View Full Version : seppuku- honorable or cowardly?

10th February 2004, 16:28
In the west we often say that people are weak or cowardly when their kill themselves, taking the easy way out. What are the guidelines for honorable seppuku? When is it not appropriate? Shame and dishonoring oneself or their family may be redeemed, right? I am just trying to understandf seppuku a bit more. Thanks.

10th February 2004, 17:14
Originally posted by O'Neill
In the west we often say that people are weak or cowardly when their kill themselves, taking the easy way out. What are the guidelines for honorable seppuku? When is it not appropriate? Shame and dishonoring oneself or their family may be redeemed, right? I am just trying to understandf seppuku a bit more. Thanks.

The easy way out of what?

Reading this may help a bit.


Hyakutake Colin

10th February 2004, 18:32
Originally posted by O'Neill
In the west we often say that people are weak or cowardly when their kill themselves, taking the easy way out. What are the guidelines for honorable seppuku? When is it not appropriate? Shame and dishonoring oneself or their family may be redeemed, right? I am just trying to understandf seppuku a bit more. Thanks.

I don't think they commited seppuku in the same context westerners do. I don't know what the most 'popular' reason for committing but it wasn't uncommon to see samurai were ordered to commit seppuku by their Lord. Most of the times the reason a samurai would commit seppuku wasn't personal.

Iron Chef
10th February 2004, 19:28
I was under the impression that the first documented case of seppuku was by Yoshitomo Minamoto in 1160 after his defeat where he disembowled himself on bridge while surrounded by the Taira clansmen. I must have read this somewhere or maybe it was from a movie I saw as a kid. I can find absolutely no grounds for this any of this right now. I can only find that that Yoshitomo was killed by the Taira in 1160 following the Heiji Rebellion. If anybody has access to a reliable account of the death of Yoshitomo please comment.

Were the Minamoto critical in promoting the practice of Seppuku? Yoshitomo's son Yoritomo became the first Shogun after the Gempei War in 1192 and the Minamoto utilized the practice but only ruled until 1219 when the line died. Or, Could Seppuku have been something that Yoritomo picked up on from the time he lived with the Hojo after Yoshitomo's death? After Yoritomo died the Hojo ruled Japan(Yoritomo married into the Hojo Clan). Or is all of this way off base and the practice predates all of these dates. Thanks for your support.

sepai 85
10th February 2004, 19:37
good info here

www.ykkf.org articles seppuku

17th February 2004, 22:00
I had asked the same question about Seppuku once and here is the response I received:

The act of slitting one's own belly is such an unbelievable way in which to commit suicide that it is possibly the most famous element of the samurai mythos. Known in the West as hara-kiri (in fact a 'vulgar' expression probably never commonly used by the samurai themselves), the origin of disembowlment as suicide is impossible to pinpoint but the first notable acts were provided by Minamoto Tametomo and Minamoto Yorimasa in the latter part of the 12th Century. The original motivations for this method of death may well have been purely practical. Miura Yoshinobu's example aside, cutting off one's own head is a bit difficult, and as the spirit was felt to reside in the stomach, slitting the belly open was felt to be the most straightforward (if not quickest) way to die. Over the centuries, the philosophy behind seppuku was refined. One samurai wrote many centuries after the deaths of Minamoto Tametomo and Yorimasa that the spirit of a man was like that of an apple's core, unseen and locked within the skin.

The apple certainly exists, but to the core [soul] this existence as yet seems inadequate; if words cannot endorse it, then the only way to endorse it is with the eyes. Indeed, for the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light-to the same light, that is, as the surface skin. Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.

The above was clearly an esoteric point of view. Others have written that the act of belly slitting required an exceptional bravery, and over the years it became a 'privilege' reserved for the samurai. Commoners might hang or drown themselves, whilst samurai women might slit their own throats; only samurai could commit Seppuku. To be simply executed was a mark of particular shame, and generally reserved for notorious traitors.

By the Edo Period, the act of seppuku had become a fully developed ritual with Shinto undertones.

First, tatami edged with white would be set out, upon which a large white cushion was placed. Witnesses would arrange themselves discreetly to one side, depending on how important the coming suicide was considered.

