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

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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.

Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer


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1 Comment on "Sword to the Stomach: Seppuku and the Case of Altruistic Suicide"

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I agree with this articles, Seppuku is a part of samurai cultures, Somehow without seppuku samurai culture cannot become perfect, without seppuku japanese peoples tend to find another way or form to regain their honor, when they face with imminent or very big failure. So in 21st century Japan, when japanese community try their best to stop suiciding cultures, including constructing a new view which is “there is no honor in suicide”, then the new form of negatives cultures appears, that is “hikikomori”, Actually hikikomori in my view is similiar path for japanese peoples to regain their honor, hikikomori is… Read more »
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