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What is Seppuku?

With origins dating back to the 12th century, seppuku became widely practiced in Japan as a suicide ritual to achieve an honorable death to avoid enemy capture and atone for their wrongdoings. Primarily committed by male or female samurais, seppuku committed by commoners or generally lowly people are deemed insignificant. 

Mainly done by male or female samurais, seppuku is a fatal disembowelment ritual to achieve an honorable death. In the cases of a samurai or a daimyo’s wife, they would first tie their knees together before committing seppuku to maintain a dignified pose even after death. 

An Honorable Death for Samurais

Established as a means to achieve an honorable death through a disembowelment ritual, only samurais were the ones to commit seppuku. Closely related to seppuku, harakiri directly translates to stomach cutting. Although most people see the similarities in its meaning, Japanese people often prefer the term seppuku as it denotes the ritualistic tradition instead of the stomach cutting itself.

Its origins root back to the 12th century. During this period, the higher classes and samurais mostly used seppuku to compensate for their wrongdoings, return their honor, and evade shameful enemy capture. If done correctly, seppuku became the noblest and most painful samurai death. If commoners committed seppuku, it would not have any massive impact.

After the 1600s, seppuku became more recognized as capital punishment for the nobles. The sentenced individual wore a white kimono, and they’ll also have the right to eat their final meal. Before committing seppuku, they would first write a death poem before thrusting their abdomen with either a long sword or a ceremonial knife. The appointed kaishakunin would then deliver the final blow to the neck of the sentenced man, beheading the man. 

Samurais or nobles stab their abdomen when performing seppuku as the belly is the home of the human soul. In a book entitled Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide, author Andrew Rankin states the significance of abdomen-cutting. (Source: Kimono Tea Ceremony)

This is stomach-cutting as an appeal to purity. The logic here is founded on primitive symbolism: a man with nothing to hide shows his innocence by exposing his insides. The association of purity with wounding had religious provenance. Early mutilators included priests and holy men.

Andrew Rankin

(Source: Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide)

Notable Seppuku Cases

As stated by Historian Steve Turnbull, the earliest recorded person that committed seppuku is Minamoto no Yorimasa in 1180 as he failed in the battle of Uji. Other unforgettable deaths by seppuku were Oda Nobunaga, who successfully avoided dishonorable capture, and Torii Mototada, Saigo Takamori, and Yukio Mashima, who committed seppuku after failure or becoming wounded in a battle.

In addition to that, women also commit seppuku. Often the wives of daimyo or samurai that failed in battle, these women would tie their knees together before they ended their lives to retain an elegant or modest posture even after passing away. Female samurais also generally committed seppuku to avoid being captured, and as most female samurai-committed seppuku included no kaishakunin, they would directly slit their necks.

The most recent and notable act of seppuku in 1970 was by Yukio Mashima, who took his death into his own hands after a speech that failed to form a coup in Japan. Although samurais primarily commit seppuku, many modern studies investigate the high suicide rates in correlation with the traditional seppuku mindset to compensate for wrong behavior with personal sacrifice. (Source: Kimono Tea Ceremony)

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