''Seppuku'' ( ja|切腹, "cutting he
belly"), sometimes referred to as ''harakiri'' (, "abdomen/belly cutting"), a native Japanese kun reading
, is a form of Japanese ritual suicide
. It was originally reserved for samurai
in their code of honor
but was also practiced by other Japanese people during the Shōwa period
(particularly officers near the end of World War II
) to restore honor for themselves or for their families. As a samurai practice, ''seppuku'' was used voluntarily by samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (and likely be tortured), as a form of capital punishment
for samurai who had committed serious offenses, or performed because they had brought shame to themselves. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, consists of plunging a short blade, traditionally a ''tantō
'', into the belly and drawing the blade from left to right, slicing the belly open.
If the cut is deep enough, it can sever the descending aorta
, causing a rapid death by blood loss
The term ''seppuku'' is derived from the two Sino-Japanese
roots ''setsu'' ("to cut", from Middle Chinese
''tset''; compare Mandarin
''qiè'' and Cantonese
''chit'') and ''fuku'' ("belly", from MC ''pjuwk''; compare Mandarin ''fù'' and Cantonese ''fūk'').
It is also known as ''harakiri'' (, "cutting the stomach"); the term ''harakiri'' (often misspelled/mispronounced ''hiri-kiri'' or ''hari-kari'' by American English speakers
) is more familiar to non-Japanese speakers than the term ''seppuku''. ''Harakiri'' is written with the same kanji as s''eppuku'' but in reverse order with an okurigana
. In Japanese, the more formal ''seppuku'', a Chinese ''on'yomi
'' reading, is typically used in writing, while ''harakiri'', a native ''kun'yomi
'' reading, is used in speech. Ross notes,
It is commonly pointed out that hara-kiri is a vulgarism, but this is a misunderstanding. Hara-kiri is a Japanese reading or ''Kun-yomi'' of the characters; as it became customary to prefer Chinese readings in official announcements, only the term seppuku was ever used in writing. So hara-kiri is a spoken term, but only to commoners and seppuku a written term, but spoken amongst higher classes for the same act.
The practice of performing ''seppuku'' at the death of one's master, known as ''oibara'' (追腹 or 追い腹, the kun'yomi or Japanese reading) or ''tsuifuku'' (追腹, the on'yomi or Chinese reading), follows a similar ritual.
The word means "suicide" in Japanese. The modern word for suicide is . In some popular western texts, such as martial arts magazines, the term is associated with suicide of samurai wives.
The term was introduced into English by Lafcadio Hearn
in his ''Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation'',
an understanding which has since been translated into Japanese.
Joshua S. Mostow notes that Hearn misunderstood the term ''jigai'' to be the female equivalent of seppuku.
The first recorded act of ''seppuku'' was performed by Minamoto no Yorimasa
during the Battle of Uji
in 1180. ''Seppuku'' was used by warriors to avoid falling into enemy hands and to attenuate shame and avoid possible torture. Samurai could also be ordered by their ''daimyō
lords) to carry out ''seppuku''. Later, disgraced warriors were sometimes allowed to carry out ''seppuku'' rather than be executed in the normal manner. The most common form of ''seppuku'' for men was composed of the cutting of the abdomen, and when the samurai was finished, he stretched out his neck for an assistant to sever his spinal cord. It was the assistant's job to decapitate
the samurai in one swing, otherwise it would bring great shame to the assistant and his family. Those who did not belong to the samurai caste were never ordered or expected to carry out ''seppuku''. Samurai generally could carry out the act only with permission.
Sometimes a ''daimyō
'' was called upon to perform ''seppuku'' as the basis of a peace agreement. This weakened the defeated clan so that resistance effectively ceased. Toyotomi Hideyoshi
used an enemy's suicide in this way on several occasions, the most dramatic of which effectively ended a dynasty of ''daimyōs''. When the Hōjō
were defeated at Odawara
in 1590, Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the retired ''daimyō'' Hōjō Ujimasa
and the exile of his son Ujinao
; with this act of suicide, the most powerful ''daimyō'' family in eastern Japan was put to an end.
The practice was not standardised until the 17th century. In the 12th and 13th centuries, such as with the ''seppuku'' of Minamoto no Yorimasa, the practice of a ''kaishakunin
'' (idiomatically, his "second") had not yet emerged, thus the rite was considered far more painful. The defining characteristic was plunging either the ''tachi
'' (longsword), ''wakizashi
'' (shortsword) or ''tantō'' (knife) into the gut and slicing the abdomen horizontally. In the absence of a ''kaishakunin'', the samurai would then remove the blade and stab himself in the throat, or fall (from a standing position) with the blade positioned against his heart.
