Sword to the Stomach: Seppuku and the Case of Altruistic Suicide

by Bramantyo Indirawan

If you ever watched a samurai film , you probably would have seen harakiri – a suicide act by thrusting a dagger or short sword to oneself for the purpose of retaining honor after a defeat or shameful doing. The earliest harakiri recorded in history took place in late 12th century, committed by Minamoto Tametomo, a samurai, and Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet. Although still practiced during World War II, harakiri was officially ended in the late 19th century in the Meiji Restoration period.

Samurai, Seppuku and the Bushido code

In Japanese samurai movies like “Harakiri” (1968), and the relatively popular Hollywood production called “The Last Samurai” (2003), we can see the depiction of a samurai taking their own lives by disembowelment. Spectators in a temple, house, or prison watch as blood gushing out of the swordsman who lives by the code of bushido.

In pain but pride, as the samurai perform this disembowelment, a man called kaishakunin swings his sharp edge blade from behind. In mere seconds the samurai is dead. It is important that the kaishakunin have to slash the samurai’s head without beheading it so that the attached head would make the samurai look bowing down. So precision is what makes the kill “delicate” as it is deadly.

This honorable act that the Japanese preferred to be called seppuku distinctly belongs to samurai, a warrior caste who lives by the sword. Honor itself is a lofty human value; this brutal yet elegant way of suicide is an attempt of a man who wants to uphold the honor for himself, his family, and his clan.

When committing seppuku, after stabbing the dagger into his abdomen the samurai then makes a left to right cut of roughly 25 centimeters wide; they believe that the spirit resides in that particular area. This privilege also shows bravery and he posthumously earns respect.

High ranking authorities from daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1582) to the War Minister Korechika Anami in World War II (1945) chose to end their own lives by belly ripping for atonement. To an extent, seppuku can be seen as a form of suicide, but “honor” as a part of cultural values is a determinant factor in this sacred act.

Although the samurai caste no longer exists and seppuku seemingly vanishes in modern Japan, there are cases indicating that this ritual (at least its spirit) is still practiced. One example, the Olympic medal winner judo athlete Isao Inokuma took his own life by the sword in 2001. Although the public views the event as an anomaly, his act certainly resembles seppuku.

As mentioned in my previous article The Freedom of Taking Your Own Life, there are specific reasons why someone ultimately decide to commit suicide. In this case, what are the basis of enacting seppuku in Japanese life?

Seppuku and Altruistic Suicide

Based on the altruistic suicide theory by Emile Durkheim, we can reason that seppuku happens because of strong social integration in the Japanese people, especially the samurai caste. In a book entitled “Le Suicide” (1897), the French sociologist said that when a person kills himself it is not because he assumes the right to do so but, on the contrary, because it is his duty.

If a man fails to fulfill his obligation, he is dishonored and also punished. In the case of seppuku, when a samurai enacts the infamous disembowelment, he actually protects not only the honor of himself, but also others’ such as family and society.

“Man has become detached from society, he encounters less resistance to suicide in himself, and he does so likewise when social integration is too strong,” said Durkheim. The individual personality has little value, a state he called altruism.

When a person has integrated himself to a society, community, or group, they will follow certain societal values. In this process the individual can cease to exist and become a part of something she or he chooses. But in social integration, other people often choose for us. A child born from a samurai clan is most likely to inherit and exercise the bushido values.

Modern time seppuku varies in its implementation, and in certain events seem unrelated to duty and honor. In the case of the Olympian Isao Inokuma, the reason behind his suicide remains unclear. The Olympic gold medalist turned businessman lived a relatively successful life with no visible problems; it would make no sense if he committed seppuku due to his failure. So when a powerful thrust of the sharp blade ripped his own stomach, perhaps it was neither tradition nor high integration in society that caused his action, but rather due to his own ego in a low level of social integration that may lead to depression or sense of meaninglessness as Durkheim put it.

It is a matter of perspective in seeing the modern times seppuku. Does Isao Inakuma feel defeated or ashamed of himself? No one knows what goes inside his head when making the ultimate choice to end his life.

