Disembowelment in Japanese History
The ways we consider suicide are affected by cultural and religious aspects. For instance, suicide is considered to be a mortal sin among people raised as Roman Catholics. However, in Japanese culture, suicide is not regarded as some sinful despicable act but as an act of much more complex and meaningful origin. T. Harada writes:
“It was not mere suicide. It was an institution, legal and ceremonial (…) by which warriors could expiate their friends or prove their sincerity. From historical evidence as well as by contemporary Japanese cultural identification with seppuku we can ascertain that it is at least questionable whether thinking of seppuku as a variety of suicide is justified.” (Fairbairn, 144).
In Japanese, ‘seppuku’ is the equivalent of the English set phrase self-disembowelment. In the Japanese cultural and historical traditions, seppuku is a form of suicide that is respectfully deemed a form of honorable ceremony. Engaging in seppuku marks the way dishonor can be removed from a man’s and family’s ‘social record’ because it is a method of graceful suicide atoning for his dishonor. For example, samurai who had brought shame upon their lord would commit seppuku to remove the resulting dishonor brought upon their master. In addition, they used this method in order to avoid capture at the hands of the enemy. Thus, committing seppuku demonstrated the admirable bravery of samurai or warriors; they could end their final day as warriors of honorable report. Opposing the concept of a desperate act in Western cultures, the ritual of seppuku was an act of self and soul preservation as viewed through the ‘prism’ of Japanese history and culture: it emerged as a strong symbol of national and racial orientation.
Seppuku first began approximately 1000 years ago, becoming an honorable form of death for the samurai about 400 years ago. Seppuku was actually an original form based on bushido, meaning ‘way of the warrior.’ In essence, the samurai started committing seppuku out of a sense of honor and integrity. Honor was the most important word for a samurai’s identity in Japanese culture and history. The nature of the act itself was based on the belief by ancient Japanese that one’s spirit or soul resided in the abdomen. Hence, it seemed the most proper place to expiate the shame as well as the dishonor. This ceremony allowed the Japanese to recognize seppuku as a form of preservation rather than that of suicide. Seppuku was a detailed ritual; it did not just mean slicing open the abdomen and removing one’s vital organs. Rather, it entailed disemboweling oneself with two incisions to the abdomen:
“At first he stabbed a short sword into the left abdomen, moved to the right, and then pulled it out. Again he stabbed it into the epigastrium, and cut down vertically. Finally he gouged the throat by it. This act was a show of bravery because instant death was not expected” (Fairbairn, 145).
Late in the Ashikaga period, seppuku was added to the feudal penal code to honor the condemned. The Japanese government provided the following five grades of penalties, instituted for the samurais:
Hissoku – Contrite seclusion. This penalty was subdivided into three parts, restraint, circumspect prudence, and humility.
Heimon – Domiciliary confinement. This was subdivided into two: 50 days and 100 days.
Chikkyo – Solitary confinement. This was subdivided into three: confinement in one room, temporary retirement, and permanent retirement (till death).
Kai-eki – Attainder. Permananet removal of the name of the offender from the roll of the samurai.
Seppuku (Seward, 29)
These punishments including seppuku were only permitted to be applied to the samurai class. This method may have resulted in the victim living on for hours before death. For a bushi who is accused of a crime, whether innocent or guilty, seppuku is often the only honorable death, only allowed for the samurai class. Since the nature of seppuku was a painful and punishing act, Ono Seigoro proposed to abolish the custom of seppuku. However, the majority of people refused his proposal. Their disagreement was based on the following:
1. Seppuku is the shrine of the national sprit and is, in itself, a moral act.
2. It is a great ornament to the Empire
3. It is a supporting pillar of the national policy.
4. It will nourish the pure pursuit of honor; it will simultaneously be the source of a flow of beautiful emotion as found in the samurai class, which is itself a supporting pillar of the nation.