During the Edo period
(1600–1867), carrying out ''seppuku'' came to involve a detailed ritual. This was usually performed in front of spectators if it was a planned ''seppuku'', as opposed to one performed on a battlefield. A samurai was bathed, dressed in white robes, and served his favorite foods for a last meal
. When he had finished, the knife and cloth were placed on another ''sanbo'' and given to the warrior. Dressed ceremonially, with his sword placed in front of him and sometimes seated on special clothes, the warrior would prepare for death by writing a death poem
. He would probably consume an important ceremonial drink of sake
. He would also give his attendant a cup meant for sake. He would be dressed in the ''shini-shōzoku'', a white kimono
worn for death.
With his selected ''kaishakunin'' standing by, he would open his kimono, take up his ''tantō
''which the samurai held by the blade with a cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his gripand plunge it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut. The ''kaishakunin'' would then perform ''kaishaku,'' a cut in which the warrior was partially decapitated. The maneuver should be done in the manners of ''dakikubi'' (lit. "embraced head"), in which way a slight band of flesh is left attaching the head to the body, so that it can be hung in front as if embraced. Because of the precision necessary for such a maneuver, the second was a skilled swordsman. The principal and the ''kaishakunin'' agreed in advance when the latter was to make his cut. Usually ''dakikubi'' would occur as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen. Over time, the process became so highly ritualised that as soon as the samurai reached for his blade the ''kaishakunin'' would strike. Eventually even the blade became unnecessary and the samurai could reach for something symbolic like a fan, and this would trigger the killing stroke from his second. The fan was likely used when the samurai was too old to use the blade or in situations where it was too dangerous to give him a weapon.
This elaborate ritual evolved after ''seppuku'' had ceased being mainly a battlefield or wartime practice and became a para-judicial institution
. The second was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honourably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second.
In the ''Hagakure
,'' Yamamoto Tsunetomo
A specialized form of ''seppuku'' in feudal times was known as ''kanshi'' (諫死, "remonstration death/death of understanding"), in which a retainer would commit suicide in protest of a lord's decision. The retainer would make one deep, horizontal cut into his abdomen, then quickly bandage the wound. After this, the person would then appear before his lord, give a speech in which he announced the protest of the lord's action, then reveal his mortal wound. This is not to be confused with ''funshi'' (憤死, indignation death), which is any suicide made to state dissatisfaction or protest. A fictional variation of ''kanshi'' was the act of ''kagebara'' (陰腹, "shadow belly") in Japanese theater
, in which the protagonist, at the end of the play, would announce to the audience that he had committed an act similar to ''kanshi'', a predetermined slash to the belly followed by a tight field dressing, and then perish, bringing about a dramatic end.
Some samurai chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of ''seppuku'' known as ''jūmonji giri'' (十文字切り, "cross-shaped cut"), in which there is no ''kaishakunin'' to put a quick end to the samurai's suffering. It involves a second and more painful vertical cut on the belly. A samurai performing ''jūmonji giri'' was expected to bear his suffering quietly until he bled to death, passing away with his hands over his face.
Female ritual suicide
Female ritual suicide (incorrectly referred to in some English sources as jigai), was practiced by the wives of samurai who have performed ''seppuku'' or brought dishonor.
Some women belonging to samurai families committed suicide by cutting the arteries of the neck with one stroke, using a knife such as a ''tantō'' or ''kaiken
''. The main purpose was to achieve a quick and certain death in order to avoid capture. Before committing suicide, a woman would often tie her knees together so her body would be found in a dignified pose, despite the convulsions of death. Invading armies would often enter homes to find the lady of the house seated alone, facing away from the door. On approaching her, they would find that she had ended her life long before they reached her.
Stephen R. Turnbull
provides extensive evidence for the practice of female ritual suicide, notably of samurai wives, in pre-modern Japan. One of the largest mass suicides was the 25 April 1185 final defeat of Taira no Tomomori
The wife of Onodera Junai, one of the Forty-seven Ronin
, is a notable example of a wife following ''seppuku'' of a samurai husband. A large number of honor suicides marked the defeat of the Aizu clan in the Boshin War
of 1869, leading into the Meiji era
. For example, in the family of Saigō Tanomo
, who survived, a total of twenty two female honor suicides are recorded among one extended family.
Religious and social context
Voluntary death by drowning was a common form of ritual or honour suicide. The religious context of thirty-three Jōdo Shinshū
adherents at the funeral of Abbot Jitsunyo in 1525 was faith in Amida Buddha
and belief in rebirth in his Pure land
, but male ''seppuku'' did not have a specifically religious context. By way of contrast, the religious beliefs of Hosokawa Gracia
, the Christian wife of ''daimyō'' Hosokawa Tadaoki
, prevented her from committing suicide.