Yes, the 100 year old theory that Durkheim proposes is limited to the relationship of men that seemingly dwarfs the existence of cultural manifestation. Although the majority of Japanese society has left some of the old ways, few people still think highly of them.

If we put culture as the basis of seeing this phenomenon, then we can see an individual with personal perspective in seeing cultural manifestation such as seppuku. No one can tell a person what to do, what is right or wrong. A combination of belief, values, customs, and traditions can push people to put a blade into his stomach may it be in the 20th or 21st century.

Seppuku throughout the years

As mentioned earlier, the samurai caste was abolished in 19th century by the government in the Meiji Restoration. One of the 5 main articles written in the Charter Oath that was issued in 7 April 1868 affirms the abolition by stating that base customs of the past shall be abandoned, and all actions shall conform to the principles of international justice.

With this new law, seppuku is automatically banned but apparently doesn’t stop it from happening. Nogi Maresuku, a general in Russo-Japanese War period, for example, still practiced this ritual even after Emperor Meiji passed away. Another example, at a much later time, was the seppuku committed by General Korechika Anami who felt dishonored after the defeat in World War II. Such sacred disembowelment strongly suggests the “strictness” of the social integration in the Japanese life.

If we look at samurai in the past as a warrior, we can also see the General as a warrior of the 20th century. Battling enemies with weapons different from a sword, his spirit as a warrior still lives inside him and others shown by the enactment of their ancestral and past customs.

The manifestation of a sacred ritual still exists even though it is different from the original form. In the case of Korechika, a kaishakunin wasn’t present, so a proper seppuku that was enacted by the samurai long before World War II was not met. There are more examples that practice different ways in retaining honor that prove seppuku is obsolete.

In 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan resigned after the events of earthquake and tsunami. The failed attempt to lead a nation resulted in dishonor, and immediately followed by his stepping down. It’s not uncommon for a Prime Minister to do this. In 2008 Yasuo Fukuda resigned after considering himself incapable of unlocking the deadlock in domestic politics. Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister, also once resigned from the same job in 2007.

Different from the above examples, a seppuku style was taken by a Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who committed suicide in 1970 after a failed attempt at taking over a military command post. He criticized the military and fading traditions in front of Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF) but the coup was responded with angry troops who shouted at him.

Realizing the speech had failed he then went inside the General’s office and committed seppuku, just like a samurai would in protecting his honor after a defeat. While his intestine spew out of his stomach, one of his followers slashed his head, acting like the modern day kaishakunin.

It is said that seppuku in modern Japan only happens in Kabuki theater, but there are proofs showing that it exists in every day life. Seppuku is arguably still relevant to Japanese in this modern time as cases of belly ripping rituals are literally continued to be practiced. Bushido may have faced a new era, and may have taken different forms, but it retains its spirit in upholding duty and honor.

It is important, however, to differentiate the belly ripping and the culture of resigning in Japan. Those who commit seppuku are gone forever because they have gone to the afterlife. Stepping down or resigning from a duty, on the other hand, doesn’t transfer oneself to the world of the dead. Both actions are about honor and duty, but they are different in results when it comes to their lives.

Through the altruistic suicide viewpoint, cultural reasoning, or other means we can see that suicide is not limited to depression and the sense of meaningless. It can be a philosophical choice that concerns himself, family, and society that intertwine with culture.

Source: Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide (1897), Andrew Rankin, Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (2011), Ancient-origins.net, Britannica.com, Newyorktimes.com, Quod.lib.umich.edu, Uchicago.edu.

The Freedom of Taking Your Own Life

by Bramantyo Indirawan

Suicide stories surround me everywhere – my colleague, two sisters in Bandung, a broken hearted man who filmed it live, a local social media celebrity, to international artists that surprises the whole world. They all made the choice to take their own life.

So what makes people take their own life? What goes on inside our heads when we get to the point of no return and ultimately kill ourselves?

People have their own reasons and explanations, sometimes from a suicide note, sometimes their families or friends speak for them, but they can also leave the world in silence. Creating confusion and shock, helter skelter.

In general, dr. Alex Lickerman M.D. from ImagineMD explains that the causes of suicide are depression, psychosis such as schizophrenia, being impulsive that can be related to drug and alcohol use, a cry for help, or a mistake they made such as the people who flirt with oxygen deprivation.

