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Suicide Solution: The Japanese Art of Seppuku

Article by: Musashi

"Victory and defeat are matters of the temporary force of circumstances. The way of avoiding shame is different. It is simply in death." - HAGAKURE

Suicide. In today's world, suicide is largely regarded as a big no-no. After all, what purpose does it serve to kill yourself? Even physician-assisted suicide (a la Jack Kevorkian) is frowned upon, regardless of the pain of continued existence. And yet, in the past, suicide had many honorable precedents. Would Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' have been half as interesting had the doomed couple not capped themselves at the end? (If that's a spoiler, then you either did not attend high school or you are unaware that Romeo and Juliet is something other than that movie with Leonardo DeCaprio and the chick from My So Called Life…) Or how about Socrates, who drank a cup of hemlock after being convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens with his crazy ideas? Would thousands of goth chicks be able to venerate Sylvia Plath had she not stuck her head in an oven? And what of the suicide of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the Vietnam War (for you youngstaz, he's the dude on the cover of the first Rage Against the Machine album.)? The most recent example that comes to mind is the death of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, who in November of 1970 committed hara-kiri after taking hostage the head of a local military base and delivering an insane right-wing militaristic screed to the cadets assembled in the courtyard below.

So, despite our 'modern' assertions that suicide is a cowards death, history has shown that there are many reasons for killing oneself, and not all of them are examples of pussing out on the Rat Race. See, for example, the Samurai.

In this 19th century mocked-up photo, a young samurai waits to commit seppuku. (Click for larger version.)

For the Samurai of Japan, suicide was considered an honorable act, and one that many times was carried out in an effort to save face for one's lord. Seppuku (or hara-kiri, literally 'belly cutting') was the ritualized act of suicide committed by Samurai who wished an honorable death. The ideals that form the basis for seppuku were not extant in Japanese society until the introduction of Buddhism, and its effects on the establishment of the Bushido (bushi-do - 'The Way of the Warrior') code. Buddhism brought to Japan the belief of life as a transitional state and the glory of death and transcendence to Nirvana. Combined with the ancestor-worship and animism of Shinto, and the Confucian responsibilities towards your family and lord, Bushido ruled a Samurai's every thought and action. Shinto, in particular, taught that purity (both spiritual and physical) should be held in the highest regard. Thus if a Samurai were to disgrace himself or his lord in any way, the only way that he could save face would be to commit ritual suicide; to pay the ultimate sacrifice. Although it was first recorded in the Heian period (792 - 1192 A.D.), it was not until the Sengoku-jidai ('Sengoku-Jidai' = 'The Age of the Country At War', essentially the Civil War period) era that seppuku was ritualized in the form that we recognize it today. Originally, seppuku was carried out on the battlefield, without any pretense to ritual. Once disgraced, a Samurai would whip his sword out on the spot and cut himself open. No fuss, no muss.

Later, as Bushido became more refined, a more systematic approach was required. Seppuku was usually carried out in a secluded courtyard or garden. The soon-to-be-dead samurai would usually be kitted out in a nice, white kimono (to symbolize purity, and perhaps enhance the drama of the act). Before him would be a wooden tray (which would have been crafted for this specific occasion, and later would be destroyed) upon which is a sheaf of washi paper, ink, a cup of sake, and a short knife called a tanto. To start the ceremony, he would drink the sake, preferably in two gulps. One gulp was considered gauche, and three was considered to be miserly. Two gulps showed the correct combination of contemplation and determination. Next, the samurai would take the paper and ink and compose a fitting poem, typically in the waka style (a waka is a 31 syllable, 5 line poem in a 5-7-5-7-7-7 structure.) After composing the poem, he would then procede to the main event.

Two examples of a tanto, the knife used in committing seppuku. (Click for larger version).

