Death with Honor? Behind the Myths of SeppukuHistory Culture
A Show of Devotion
The oldest recorded occurrence of seppuku is sometimes said to have taken place in 988, when a bandit called Hakamadare slashed open his belly after being captured. However, the account is legendary and the incident did not involve the samurai, with whom seppuku later became firmly associated. It is not certain either whether Hakamadare actually cut into his stomach.
While it is unclear when exactly seppuku became established, University of Tokyo Professor Yamamoto Hirofumi hypothesizes that an occurrence in the aftermath of the Genpei War (1180–85) became influential on samurai society. He wrote that when Minamoto no Yoshitsune was pressed in northern Japan by the forces of his brother Yoritomo and had nowhere to retreat to, he first asked how samurai should die, and then killed himself by seppuku. This was in 1189, and Yamamoto suggests that Yoshitsune’s death led to the practice taking root in the Kamakura period (1185–1333).
For samurai, it was glorious to die in combat. If that was not possible, to leave a reputation of courage, they chose a method of death in which they mustered all their willpower to stand up to pain. Those who were defeated in battle or suspected of treason were said to have wished to wipe away their dishonor in a wholehearted show of their inner devotion. For this reason, seppuku was seen as a fitting way for a samurai to die.
The aspect of choice is also important. In reality, the man acting may have been driven down and ordered to kill himself by a powerful adversary, but in form at least, he was making a decision that allowed for the preservation of honor. This way of thinking became prevalent among medieval samurai.
In the Warring States period (1467–1568), a new idea emerged that a military leader who lost in battle could save his retainers’ lives through his own death. A famous example came in the suicide of Shimizu Muneharu, when his Takamatsu Castle in the province of Bitchū (now Okayama Prefecture) was surrounded by the forces of Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi).
In June 1582, Hideyoshi flooded the castle by diverting a river. After being promised that nobody else in the castle would die, Muneharu went into the waters outside on a small boat and committed seppuku. This was lauded as a model for taking responsibility through the act.
A Change in Character
Arnoldus Montanus, a Dutch Christian, reported his observation of the act of seppuku in a 1669 text, describing it as a dreadful method, but commenting on the courage of those killing themselves, and the favorable reaction it won from others. As suicide was taboo in Christianity, this reaction must have been hard to understand for Europeans of the day.
In 1868, a group of samurai from Tosa province (now Kōchi Prefecture) were ordered to perform seppuku after being found guilty of killing 11 French sailors. The senior French officer who observed this punishment presumably found it a ridiculous custom and called for it to be halted when 11 samurai had completed the act.
Westerners were critical of the practice they called “hara-kiri.” However, Nitobe Inazō, a Japanese educator living in the United States, made the case for seppuku in his best-selling work Bushidō: The Soul of Japan, written originally in English, insisting that it was “a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity.”
In fact, seppuku changed in character during the long peace of most of the Edo period (1603–1868), until it had nothing to do with virtue or honor. In the early Edo period, it was applied as a punishment to samurai who entered a quarrel—for instance, if samurai from different clans wrangled and one drew his sword and injured the other, both could be ordered to perform seppuku.
Thus, both were considered as deserving death, regardless of their character. Professor Yamamoto says that this was to maintain the fiction that samurai were still warriors. But the rules were ambiguous.
In one case, a subordinate cursed at his superior, who reported it to a shogunate officer. After some consideration, the officer ordered the subordinate to perform seppuku. This happened in 1623 in a unit of Edo Castle guards. There were areas within the castle where, depending on their rank, samurai had to dismount and walk. Those who passed through inadvertently on horseback were also punished with seppuku. In other words, seppuku became increasingly a way of enforcing the status system.
The Japanese have seen it as unethical to hold the dead to account, which means suicide can be a way to clear one’s name. However, can punishing transgressors who curse or fail to dismount really be an honorable practice, as Nitobe maintained?
The idea of seppuku as a proof of one’s courage and endurance in the face of pain is also doubtful. For one thing, just cutting into the stomach is not enough to lead straightforwardly to death.
In 1160, during the Heiji Disturbance, Fujiwara no Michinori was fleeing after defeat when he dug a hole and cut his stomach open in it. However, when he was found, his eyes were still moving and he was still breathing, so he was taken prisoner and then executed by decapitation.
According to the writer Tōgō Ryū, “This method of suicide was extremely painful, but many people survived it.” This led to the use of kaishaku, or the beheading of the person performing seppuku by an assistant standing behind, to bring an end to the pain and suffering.
The practice of kaishaku could be called warriors’ mercy. However, in the Edo period, sensubara or “fan seppuku” became common. In this case, the samurai held a fan to represent a sword, and at a signal the assistant stepped in to cut off his head. Thus, there was only the appearance of seppuku, and none of its show of endurance and sincerity, or final relief from agony. Honor alone was preserved. To save his face, a samurai went through a show of killing himself voluntarily. This was the reality.
Nonetheless, one should not take a purely one-sided contemporary perspective in discussing past values. One can only say that this was once seen as a death worthy of a samurai. And there were cases in which men saved the lives of their families by sacrificing their own. Yamamoto also wrote that “it is no exaggeration to say that samurai were born to see that their families continued.”
Perhaps the samurai really did die in the wish that by taking responsibility through their suicides, there would be no repercussions for future generations of their families.
(Originally published in Japanese on April 11, 2023. Banner image: A scene of seppuku in the 1893 work Tokugawa bakufu keiji zufu (An Illustrated Guide to the Punishments of the Tokugawa Shogunate). White cloth covers tatami, and a sword is placed on a wooden stand in front. To the right, an assistant prepares to perform kaishaku. Courtesy Meiji University Museum.)