The word means "suicide" in Japanese. The usual modern word for suicide is . Related words include , and . In some popular western texts, such as martial arts magazines, the term is associated with suicide of samurai wives.
The term was introduced into English by Lafcadio Hearn
in his ''Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation'',
an understanding which has since been translated into Japanese and Hearn seen through Japanese eyes.
Joshua S. Mostow notes that Hearn misunderstood the term ''jigai'' to be the female equivalent of ''seppuku''.
Mostow's context is analysis of Giacomo Puccini
's ''Madame Butterfly
'' and the original Cio-Cio San story by John Luther Long
. Though both Long's story and Puccini's opera predate Hearn's use of the term ''jigai'', the term has been used in relation to western japonisme
which is the influence of Japanese culture on the western arts.
As capital punishment
While the voluntary ''seppuku'' is the best known form, in practice the most common form of ''seppuku'' was obligatory ''seppuku'', used as a form of capital punishment
for disgraced samurai, especially for those who committed a serious offense such as rape, robbery, corruption, unprovoked murder or treason. The samurai were generally told of their offense in full and given a set time for them to commit ''seppuku'', usually before sunset on a given day. On occasion, if the sentenced individuals were uncooperative or outright refused to end their own lives, ''seppuku'' could be carried out by an executioner, or more often, the actual execution was carried out solely by decapitation while retaining only the trappings of ''seppuku''; even the ''tantō'' laid out in front of the uncooperative offender could be replaced with a fan (to prevent the uncooperative offenders from using the ''tantō'' as a weapon against the observers or the executioner). Unlike voluntary ''seppuku'', ''seppuku'' carried out as capital punishment by executioners did not necessarily absolve, or pardon, the offender's family of the crime. Depending on the severity of the crime, all or part of the property of the condemned could be confiscated, and the family would be punished
by being stripped of rank, sold into long-term servitude, or executed.
''Seppuku'' was considered the most honorable capital punishment apportioned to samurai. ''Zanshu'' (斬首) and s''arashikubi'' (晒し首), decapitation followed by a display of the head, was considered harsher and was reserved for samurai who committed greater crimes. The harshest punishments, usually involving death by torturous methods like ''kamayude'' (釜茹で), death by boiling
, were reserved for commoner offenders.
On February 15, 1868, eleven French sailors of the ''Dupleix
'' entered the town of Sakai
without official permission. Their presence caused panic among the residents. Security forces were dispatched to turn the sailors back to their ship, but a fight broke out and the sailors were shot dead. Upon the protest of the French representative, financial compensation was paid, and those responsible were sentenced to death. Captain Abel-Nicolas Bergasse du Petit-Thouars
was present to observe the execution. As each samurai committed ritual disembowelment, the violent act shocked the captain, and he requested a pardon, as a result of which nine of the samurai were spared. This incident was dramatised in a famous short story, "Sakai Jiken", by Mori Ōgai
In the 1860s, the British Ambassador to Japan, Algernon Freeman-Mitford (Lord Redesdale)
, lived within sight of Sengaku-ji
where the Forty-seven Ronin are buried. In his book ''Tales of Old Japan'', he describes a man who had come to the graves to kill himself:
Mitford also describes his friend's eyewitness account of a ''seppuku'':
During the Meiji Restoration
, the Tokugawa shogun's
aide performed seppuku:
In his book ''Tales of Old Japan'', Mitford describes witnessing a hara-kiri:
As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the harakiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hyōgo in the month of February 1868,an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveler's fable.
The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado (Emperor) himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all. After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:
Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.
A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.
The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of rice paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution. The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburo had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple. The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master.
In modern Japan
''Seppuku'' as judicial punishment was abolished in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration
, but voluntary ''seppuku'' did not completely die out. Dozens of people are known to have committed ''seppuku'' since then, including General Nogi
and his wife on the death of Emperor Meiji
in 1912, and numerous soldiers and civilians who chose to die rather than surrender at the end of World War II
. The practice had been widely praised in army propaganda, which featured a soldier captured by the Chinese in the Shanghai Incident
(1932) who returned to the site of his capture to perform ''seppuku''. In 1944, Hideyoshi Obata
, a Lieutenant General
in the Imperial Japanese Army
, committed ''seppuku'' in Yigo, Guam
, following the Allied victory over the Japanese in the Second Battle of Guam
. Obata was posthumously promoted to the rank of general. Many other high-ranking military officials of Imperial Japan would go on to commit ''seppuku'' toward the latter half of World War II in 1944 and 1945, as the tide of the war turned against the Japanese, and it became clear that a Japanese victory of the war was not achievable.