5. It is a spur to religious sentiment and to moral aspirations. (Seward, 95)
Indeed do many Japanese people believe that seppuku is one’s honorable end under the Samurai Code. As a result, Japanese culture stresses the notion that to die honorably is more important than to live at all costs. As an illustration, the film Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi tries to depict what it is to be honorable through committing seppuku. It shows that many samurais suffered from poverty and only had their honor to sustain themselves. One day, one of the samurais asked his lord to perform seppuku in order to end his suffering from poverty since he could not grow his own food. At that time, samurais were expected to die without a word making seppuku a traditional act of honorable suicide. Therefore, the notion of seppuku is clearly distinct from just any suicide. To Western culture, the samurai willingly commits suicide, but to the samurai, death and disembowelment are a much preferable remedy to shame or disgrace than living on past moral defeat.
Seppuku is often compared to shinju because it involves a suicidal act. However, it is a misinterpretation to think that shinju is somewhat related to seppuku. Seward states: “whereas seppuku could be described as the crowning culmination of Bushido and perhaps of the feudal society from which it grew, shinju arose as a form of desperate resistance and opposition to a civilization that negated humanity.” (Seward, 76) Thus, shinju became a worthwhile death, but an excessive form of seppuku. The advocators of seppuku brought arguments to show the superiority of seppuku over shinju:
1. Seppuku required an admirable mental attitude of composure, while the approach to shinju was characterized by faltering and hesitation.
2. The seppuku knife was the sacred emblem of the samurai spirit, while the weapon used to bring about shinju was often only the red cord women used to tie around their waists.
3. Shinju was often prompted by the exposure of the ignoble crime of adultery.
4. Shinju was often an escape, a fleeing from the pain of living without one’s lover. (Seward, 77).
These arguments demonstrate that the purpose of seppuku is the only way to fulfill the samurai’s duty to code and class unlike shinju. Specifically, seppuku no longer means suicide, but it is considered as an honorable punishment. The highest respectable lifelong goal for the samurai was to dedicate his soul and body to his emperor. However, if the samurai denied performing seppuku when his lord ordered him to, he would lose the [lhd1] protection, trust, and relationship with his lord and would die in dishonor[lhd2] by shinju. The order to perform seppuku created, “a fierce loyalty between solider and Emperor, a loyalty that was reciprocated.” (Bargen, 47). Consequently, even though shinju and seppuku are both forms of suicide, seppuku is the only way to die honorably in Japanese culture.
In Japanese history, many heroic figures performed seppuku in order to restore their reputation. For example, such heroic figures are Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Tokugawa magistrate, and Maresuke Nogi.
The ritual of seppuku was an act of soul protection and honor restoration in Japanese culture thereby being far from a notion of a desperate act. Under such circumstances, seppuku was considered as an honorable and respectable ceremony that only samurai class performed. The samurai did choose to engage in seppuku because it was the honorable death that enhanced his reputation as well as his honor. Even the Yakuza still commit seppuku because honor and integrity are essential to Japanese society.
1. Seward, Jack. Hara-kiri; Japanese Ritual Suicide. Rutland, Vt. : C. E. Tuttle Co. 1968.
2. Garvin, J.L. The Encyclopedia Britannica. London: The Encyclopedia Britannica Company, ltd; [c1929] New York Encyclopedia Britannica, inc. [c1929]
3. Hurst, G. Cameron. Death, Honor, and Loyality: the BushidÇo Ideal. Philosophy East & West 40.4 (1990): 511-527.
4. Kobayashi, Masaki. Harakiri [videorecording]. The United States: Home Vision Enertainment : Janus Films, .
5. Bargen, Doris G. Suicidal Honor. USA: University of Hawaii Press. 2006.
6. Fairbairn, Gavin J. Contemplating Suicide: The Language and Ethics of Self Harm. New York: Routledge. 1995.
[lhd1]Here, I am trying to finish the idea that you started…You may change it the way you want but you need to oppose denial of seppuku to the advantage of seppuku for the samurai/lord relationship.
[lhd2] Die in dishonor and perform shinju? Again, you need to specify here to oppose seppuku and shinju. I wrote this but you need to see whether it is true to your ideas.