Maybe one of the controversial causes of suicide is the desire to die, that is often motivated by the presence of a painful terminal illness from which little to no hope of reprieve exists. A courtesy of taking your own life by trying to cheat time gets approval from certain countries.

England, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, United States, and some other countries give their people the freedom of suicide. These countries made laws to support suicide, exclusive to those who suffer from terminal illness, thus euthanasia or suicide assistance exists.

On the other side, there are countries that ban suicide assistance such as China, Denmark, France, Japan, and Indonesia. Countries like Hungary, Singapore, and India even imprison people who attempt to end their own lives.

Perspective sheds light on suicide, with government laws that act as an instrument to determine whether we can or can’t take our own lives. But if we take a closer look into ourselves, the courtesy is still exclusive to our actions. After all, we are the ones who will close the final curtain of life in suicide.

A Philosophical Problem

On the edge of a balcony in an apartment at South Jakarta, I looked down towards the distance from the seventh floor and asked myself how a man can jump, ultimately making the choice of taking their own life.

When we talk about and look into ourselves, the urge to find meaning in one’s existence will appear. Philosophical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my significance in this world?” will haunt us as an existentialism problem.

In Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus opens his essay with a statement that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,” wrote the French author.

Philosophers argue about the nature of suicide, for instance Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) said that the ability to commit suicide was “the greatest advantage” God has given to humankind. The Roman scholar saw suicide as human power over his own existence.

If we reject religion altogether, then life seems has no meaning. Neither God nor afterlife, so why should we keep on living? Well, existentialism answers this question by helping us find our personal meaning in life, create meaning in the meaninglessness. After all, Jean Paul Sartre said that existentialism is optimistic, we don’t choose our own existence but are responsible for it.

Born to this world we then try to find worth when we slowly grow, both physically and mentally. The external world can be rough; work, love, and other life problems can make us think twice about our significance.

To live or to die, people has their own problems. An artist can just commit suicide because of depression that fame has brought upon them; on the other hand, people can survive a rough life of famine or war and still live on without ever thinking of taking their own life.

Suicide is not a simple thing because life has a broad spectrum, from psychology, sociology, to philosophy, and from personal to societal view and values.

Having an open mind, empathy, and being unprejudiced are essential in understanding this phenomenon, otherwise we tend to be judgmental when it comes to those who willingly end their life.

Into the Absurd

We can see life as an absurdity, a struggle to find meanings and/or one’s existence. When having this kind of angst, we have options that we can choose; embrace a religion, commit suicide, or as Camus said,”Accept the absurd and continue life as usual”.

Religion gives us a set of rules to follow and we use faith to make sense of it all. We can find our purpose in this world and its meaning depending on what religion that we choose. This doesn’t include the nonpracticing ones, and no, certainly not the “Islam KTP” – a term in Indonesia for those who claim to have a religion simply because it is stated in the ID card.

Most popular religion such as Christianity and Muslim ban suicide. To cheat life is a sin and hell is promised for those who abandon hope.

When there’s no religion to guide us through, does that mean we can succumb easily when facing some existentialist crisis? Well, I think not.

To still live a life and choose personal or alternative meanings in one’s significance is another option that we can choose.

There are times when we can’t find any meaning in our own lives. At this moment we can keep trying and finally find or accept it as an endless struggle in absurdity.

Everyone will be lifeless eventually, may it be because of sickness, accident, homicide, or other reasons. So, one thing for sure, death will come to us.

When committing suicide, people seem to choose the time. Some hang themselves in the morning, other blow their heads off with a shotgun in the afternoon, or doze off for eternity with pills at night.

In my opinion, suicide is a form a self escapism that doesn’t solve anything. If we try to find meaning then what does taking our life achieve? Acceptance and struggle for meaning is surely better than that.

But in the end, nobody can take away anyone’s freedom of suicide. Yes, like it or not, it is still an option for us to reflect upon.


Mentalhealthdaily.com, Psychologytoday.com, Philosophytalk.org, Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942),  A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine (Critical Issues in World and International History) (2005).