Seppuku and Harakiri
Undoubtedly, the term Harakiri is very familiar to us. We encounter it in our history classes. We even witness it in some Japanese movies that feature Samurai and their history. We also sometimes hear it from our playmates, friends, and other people.
Still, we may have once seen it on the internet. We may have, likewise, happened to read about it in books, magazines, and the like. From any or all of these, we learn that it is an essential Japanese ritual. It involves piercing the abdomen as a form of suicide, in particular.
Meanwhile, Japanese history mentions another ritual suicide. The historical records of the Samurai particularly call it the Seppuku. It is not just clear as to whether it includes inflicting an injury on one’s body. What is clear, however, is that it uses a special sword. A swordsman then performs a ritual following it.
The question is whether these two are the same. Also, how do they perform the ritual? What are its forms, and what weapons do they use? And lastly, why do they do it?
What are Seppuku and Harakiri?
Seppuku consists of two Japanese characters or Kanji. The first one translates as “cut” while the second means “belly”. Hence, they denote a form of suicide that involves cutting the abdomen. It originates from the ancient Samurai class.
Meanwhile, Harakiri uses the same Kanji. Surprisingly, it refers to the same thing. It is just another word for Seppuku. What makes the difference is that the previous one is the more formal term. This latter is the more common translation. It literally means “belly cutting”.
Hence, to be formal, we are going to use Seppuku from this point onwards.
What is the Procedure?
The committer performs the ritual in a Seppuku temple. Surrounding him is a large crowd of spectators. Beside him are his attendants.
The ceremony begins with placing a large white cushion. Witnesses arrange themselves discreetly on one side. The practitioner wears a white Kimono. He kneels on a pillow in a formal style.
Behind him to the left is the Kaishakunin or second assistant, kneeling. This attendant can be a friend or servant the government appoints. He possesses superior control of his swords as a qualification.
He places a wooden table before the committing practitioner. It contains Sake or rice wine and a sheaf of Washi or handmade paper. It also includes some writing utensils and Kozuka, a disemboweling blade. However, the practitioner may use his own sword instead.
Then, another attendant pours the Sake into a cup. The committer makes two drinks, each with two sips, making a total of four. Shi is the Kanji for this number, meaning “death”. It is this exact because one sip denotes greed, and three or more imply hesitation.
The Japanese hold a vital belief about a person facing his imminent death. He has exclusive insight into the nature of death and the value of life. As such, he writes a Jisei or death poem before the ceremony. It must be graceful and natural, exuding a theme of transient emotions.
He, as much as possible, avoids mentioning death. Doing so signifies immaturity and lack of character. Also, it affects how people will remember him when he dies.
For instance, Asano Naganori’s death poem implied his impending death. People thus considered it to be sick. His suicide was the precursor to the famous incident of the 47 Ronin.
The Seppuku Proper
When he feels ready, the Samurai loosens the folds of his Kimono. It exposes his stomach. Then, he lifts the sword with one hand and unsheathes it with the other. Mental preparation follows. He then plunges the blade into the left side of his belly, then to the right. He turns the blade in his wound and brings it upward.
The resulting crosswise cut is what we call Jumonji. Completing it makes an impressive Seppuku.
In this part, the role of Kaishakunin is significant. He prevents the Samurai from experiencing prolonged suffering by finally cutting his head off. This is especially when he is not able to finish Jumonji. The death blow must be hard enough to break the spine.
However, it must be gentle enough to leave the head still attached. This avoids the head from flying off or spinning around the room, spraying blood. Also, severing it entirely is a dishonor to himself and the committing Samurai, especially.
Finishing the ritual, the attendants discard the wooden table and the blade. They can’t keep them for future use because they have been defiled by death.
In a sense, Seppuku is not really about suicide. It is more about inflicting a deadly injury as a punishment for a committed crime. This is also a consequence one reaps from violating the Bushido.
What are the Types?
This is the traditional type of Seppuku. It goes like how the previous section elaborates. However, in addition, the Samurai takes a bath before dressing up. He also takes his favorite meal. At his designated place in the ceremony, he seats in Seiza position. He mainly draws his legs up under his body. One foot sits on the heels of the other.
Concerning the blade, he may substitute it with a fan if he is of tender age. This is also when it is too dangerous for him to handle the sword. Regarding head cutting, beheading is instead the punishment if he is a low-class criminal.
This form consists of the same procedure as that of planned Seppuku. The difference is that it is an initiative of the committing person. Samurai thus consider this to be a kind gesture towards the lord and the aggrieved party. It ensures an excellent reputation for the committer’s family. It allows them to continue using the benefits of his services during his life.
This is a more taxing form of Seppuku. It does not employ a Kaishakunin to put a quick end to the committer’s suffering. He instead strikes a second vertical cut to his stomach after the first horizontal one. It leaves a cross-shaped cut. Then, he sits quietly and bleeds, his hands covering his face. He just waits until he dies. The agony of waiting usually takes more than 15 hours, however.
