Seppuku

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A seppuku ritual, as played out by kabuki theater actors, 1885. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Seppuku, also known less formally as harakiri, is a form of ritual suicide that was practiced by the samurai and daimyo of Japan.  It usually involved cutting the abdomen open with a short sword, which was believed to immediately release the samurai's spirit to the afterlife.

In many cases, a friend or servant would serve as a second, and would ritually decapitate the samurai to provide release from the terrible pain of the abdominal cuts.

The second needed to be very skillful with his sword to achieve the perfect decapitation, known as kaishaku, or "embraced head." The trick was to leave a small flap of skin attached at the front of the neck so that the head would fall forward and look like it was being cradled by the dead samurai's arms.

Samurai committed seppuku for a number of reasons, in accordance with bushido, the samurai code of conduct. Motivations could include personal shame due to cowardice in battle, shame over a dishonest act, or loss of sponsorship from a daimyo. Often times samurai who was defeated but not killed in battle would be allowed to commit suicide in order to regain their honor. Seppuku was an important act not only for the reputation of the samurai himself but also for his entire family's honor and standing in society.

Sometimes, particularly during the Tokugawa shogunate, seppuku was used as a judicial punishment.

Daimyo could order their samurai to commit suicide for real or perceived infractions. Likewise, the shogun could demand that a daimyo commits seppuku. It was considered far less shameful to commit seppuku than to be executed, the typical fate of convicts from further down the social hierarchy.

The most common form of seppuku was simply a single horizontal cut.

Once the cut was made, the second would decapitate the suicide. A more painful version, called jumonji giri, involved both a horizontal and vertical cut. The performer of jumonji giri then waited stoically to bleed to death, rather than being dispatched by a second. It is one of the most excruciatingly painful ways to die.

Battlefield seppukus were usually quick affairs; the dishonored or defeated samurai would simply use his short sword or dagger to disembowel himself, and then a second (kaishakunin) would decapitate him. Famous samurai who committed battlefield seppuku included Minamoto no Yoshitsune during the Genpei War (died 1189); Oda Nobunaga (1582) at the end of the Sengoku Period; and possibly Saigo Takamori, also known as the Last Samurai (1877).

Planned seppukus, on the other hand, were elaborate rituals. This might be either a judicial punishment or the samurai's own choice.  The samurai ate a last meal, bathed, dressed carefully, and seated himself on his death cloth. There, he wrote a death poem. Finally, he would open the top of his kimono, pick up the dagger, and stab himself in the abdomen.  Sometimes, but not always, a second would finish the job with a sword.

Interestingly, ritual seppukus were usually performed in front of spectators, who witnessed the samurai's last moments.

Among the samurai who performed ceremonial seppuku were General Akashi Gidayu during the Sengoku (1582) and forty-six of the 47 Ronin in 1703. A particularly horrifying example from the twentieth century was the suicide of Admiral Takijiro Onishi at the end of World War II. He was the mastermind behind the kamikaze attacks on Allied ships. To express his guilt over sending some 4,000 young Japanese men to their deaths, Onishi committed seppuku without a second. It took him more than 15 hours to bleed to death.

Although I have used the pronouns "he" and "his" throughout this article, seppuku was by no means a solely male phenomenon. Women of the samurai class often committed seppuku if their husbands died in battle or were forced to kill themselves. They also might kill themselves if their castle was besieged and ready to fall, so as to avoid being raped.

To prevent an unseemly posture after death, women would first bind their legs together with a silk cloth. Some cut their abdomens as male samurai did, while others would use a blade to slit the jugular veins in their necks instead. At the end of the Boshin War, the Saigo family alone saw twenty-two women commit seppuku rather than surrendering.

The word "seppuku" comes from the words setsu, meaning "to cut," and fuku meaning "abdomen."