Ever wondered why the Japanese are so weird and unique? Just think their inventions, their trends, the things they do and even their culture! Along with all the other things that we just can’t comprehend…
Yup… Definitely weird.
It appears that even far back in the past, they were already trendsetters - namely in the area of suicide. We’re sure that many, if not some of you have heard of the term seppuku (note: do not confuse with Sudoku).
Origins and how
Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri which literally means “belly-cutting”, is a suicide ritual originating in Japan. It was revered by and originally carried out by a Samurai (military nobility) as a display of honor. To them, it was the most honorable form of death.
This suicide death was by means of disembowelment which is the cutting of the abdomen with a sword and it was believed to release one’s spirit into the afterlife. The samurai’s death would be somewhat aided by a second, or “kaishakunin”, who would behead the samurai with a sword after he cuts his abdomen, to relieve him from the pain and remove as much suffering as possible.
The beheading is done in such a skillful manner, that the head would fall into the dead samurai’s arms as if being “cradled”. The second, or kaishakunin, has to be skilled enough to sever the spine and leave the head hanging from the neck by a little skin which attaches the head to the body. Both the samurai and the kaishakunin are dishonored if the samurai’s head is completely detached, therefore only a skilled swordsman was able to take on the role of a second.
Dishonor on your whole family!
Why Death by seppuku?
Suicide by seppuku was done for a few different reasons. These were several reasons such as shame due to fear of losing in battle, shame from committing a shameful act and the loss of support from one’s feudal lord, also called a daimyo. However, more often than not after battlefield defeats, samurai warriors would rather choose to commit this bloody act than to surrender and be captured.
I surrender... Not.
To the warriors, this was their way of reclaiming their honor. Through this, they were able to preserve their reputation and at the same time, protect their family’s honor and position in society. Those who resigned (or accepted their punishment) usually faced scorn and despise from others.
“I shall commit seppuku to remove the shame I have brought upon my famiry.”
By understanding this act from the perspective of the Japanese and those that it mattered to, we can definitely see what great weight seppuku holds. We believe seppuku is something that requires a great amount of determination and tenacity and it is not something that can be easily done in this day and age (even if we were warriors/soldiers). For one, we certainly do not feel like we are cut out to do such, at any cost, and that is why we can appreciate it as a sign of heroism, courage and the ultimate sacrifice.
“Probably my kind of hero… Those moves doe.”
Seppuku through history
Although Seppuku was popularized as an honorable death for samurai, it was not exclusively for them. At least not initially. The first seppuku that was carried out, according to the journal: “Suicide and culture in Japan: A study of seppuku as an institutionalized form of suicide” by Toyomasa Fusé (p. 58) took place in the Japanese province of Harima. Interestingly enough, it was by a young goddess, as a result of marital issues with her husband. Another example of one of the earliest seppuku deaths, again, was not by a samurai (T. Fusé, 1980). The next recorded “honor death” was by Yasusuke Fujiwara. Yasusuke was a member of a respected aristocratic family. However, somewhere down the line, he became a robber. When he was caught by the authorities, Yasusuke committed seppuku as a way to escape the consequences of said crime. In this case, seppuku in our view was not done in honor or sacrifice, but in cowardice.
On the other hand, the first and most detailed seppuku written down was the one by Minamoto no Yorimasa, after he had lost to the enemy in 1180. He then went into a temple and committed seppuku out of shame.
Seppuku became a capital punishment in the beginning of 1400. Although it was mainly considered as respectable, we felt that there was another side to this - there appears to be a shift in the meaning of this particular action. Before seppuku became a capital punishment, it was like a symbol of honor and pride but when it becomes forced, the idea of seppuku as a respectable act loses its meaning.
Even though seppuku originated in the early 12th century, it was not until when the samurais held most power during the Edo era (1600–1868) that it became popularized as a samurai culture. Seppuku rose together with this era, which was under the rule of the most powerful military families at that time, aka the Tokugawa family. However, Seppuku was no longer made a capital punishment in 1873 during the Meiji restoration. The fast rise and fall seems like a roller coaster ride, doesn’t it?
It seems that seppuku was indeed honorable and brave for those who did it to preserve their honor and pride, but we felt that it also was a very sad way to die if they were involuntary, especially if it was passed through as a capital punishment. In general, our opinion on seppuku is that it is a very admirable act of courage, as it shows that these samurais uphold their integrity when they can easily sacrifice their life just to be responsible. The bushido could also be the influence of Buddhism teachings that samurais follow, which might give us more insight as to why they are so disciplined, righteous and loyal.
Meanwhile in the 21st century... we are busy twerking along with Miley Cyrus.
On a side note... (and if you're still reading, that is)
Here's a short video about seppuku in a nutshell if you're interested -