Seppuku, also called harakiri, is ritualistic suicide by disembowelment, practiced mostly by samurai in feudal Japan. And that's about all most people know about it. Maybe it involved katanas? Maybe honor (or dishonor) inspired the act? Well, time to set the record straight, and reveal disturbing and fascinating insights into what seppuku was really about.
First, what is seppuku? The word literally translates as "belly cutting." In its most basic form, seppuku is an honorable suicide, committed ritualistically. The ritual has been around for hundreds of years, and is still occasionally used in modern Japan. Death by this method relieves the deceased of shame, disloyalty, or dishonor, and the ritual surrounding it is so complex that it rivals even Japanese tea ceremonies.
Now that you know what it entails, do you dare to learn more about this bloody act? Hopefully you have a strong stomach, because some of these facts are downright terrifying.
You Needed A Friend To Help You Do It
Seppuku isn't something you do on your own. Maybe you've seen movies or shows or comics in which a samurai, sitting in silence and solitude, stabs himself with a katana. That's wildly inaccurate.
In reality, stabbing yourself in the gut is just the first part of seppuku. You cut your abdomen to release your spirit from your body; after that, you're alive and in excruciating pain. Your assistant, a kaishakunin, decapitates you.
Proper Seppuku Was So Complex, It Required Master Swordsmen
Codified seppuku rituals became so complex that the act could take days to plan and hours to enact. The process began with choosing an assistant - a protege, friend, or master swordsman - to carry out the decapitation. Would-be decapitators could only refuse on the grounds that their sword technique was inadequate. The climax of seppuku demands more finesse than merely hacking a head off. After the gut is slashed, the assistant must remove the head in one clean stroke... almost.
Imagine you're kneeling on the ground, waiting to be beheaded - if someone sliced your head clean off, it would shoot away from your body and tumble across the floor. So, the idea is, the assistant leaves a small flap of skin attached at the front of the neck to prevent runaway heads.
A botched beheading or bloody mess was, understandably, considered sloppy, crude work; the gut pain was so excruciating that the beheading was a welcome reprieve. Best not screw it up. Also, someone's gotta clean that mess up.
Stabbing Yourself Involved At Least Three Distinct Motions
The gut-slitting of seppuku isn't the final blow - it's symbolic, so it can be done however, right? Well, not quite. See, the act requires a specific technique. First, insert the blade into the side of your belly, close to your ribs. The side you choose depends on your dominant sword hand. Draw sharply across the gut to disembowel yourself, then rotate the knife and yank it up, to really spill everything out.
Say you have the pain tolerance of a god and want to be especially honorable. After the first three wounds, withdraw the blade, stab yourself low in the stomach, and draw up through the previous cuts to your sternum.
You can slit your own throat. If at any time your assistant sees you hesitate or show indication of pain, it's his duty to cut your head off.
Famous Novelist, Poet, Director, And Actor Yukio Mishima Committed Seppuku In 1970
Seppuku is not exclusively a thing of the past. In 1970, renowned novelist Yukio Mishima and his followers committed harakiri while advocating for a political revolution.
Along with four fellow members of the Shield Society, Mishima visited a Japanese military base on some invented pretense. He and his followers invaded the general's office, barricaded themselves in, and appeared on a balcony above a group of soldiers. They unfurled a banner with a list of demands, and Mishima gave a fiery speech ordering the nullification of the post-war constitution and the reinstatement of the powers of the emperor. He hoped his rhetoric would inspire a coup.
As it turns out, most Japanese citizens liked the post-war constitution. The soldiers laughed at and harassed Mishima. Ashamed, he marched back into the general's office and committed seppuku.