The samurai, often garbed in a white kimono, would kneel on the pillow in formal style on his heels, hopefully in a composed manner. Just over a meter behind and to the left of the samurai knelt his kaishakunin, or 'second'. The second was often a close friend of the deceased, although his duty was not a popular one. His job was to prevent the samurai committing suicide from experiencing undo suffering by cutting the doomed man's head off once he had slit his belly. Botching this duty could be a shameful disgrace, and a steady hand was required.

In front of the samurai lay a knife on a lacquered tray. When he felt ready, the samurai would loosen the folds of his kimono and expose his belly. He would then lift the knife with one hand and unsheathe it with the other, setting the sheathe to one side. When he had prepared himself, he would drive the knife into the left side of the stomach, then draw it across to the right. The blade would then be turned in the wound and brought upward. Many samurai did not have to endure this last, unbelievable agony, as the second would lop their heads off at the first sign of pain. The cut carried out to its finish was known as the jumonji, or 'crosswise cut', and to perform it in its entirety was considered a particularly impressive seppuku.

Needless to say, one's frame of mind was of particular importance when approaching this act. The Hagakure and other Edo works relate stories of samurai losing their composure just prior to committing suicide, and in some cases having to be forcibly decapitated. Samurai were, after all, only human, and perhaps only through a lifetime of preparation could seppuku be faced with the prerequisite coolness.

Why would a samurai be expected or decide to slit open his own belly? The reasons are many, and much is made of them elsewhere. We'll content ourselves here with the briefest of lists of those reasons not involving a direct punishment…

Junshi: this act of suicide involved following one's lord in death. Not entirely uncommon in the days of open samurai warfare, junshi was banned in the Edo Period as wasteful. The last famous example was that of the General Nogi Maresue in 1912 following the death of the Emperor Meiji.

Kanshi: Suicide through remonstration. Not common, this involved killing one's self to make a point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion had failed. Perhaps the best known example of this is provided by Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide (1493-1553), who commited suicide to make a youthful and irreverant Oda Nobunaga change his ways.

Sokotsu-shi: Here, a samurai would kill himself as a way of making amends for some transgression. This is possibly the best-known reason for seppuku, and has perhaps been popularized far out of proportion to its frequency. One well-known instance involves the Takeda general Yamamoto Kansuke Haruyuki (1501-1561), who flung himself into the enemy after his plans had put his lord in grave danger. Badly wounded, he withdrew from the fray and commited suicide.

17th February 2004, 22:20
What about seppukku to prove a political point, close to remonstration, but some differences...

Obviously Mishima Yukio is a modern-day example, whatever one might say about his adherence to politics or aesthetics (in other words, some believe it was more of a self-satisfying aesthetic end, while others note the time and place he killed himself as important and his somewhat neo-fascist writings and militaristic leanings as showing his death as more of a political statement. I say somewhat because it is difficult to know for sure how strongly Mishima felt about these issues despite his rhetoric).

But I can't think of any other cases off the top of my head, especially in pre-modern times. However we are all familiar with the practice of self-immolation by buddhist priests during the Vietnam war and the suicide just last year by a korean farmer protesting the WTO in Cancun. Despite the differences in method, these are all suicide to attempt to make a political point. Remonstration, perhaps, but not in the sense of "Kanshi" I would think besides the obvious differences (yes not Japanese/samurai/done with a sword, it's more the general concept I am drawing a parallel to here). Any historical i.e. pre modern precedents that I am forgetting/ignorant of that more closely follow the ritualized seppukku?

So my point, or question at least, is how common such political suicides were, enough to get their own name re: junshi/kanshi, which I haven't heard of before? Can it be considered a difference? Or so rare? Purely a modern phenomenon?

Free-lance thoughts on something I hardly think about anyway. But it may be an interesting addition to the thread...

18th February 2004, 05:30
As I put on my home page the word "ritual" rings true but "suicide" is a very loose translation. Denotes an inbalanced mind.

Working for a buddhist sect I would have to strongly disgree with some points made on that Karate site.