In 1970, author Yukio Mishima
and one of his followers performed public ''seppuku'' at the Japan Self-Defense Forces
headquarters following an unsuccessful attempt to incite the armed forces to stage a ''coup d'état
''. Mishima performed ''seppuku'' in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita. His second, a 25-year-old man named Masakatsu Morita
, tried three times to ritually behead Mishima but failed, and his head was finally severed by Hiroyasu Koga
, a former kendo
champion. Morita then attempted to perform ''seppuku'' himself, but when his own cuts were too shallow to be fatal, he gave the signal and was beheaded by Koga.
List of notable ''seppuku'' cases in chronological order.
* Minamoto no Tametomo
* Minamoto no Yorimasa
* Minamoto no Yoshitsune
* Hōjō Takatoki
* Ashikaga Mochiuji
* Azai Nagamasa
* Oda Nobunaga
* Takeda Katsuyori
* Shibata Katsuie
* Hōjō Ujimasa
* Sen no Rikyū
* Toyotomi Hidetsugu
* Torii Mototada
* Tokugawa Tadanaga
* Forty-six of the Forty-seven ''rōnin''
* Watanabe Kazan
* Tanaka Shinbei
* Takechi Hanpeita
* Yamanami Keisuke
(group of samurai youths) (1868)
* Saigō Takamori
* Emilio Salgari
* Nogi Maresuke
and Nogi Shizuko (1912)
* Chujiro Hayashi
* Seigō Nakano
* Yoshitsugu Saitō
* Hideyoshi Obata
* Kunio Nakagawa
* Isamu Chō
and Mitsuru Ushijima
* Korechika Anami
* Takijirō Ōnishi
* Yukio Mishima
* Isao Inokuma
In popular culture
The expected honor-suicide of the samurai wife is frequently referenced in Japanese literature and film, such as in ''Taiko'' by Eiji Yoshikawa, ''Humanity and Paper Balloons
'', and ''Rashomon
''. ''Seppuku'' is referenced and described multiple times in the 1975 James Clavell
''; its subsequent 1980 miniseries ''Shōgun
'' brought the term and the concept to mainstream Western attention. It was staged by the young protagonist in the 1971 dark American comedy ''Harold and Maude
In ''The Last Samurai
'', a mortally wounded samurai leader Katsumoto performs ''seppuku'' with former US Army Captain Nathan Algren's help. This is also depicted en masse in the movie ''47 Ronin
'' starring Keanu Reeves when the 47 ronin are punished for disobeying the emperor's orders by avenging their master.
In Season 15 Episode 12 of ''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
'', titled "Jersey Breakdown," a Japanophile
New Jersey judge with a large samurai sword collection commits seppuku when he realizes that the police are onto him for raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl in a Jersey nightclub.
In the 2011 movie ''My Way
'', an Imperial Japanese colonel is ordered to commit seppuku by his superiors after ordering a retreat from an oil field overrun by Russian and Mongolian troops in the ''Battle of Khalkin Gol
In the 2017 revival
and final season of the animated series ''Samurai Jack
'', the eponymous protagonist, distressed over his many failures to accomplish his quest as told in prior seasons
, is then informed by a haunting samurai spirit that he has acted dishonorably by allowing many people to suffer and die from his failures, and must engage in seppuku to atone for them.
's 1904 opera Madame Butterfly
, wronged child-bride Cio-Cio-san commits seppuku in the final moments of the opera, after hearing that the father of her child, although he has finally returned to Japan, much to her initial delight, has meantime married an American Lady and has come to take the child away from her.
'' – Kobayashi film
* Japanese funeral
– following the lord in death
, Japanese suicide bombers
, Indonesian ritual suicide
* Shame society
* Suicide in Japan
– A Practical Guide (tongue-in-cheek)
– The mausoleum of Date Masamune
When he died, twenty of his followers killed themselves to serve him in the next life. They lay in state at Zuihoden
Seppuku and "cruel punishments" at the end of Tokugawa Shogunate
From the Buke Sho Hatto (1663) –
:"That the custom of following a master in death is wrong and unprofitable is a caution which has been at times given of old; but, owing to the fact that it has not actually been prohibited, the number of those who cut their belly to follow their lord on his decease has become very great. For the future, to those retainers who may be animated by such an idea, their respective lords should intimate, constantly and in very strong terms, their disapproval of the custom. If, notwithstanding this warning, any instance of the practice should occur, it will be deemed that the deceased lord was to blame for unreadiness. Henceforward, moreover, his son and successor will be held to be blameworthy for incompetence, as not having prevented the suicides."
Category:Japanese words and phrases