual only committed by Samurai. You might have seen it portrayed in recent movies (The Last Samurai, Letters from Iwo Jima…) since it was also an important part in the bushido honor code, which stated that they had to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies or because they had brought shame to themselves.

This topic has always interested me, so I decided to keep doing some research… You can keep reading below.

Seppuku (切腹), is translated as “self-disembowelment,” and is also known as “hara-kiri” or belly-cutting. It involves plunging a short sword into the left side of the abdomen, pulling the sword all the way to the right side and then turning it upwards, making it practically impossible for the wound to close and heal.(Source: KCP)

There were instances when a samurai would perform voluntary seppuku to show his loyalty to his lord by following him to his death, as a form of protest against his superior or some government policy, or to atone for failing to do his duties.

Many Westerners think of suicide as an “escape” from life, but the practice of seppuku focused on the samurai’s honor rather than on his death. By committing seppuku, a samurai could maintain, regain, or prevent the loss of honor, for himself and also for his extended family. Because of this, a samurai who committed seppuku was often revered after his death. Defeated or dishonored samurai who chose surrender (or punishment) rather than committing suicide often found themselves reviled and disdained. (Susan Spann)

On the other hand, mandatory seppuku was a method of capital punishment that spared the samurai the disgrace of being beheaded by a common executioner. It was finally abolished in 1873.

During the Edo Period (1600–1867), seppuku became a more detailed ritual. Planned seppuku was usually performed in front of an audience. A samurai was bathed, clothed in white robes, and served his favorite food as his final meal. When he was finished, he readied his knife, “tantō,” or short sword, “wakizashi,” the blade partially covered with cloth so he would not cut his hand and lose his grip. The samurai would also be dressed ceremonially with his sword placed in front of him and then he would prepare to write his death poem. A samurai would usually be assisted by his chosen second, “kaishakunin,” who would be standing close by. The chosen second performed kaishaku, a cut that decapitated the samurai. (Image: “Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs”, by J. M. W. Silver)

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As this illustration points out, there were different styles of disembowelment: single-line disembowelment (ichimonji-bara), crosswise disembowelment (jumonji-bara), crosswise disembowelment in modified T-shape (henkei jumonji-bara), and vertical disembowelment (nambu-bara). This illustration depicts these four types and shows how the blade should cut into the flesh. (Via)

In addition to Seppuku, we can find the term Jigaki, which is a form of ritual suicide committed by the wives of samurai who had committed seppuku or had brought dishonor to their name.

Jigaki involves slicing the arteries of the neck with one stroke for a quick and certain death, unlike the slow and painful death of seppuku. It was also performed by women to preserve one’s honor in instances of military defeat to avoid rape.  According to the bushido, it is an example of a truly determined, brave, and honorable way to die. (Source: KCP) The term was introduced into English by Lafcadio Hearn in his Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, an understanding which has since been translated into Japanese.

Jigaki

If you are still interested and want to keep reading about the ritual of seppuku this link will take you to A Study of Seppuku by T. Fusé.


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(1) Utagawa Hirosada: Kabuki – Seppuku Suicide (1850)

(2) Kunikazu Utagawa (歌川 国員)

(3) Yoshitoshi Tsukioka: Akashi Gidayu, No 83 100 Aspects of the Moon Series

(4) Jigaki (Unknown Artist)

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