Seppuku, the Japanese suicide ritual

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Seppuku is a Japanese term that is literally translated as "to cut the stomach" or "to gut". Its colloquial version, hara-kiri, is better known in the West and refers to the suicide ritual that became popular among the warrior classes of Japan in the 12th century and was banned in 1868 after the so-called Meiji Restoration. This complex ceremony was often used in cases of defeat, loss of honour or as a death penalty.

What is Seppuku?

In an ideal situation, seppuku was performed with the same precision and care as the tea ceremony, following some concrete steps and with a pre-established symbolism to which great importance was given.

The suicidal person, who did not always have to be a prisoner, wore a white kimono and sat in the traditional position in front of a person in authority (usually his master or whoever had sentenced him to death). To his left, he would take the last drink of sake (a typical Japanese alcoholic drink), be allowed to make a final plea or write a farewell poem, and be given the weapons with which to end his own life. The most common was the wakizashi, a short sword used in conjunction with or instead of the katana for enclosed spaces, but sometimes a dagger could be substituted for it.

When the suicide was ready, he would proceed to strip his chest by opening his kimono, draw the weapon, and thrust it deep into his left side at stomach level. He would then perform the so-called jumonji or "cut of 10" by slicing his belly to the right and then upward (similar to how this number is represented in Japanese ideograms). This method not only caused the suicide bomber to eviscerate himself but also often caused damage to his spine and nerve centres, making seppuku an especially painful way to die.

To alleviate his agony there was the figure of the kaishakunin or "second": usually, a person trusted by the suicidal person who would stand behind him and decapitate him with a single katana blow to end his suffering. This was considered an act of mercy, a final reward for the courage shown in committing seppuku. After the ritual, the body and head of the deceased were cleaned and given to the relatives so that they could bury him.

A matter of honour

In feudal Japan, there were many reasons for committing seppuku and many times the rituals previously described did not occur.The strict morals and code of conduct imposed on the samurai of the time meant that any misconduct or insult to their honour was considered extremely serious. Because of the pain involved and the fact that it was the aggrieved party who had to kill himself, seppuku was considered an act of courage capable of restoring lost honour. Although it could be imposed as a death sentence, even in these cases it was seen as an act of mercy and respect toward the prisoner as it allowed him to restore his honour. Ritual suicide could be carried out as a sentence for a crime committed, to free the family from dishonour, after a defeat in combat and to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy, as a protest against a false accusation (it was better to die than to bear the disgrace) or so that a servant could follow his master if he had died.

Known cases of samurai suicide

Although seppuku was a tradition rooted in the Japanese mentality of the time, it was not a daily occurrence either. When it came to defeated soldiers, for example, it was often preferable to swear loyalty to a new lord and go over to the winning side to save one's life. This happened, for example, at the famous battle of Sekigahara, where Kobayakawa Hideaki decided to change sides in the middle of the battle and marked Tokugawa's victory over Mitsunari.

However, there are some striking cases of seppuku that deserve a separate mention. Probably one of the best-known stories is the semi-legend of the 47 rōnin. This is one of the most mythical stories in Japanese folklore and tells the story of the clash between the shogun's master of ceremonies, Kira Kozukenosuke, and the Daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Takumi. Between the two, a grudge arose that made Kozukenosuke provoke and insult Asano with the intention of discrediting him and turning him into an outcast within the shogun's court. In one of these dialectical clashes, Asano drew his goal and attacked Kozukenosuke from behind. Wielding a weapon in the shogun's residence and attacking a high-ranking official were considered serious crimes for which Asano was taken prisoner, tried and sentenced to death by seppuku. Since Asano refused to defend himself as his actions were considered justified, his entire estate was confiscated and his heirs were stripped of any rights. 

But undoubtedly the most recent (and perhaps most shocking) example was the suicide of Yukio Mishima in 1970. The writer boasted of belonging to a samurai lineage and, both in his works and outside them, he always defended nationalist ideology and the heroic pre-war vision, as well as the need to follow the ancient samurai code (bushido). Convinced of the distancing from traditional values and Japanese identity and the decline of his country due to the rapprochement with the West after World War II, Mishima a paramilitary force named the Shield Society. On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima and four of his followers entered a military barracks in Tokyo and arrested the Chief General of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in order to promote the restoration of the values of bushido and pre-war nationalism.

Mishima's attempt was a failure as the military forces he harangued from the building refused to follow him. Faced with this situation, the 45-year-old writer and his lieutenant Masakatsu Morita committed seppuku, shouting "Long live the emperor!

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