Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Seppuku (wiktionary:切腹, from the kanji "cut" and "stomach") is a Japanese word that means ritual suicide by disembowelment. Seppuku is better known in English as hara-kiri (wiktionary:腹切り, literally "cutting the stomach", written with the same kanji as seppuku but in reverse order), which is considered the more vulgar term in Japanese.
Seppuku was a key part of bushido, the code of the samurai warriors; it was used by warriors to avoid falling into enemy hands, and to attenuate shame. Samurai could also be ordered by their daimyo (feudal lords) to commit seppuku. In later years, disgraced warriors were sometimes allowed to commit seppuku rather than be executed in the normal manner.
Given enough time, committing seppuku involved a detailed ritual. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special cloths, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem. With his selected attendant (kaishakunin , his second) standing by, he would open his kimono, take up his wakizashi (short sword) or a tanto (knife) and plunge it into his abdomen, making first a left-to-right cut and then a second slightly upward stroke to spill out the intestines. On the second stroke, the Kaishakunin would perform dakikubi , a ritual in which the warrior is all but decapitated (a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body). Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was often a skilled swordsman.
The second was usually but not always, a friend; e.g. if a warrior had fought honourably and well but lost, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second.
Noble women could also commit ritual suicide, but this was usually done by slashing the throat with a small knife, or stabbing into the heart with a sharp hair pin or a knife.
Seppuku was traditionally used as the ultimate protest when one's own morals stood in the way of executing an order from the master. It was also permissible as a form of repentance when one had committed an unforgivable sin, either by accident or on purpose. Finally, in the feudal period (1190–1867) it was the form of punishment preferred in cases where the subject required an honourable, but necessary, death sentence, such as the 47 Ronin.
There was a great deal of ritual associated with seppuku, particularly when it was done as a protest, or as an honourable punishment. In such cases it might be performed in a spiritually clean temple or similar location, but other locations (for example, on the field of battle, for members of the losing side) were also common.
The first time a Westerner saw formal seppuku was the "Sakai Incident" of 1868. On the 15th of February, twenty French sailors entered a Japanese town called 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 11 sailors were shot dead. Upon the protest of the French representative, compensation of 15,000 yen was paid and those responsible were sentenced to death. The French captain was present to observe the execution. As each samurai committed ritual disembowelment, the gruesome nature of the act shocked the captain, and he requested a pardon due to which nine of the samurai were spared.
Seppuku was officially abolished during the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but did not completely die out. Dozens of people are known to have committed seppuku since then, including a large group of military men who committed suicide in 1895 as a protest against the return of a conquered territory to China; by General Nogi and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912; and by numerous soldiers and civilians who chose to die rather than surrender at the end of World War II.
Cases of truly voluntary seppuku are very rare. Usually it was just a de facto death sentence decided by others. Cases of people having to be tied up, physically dragged to the place of execution and forced to kneel in order to have their head cut off far outnumber people composing cherry blossom-laden death poems in a tranquil grove before disemboweling themselves with nary a grunt. Nearly all Western eyewitness accounts fall in the first category.
Seppuku is only an "honorable" death sentence in the same way as a guillotine is preferable to hanging; it's still considered a terrible disgrace. Any lord sentenced to seppuku would see his estate confiscated, samurai turned into ronin and family reduced to penury .
In 1970, famed author Yukio Mishima and one of his followers committed public seppuku at the Japan Self-Defense Forces headquarters after an unsuccessful attempt to incite the armed forces to stage a coup d'etat. Mishima committed suicide in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita . His second, a 25-year-old named Morita, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed; his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga. Morita then attempted to commit seppuku himself. Although his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and he too was beheaded by Koga.
In 1999, Masaharu Nonaka, a 58 year old employee of Bridgestone in Japan, slashed his belly with a sashimi knife to protest his forced retirement. He died later in the hospital. This suicide was dubbed risutora (corporate restructuring) seppuku by the mass media, and was said to represent the difficulties in Japan following the collapse of the bubble economy.
- Jack Seward, Hara-Kiri: Japanese Ritual Suicide (Charles E. Tuttle, 1968)
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