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.
Firstly, what is seppuku? The world literally translates as “stomach cutting.” In its most basic form, seppuku is an honorable suicide, committed ritualistically. Stab yourself in the gut, make some slicing motions, die from blood loss or trauma. 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 it rivals even Japanese tea ceremonies.
Now you know what it entrails, do you dare to learn more about this bloody act? Hope 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.
Your kaishakunin should be someone you really trust, because there’s nothing fun about a botched decapitation.
Proper Seppuku Was So Complex It Required Master Swordsmen
Codified seppuku rituals became so complex 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 is inadequate. The climax of seppuku demanded 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 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 death 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 in death. After the first three wounds, withdraw the knife, stab yourself low in the stomach, and draw up through the previous cuts to your sternum. There goes the neighborhood.
As a final act of badassary, 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. Unfortunately, his friend who was supposed to behead him screwed up four times (!!!) and had to be replaced by someone else, at which point the back of Mishima’s neck must’ve looked like a gaping fish mouth.
As Mishima’s head finally flew off, the failed decapitator committed seppuku on the floor beside him.
Seppuku Is Honorable, and Preferable to Execution
Seppuku was often committed as a result of dishonor, or disloyalty to the emperor or daimyo (feudal lord). In some cases, daimyo acted as judge, jury, and executioner, demanding seppuku. Such forced seppuku required little evidence or testimony. This form of obligatory seppuku continued until 1868, when it was finally outlawed.
In other cases, seppuku was permitted as an alternative to execution at the hands of the military or your enemy. Rather than be put to death, you could take the honorable path of choosing to end your own life. In such instances, you might retain some form of personal honor in death. This voluntary method of seppuku has never been outlawed.
Women Committed Seppuku Too
If you were the wife of a samurai or a woman otherwise involved in war, feudal Japan had it’s very own method ritualistic suicide for you. Raped? Husband dead? Dishonored? Lost your home? You could, or in some cases, had to, end your life. Rape’s not bad enough, gotta throw mandatory suicide on top of it. The female method of ritualistic suicide was called jigai.
Committing jigai begins with binding the body together in a specific pose with rope, to prevent an ugly death (Japanese women were required to be proper and beautiful at all times). Once properly bound, take a very sharp knife and slit the artery on the neck in one stroke. Jigai brought about a very swift death, but was also very messy, creating a deluge of blood.
It Dates to the 12th Century
The first documented case of seppuku dates to 1180 CE. At that time, the Minamoto and Taira clans were at war, and the Taira decimated their foe. The leader of the defeated clan, Minamoto no Yorimasa, saw his life crumbling around him. A warrior and a poet, he would rather commit suicide than live a life of failure. Various versions of the story of his demise exist – according to one, he leaned against a massive pillar in his house and cut open his stomach.
In lieu of a suicide note, he left a simple and morose poem:
Like a fossil tree
From which we gather no flowers
Sad has been my life
Fated no fruit to produce
For a Time, Only Samurai and Daimyo Were Allowed to Do it
Originally, seppuku was a military act, generally performed in battle or in the face of defeat. However, in the 1500s, it became a specialized right only permitted to samurai and daimyo (feudal lords). Garden variety soldiers, who were not samurai, had not earned the honor of committing seppuku. It was in this time that the ritual of seppuku became codified.
Seppuku as an honorable alternative to execution by the samurai and daimyo class was in theory a right granted by the emperor on a case-by-case basis. Those permitted to commit seppuku were given an ornate ceremonial knife, and would use it to slice the belly. The decapitator returned the knife to the emperor as evidence that the deed was done.
Before Dying, You Had to Write a Poem
In many cases, those who committed harakiri wrote poems as part of the ritual. So there are technical and literary aspects to seppuku. What is this, the SATs of death?
As it turns out, in addition be being badass warriors, samurai were a learned class, with education in religion and the written word, both of which tied heavily into poetry in feudal Japan. Believe it or not, some samurai were actually pretty good poets.
To be clear, writing a poem wasn’t a formal requirement of every death-by-seppuku. However, as part of the long tradition of death poems in East Asian cultures, samurai with impending seppuku plans often wrote poetry, and Japan has more than its fair share of poetic forms.
Some samurai wrote haiku, others waka. Among other things, death poems provided proof you understood the true nature of your death. These poems were typically heavily influenced by Buddhist views of death.
For example, here’s one such poem:
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.
The Blade Most Commonly Used in Seppuku Was Not a Katana
Somehow, probably on account of manga and anime, everyone knows what a katana is, or at least it’s a Japanese sword of some kind. Did you know a katana is actually any Japanese sword with a blade length of two feet or longer? Not sure how long your arms are, but a minimum two-foot blade length plus handle…kinda tricky cutting your gut open with that without gripping the blade. Your assistant, however, would for sure use a katana.
Instead, you would use a short, sharp, deadly knife called a Tantō or Kozuka. This knife – see, it’s a knife, not a sword – is a lot easier to wield than a katana, and allows you to make cuts quickly and cleanly.
It Was So Gruesome Some Samurai Were Pardoned by the Executioner
An incident from the 19th century goes great lengths to showing how gruesome seppuku is, especially to the uninitiated. In 1868, 11 French sailors arrived in Sakai, Japan, unannounced. Their arrival caused consternation, particularly because Japan had just ended a centuries-long period of national isolation. A group of men tasked with guarding the village, assuming the French were hostile, killed them.
Naturally, the captain of the ship the sailors rode in on, pissed, demanded compensation. The samurai who did the killing were sentenced to death. One by one, before the French captain, eleven of these samurai committed seppuku. After the eleventh death, the Frenchman stood up and walked away. Some assumed he couldn’t bear to watch such a grotesque ritual, though the captain wrote in a letter that it was getting dark and he wanted to be on his way.
So the Japanese behaved in a very Japanese way, and the French were very French; surely there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about a man disinterestedly walking away from a parade of disembowelment and decapitation because it’s getting dark and he has things to do.
Seppuku Usually Involved Spectators, Drinking, and Puns
If you thought seppuku was just about gut slitting and beheading, you’re wrong. In addition to writing your death poem, you get a final drink of sake. However, you can only take four sips. Why? Because it’s hilarious. See, in Japanese, four is shi, which also means “death.” And you’re about to die. Get it?
Seppuku was not a private affair. Rather, it was committed in a garden or in holy place, and attended by several spectators. If you’re planning seppuku, make sure to wash before, and put on your best clothes.
There Was a Hardcore Version of it Called Jumonji Giri
Seppuku not nasty enough for you? There’s an alternate version called jumonji giri bound to make you squirm. The difference? Jumonji Giri has no beheading. You open the belly, then sit, stoic, knife cradled, bleeding to death. Which could take hours.
Admiral Takijiro Onishi, man in charge of kamikazi runs in World War II, killed himself in this way upon Japan’s surrender. It took him 15 hours to die. General Nogi also committed jumonji giri, in 1912, and was so hardcore he fully buttoned his dress military uniform over his wounds before waiting for the end.