A more specialized Seppuku, Samurai sometimes call this the “remonstration death”. They choose this if they want to protest against the decision of a clan lord. As such, the practitioner makes a deep, horizontal cut in his abdomen. He then quickly covers the wound with a bandage. Following this is his appearance before his lord, expressing his protest. There, he shows his mortal wound.
This type is much similar to the Kanshi. However, rather than a protest, it expresses the practitioner’s dissatisfaction with people.
This form is the female version of the ritual. It has the same concept as that of planned Seppuku. However, instead of the belly, the practicing woman cuts her throat.
What Swords Do They Use?
Tanto is the primary weapon for Seppuku. It is a traditional Japanese blade the Samurai used during their time. It dates back to the Heian Period, wherein it was the warriors’ primary sword. Martial artists also utilized this in Tantojutsu martial art.
It is a knife with a single- or double-edged blade. It measures 15 to 30 centimeters long, equivalent to 1 Shaku. Its design is mainly for stabbing, but the edge makes it suitable for slashing as well.
Swordsmiths generally forge this in the Hira-Zukuri style. This means that their sides have no ridgeline. Hence, they are almost flat, unlike that in the Shinogi-Zukuri manner. Moreover, the sword sometimes has a thick cross section for armor piercing. Yoroi Toshi is what to call this.
Wakizashi is the second option for a Seppuku committer. Its blade is about 30 to 60 centimeters long. This is close to the length of the Katana. Hence, people sometimes call it O-Wakizashi. Being close to the length of the Tanto otherwise gives it the name Ko-Wakizashi.
Samurai use it as a companion sword to the Katana. Together, they form a pair which they call the Daisho. This term translates as “big-little”, meaning long and short swords.
What are the Reasons for Doing So?
Suicide is a common trend. People nowadays see it as an immediate solution that ends their suffering. They commit this out of mere frustration towards life. This is not, however, the case with the Seppuku. Samurai perform this for several reasons.
One is to protest against their lords for their behavior. Another reason is to atone for one’s dishonorable actions. This pertains, for instance, to a violation of the Bushido code. For this, voluntary Seppuku is the best option
Moreover, in some cases, Samurai do it to avoid capture and disgrace. These often lead to torture and execution, as a reason. Some others perform it as a self-punishment for failing their lords. Still, it is a means to express anger for a particular situation.
Furthermore, the Japanese believe that the human spirit resides in the stomach. As such, slitting it open is the most straightforward, bravest, and safest way to die. The act, however, reserves itself for the Samurai alone.
By committing this, a Samurai can maintain his honor for himself and his family. In a sense, he may die in the most memorable and most reverent way. He, as a result, often obtains admiration and respect from people after the act. There are those who otherwise choose to surrender rather than commit suicide. The society denounces them, in turn.
Whatever the reason for this, the committer carries this out only with authorized permission. The lord of the clan is the person who usually grants this.
What is the History Behind this Ritual?
Seppuku emerged in the 12th century. It first developed as a means for the Samurai to achieve an honorable death. They performed this to avoid capture after obtaining defeat from the battlefield. They also committed this as a way of protest concerning some issues. Also, they used this as an expression of grief over the death of a revered leader.
Among the earliest acts during this time were those of Minamoto Tametomo and Minamoto Yorimasa. Tametomo was a Samurai who fought in the 1156 Hogen Rebellion.
After the strike, the Taira cut the sinews of his left arm. It limited the use of his bow. He fled to the Izu Islands afterward. This was where he sliced his abdomen. Probably, he was the first one to perform this ritual based on chronicle records.
Meanwhile, Yorimasa was also a Samurai warrior. He participated in the Hogen Rebellion, like Tametomo. However, his suicide was during the Genpei War out of defeat from the Battle of Uji.
From the 1400s onwards, the ritual evolved into a common form of capital punishment. Benefitting from this were mostly Samurai who had committed crimes. Ever since, people considered it an act of extreme bravery and self-sacrifice. With this, it rightfully embodied Bushido.
Between 1603 and 1868 was the Edo Period. By this time, Seppuku had become a fully developed tradition. Strict adherence to the ceremony was the emphasis. This ritual has been the condition until the Meiji Restoration Period.
The government abolished the Samurai class in the late 19th century. Seppuku also lost its significance and popularity as a result. However, the practice did not completely vanish.
General Nogi Maresuke, for instance, performed it in 1912. It was during World War 2. He particularly disemboweled himself out of loyalty to the deceased Meiji Emperor. Likewise, a renowned novelist and Nobel Prize nominee committed it in 1970. It was Yukio Mishima. He did it due to his coup’s failure against the Japanese government.
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