The samurai would open his kimono, sometimes removing the top portion entirely, thus exposing his belly. He would then take the tanto knife, its handle wrapped in clean white rice-paper, and place it against the left side of his lower abdomen. When ready, the samurai would insert the dagger into his belly and quickly slice across, from left to right, thus opening his abdomen. The cutting of the abdomen was considered significant, because in Buddhist tradition, the lower abdomen (called the hara in Buddhism) is the center of a person's consciousness. It was believed that cutting the hara would end a person's life quicker. After the initial cut, truly badass samurai would re-insert the tanto in their midsection and make a second cut, this time upwards, towards the sternum, creating a cross in their lower torso. This second cut was considered an act of the most sheer bravery, not only because it required an insane amount of stamina and strength, but because it allowed your innards to spill out. (Literally, 'spilling your guts', as in letting the truth be known…). This more extreme form of seppuku was called jumonji giri.

Assisting the doomed would be a person known as the kaishakunin ('The Officer of Death'). It was the job of the kaishakunin to lop off the samurai's head after he had opened himself up. Typically this was to alleviate the suffering of the doomed person, as tearing open your own belly with a 10-inch dagger is generally a pretty unpleasant experience. A kaishakunin of skill was most sought after, mainly because a good swordsman would be assured of getting your head off in one go. Secondly, though, because it was considered good form if the kaishakunin could take one swipe, and leave your head dangling by a thin strip of flesh at the front of your throat. This was because it was unattractive to see a severed head bounding across the floor followed by an insane arterial spray as the carotid artery is severed. Doubtless, blood gushed freely in any case, but it was nice for the head to stay attached. To be asked to serve as kaishakunin was a great honor. One had to display a great amount both compassion and strength to commit the deed. The sword used in this manner was usually destroyed, as it had been tainted by the ritual.

The grave of Asano Takuminokami and the 47 Ronin, Sengakuji Temple. (Click for larger version).

The most famous case of seppuku in Japanese history is that of the 47 Ronin. The story of the 47 Ronin concerns the 35-year old rural lord of Ako, Asano Takuminokami. In early 1701, Asano was ordered to receive envoys from the Shogunate in Edo (what is now modern Tokyo). Asano asked for an introduction to Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka, a retainer of the Tokugawa shogun. Kira bretty much blew Asano off, and Asano responded by challenging Kira to a sword duel, and attacked him in Edo castle. This was an act of the utmost disrespect. Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, which he did. It is said that the waka poem composed by Asano before his seppuku sucked, betraying the lack of maturity and grace that led to his brash attack on Kira.The result of this suicide was that all of his retainers became masterless samurai, or ronin, overnight. They believed the death of their lord to be unjustified because Kira had also drawn his weapon, and imperial edicts stated quite plainly that both parties in a duel were to be held accountable; Kira had been left unpunished. All 47 of Asano's retainers vowed revenge. On December 14, 1702 Asano's men, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, cornered Kira in his mansion in Edo Honjo and slew him. They carried Kira's head to their lord's grave at Sengakuji temple. Their raid was considered an act of rebellion, and all 46 (one had stayed behind during the raid, although they are still called the '47 Ronin') were ordered to commit seppuku, which they did. To this day, December 14 is still commemorated in Japan as Uchiiri (The Day of the Raid), and every year visitors converge on Sengakuji temple to visit their graves.

Although the proceeding paragraphs may portray seppuku as an act commited solely by men, this is not the case. Women, and even children, were recorded to have committed seppuku for various reasons. Women often followed their disgraced spouses into death, such as the wife of General Nogi Maresuke, who killed herself alongside her husband in 1912 following the death of the Meiji emperor. As for children, a number of the 47 Ronin would be considered underage, as some of them were as young as 15 at the time of their seppuku. Oftentimes it was considered better to die than be taken prisoner, and at times such as these women and children were found to have committed hara-kiri, as well.

In modern-day Japan, seppuku is largely considered an oddity, committed by loonies and uber-patriots. The death of Yukio Mishima stunned Japan (he was their best known, and best selling author at the time) and was considered a very extreme action. Although some aspects of bushido live on in the character of modern Japan (honor, reverence of one's ancestors), Seppuku is not one of them.


The original New York Times article on Mishima's suicide

The Online Hagakure

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