Quote: Buddhism teaches that life is simply transitory and is part of the journey and transcendence to a state of Nirvana. Death, therefore, is a necessary part of this journey.

Now this I would agree with but what it fails to say is that the doctrine of Buddhist put enormous value on life. We should kill nothing or no one but as it says accept death when the time comes.

The samurai code was indeed a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism and sometimes its difficult to draw the line. Acceptance of and a voluntary ending is somewhat different.
lets just call it a tailor made way.

Incidently if you commit suicide in Japan its a bit iffy as to whether or not your urn will go in with the others.

Hyakutake Colin

18th February 2004, 08:48
the word "ritual" rings true

It's a kata, isn't it.

Certain situations demand certain responses. Extenuating circumstances require even more strenuous responses. Without the extenuating circumstances it's a waste. Debatable sometimes even with the circumstances.

This is why Mishima's death has always bugged me, it seems inauthentic. Ironic then that it was not the most aesthetic seppukku, most correctly performed, as he evidently hoped.

There is no reason to commit suicide and anytime one killed one's self it was a bit suspicious...why would someone do this? But seppukku wasn't seen as suicide. Hence the "forms" of junshi, kanshi, etc. Must be correctly performed, if at all, in response to only certain circumstances.

Very tired so this probably doesn't make sense. Most likely will look silly and obvious tomorrow. Or else just wrong.

20th February 2004, 20:20
I would hate to have the final word in a thread concerning a topic of which I have limited knowledge, so by all means please clarify, correct or otherwise further the discussion if any of you want.

To clarify myself, I would like to say that my label of seppukku as a kata does not mean that it is a form taught in any martial art; here I am using it more loosely, to describe a way of doing a thing in Japan that has certain connotations, subtleties and requirements for it to be performed correctly and perceived as having value. I have recently read a certain book that explained several features of Japanese society using this heuristic, but seppukku was not one of them, and when I wrote the earlier post, I had thought of the possible connection.

Well, I guess that's all I have to say about it for now!

Iron Chef
20th February 2004, 20:45
Originally posted by nicojo
To clarify myself, I would like to say that my label of seppukku as a kata does not mean that it is a form taught in any martial art; ....

Kaishaku however is a form taught in a art I practice.

20th February 2004, 21:57
In mine too...but I am not aware if seppukku with a wooden wakazashi is, which is perhaps what I should have said...

26th July 2004, 16:02
quite often young samurai commited seppuku against their masters wishes .and often samurai lords banned the practice amongst their retainers.did any of you read that book bushido the warriors code by inazo nitobe?he states in there that it is right to die only when it is time to die and to live when it is right to live.

Ron Tisdale
26th July 2004, 20:33
Inazo Nitobe? Wasn't he the guy who spent most of his time in the US and was a christian? I'm not sure he really knew that much about bushido, seppuku, or most things 'samurai'...


27th July 2004, 15:34
I have the feeling that since the thread started seppuku and suicide are put in the same box. The thread begins with how we in the west tend to mark suicide as a cowardly act. That category of ending ones life has always existed in Japan as well. Seppuku is in so many aspects different from that. I think one way of replying to the first thread might be to make the clear distinction between suicide per se and the ritual of seppuku. Looking at the common suicide one might more think about cases like the "shinju" (love suicide) etc. Chikamatsu Monzaemon portrays those in his plays, i.e. "Sonezaki shinju".
Close to where I lived in Japan, Fukui-shi, is the famous/infamous cliff called Tojimbo (not tobe cinfused with the movie Yojimbo, the contrast couldn´t be stronger) where a few people every year end their lives by jumping from the highest point onto the rocks or into the ocean.

Generally I think that suicide is an important part of the japanese culture and has been eversince. Seppuku is a special subdivision within that category.

An recent article from Japan Times (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/getarticle.pl5?nn20040723a2.htm)

Although this article (http://www.japanlink.de/ll/ll_leute_selbstmord.shtml) is in German you´ll understand the graph showed in the middle of the text. It´s suicide per 100.000 inhabitants based on data of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in Japan. Note the peak in the years of asias economic crisis.