What is Seppuku?
Seppuku is a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan, performed by plunging a sword into your stomach and disemboweling yourself.
It was fundamentally an “honorable” way to commit suicide when you would otherwise be killed, not some random act done based on minor embarrassment.
Samurai would do it rather than be captured by a hostile force or after being convicted of very serious crimes. Sometimes it would be a requirement for a peace treaty and basically replaced killing the leader of the losing faction.
Honor and shame were integral to the bushido code and Japanese culture (still are, to some extent). Everything you did, you did for honor. Honor and shame from your actions affected not only you, but your extended family as well. If you were shamed, your entire family could be ostracized.
One of the ultimate shames was cowardice. Surrendering in battle was cowardly and shameful. To prevent capture or surrender, you would commit seppuku to preserve your family’s honor. Likewise if you committed some serious offense, you could be offered the option of committing seppuku rather than having a “normal” execution, again for honor’s sake (forcing someone else to have to kill you for your own mistakes was cowardly).
Why did the Samurai kill themselves with such a cruel method?
The Japanese historically believed the spirit lived in stomach. The whole idea of seppuku was to display your purity, to prove that whatever circumstances led you to seppuku were not a permanent stain on your soul. Just as we in the West talk about having a “pure heart”, the samurai believed that the purity resided in the bowels. So, seppuku was organized in such a way that one spilled his own bowels, thus proving his “purity” and atoning for any transgression.
The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided.
How is Seppuku performed?
The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, In these practices,witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion in the seiza position. The act would consists of plunging not a sword but a short blade, traditionally a tantō, into the abdomen while drawing the blade from left to right, slicing the abdomen open. If the cut, done with a movement, is done deep enough, it can cut the descending aorta, inducing a massive blood loss inside the abdomen, with a very fast death.
A tradition is to have a ‘kaishakunin’ to aid you to commit seppuku. You have given this person specific instructions as to what moment they are to behead you – for some, the instruction was that if it looked like you might be overcome with pain and lose control they were to behead you. For others, the instruction was that as soon as the blade was irrevocably moving towards the belly they were to cut off the head.
If you have committed a really nasty and dishonorable crime, you might chose to perform a considerably more taxing form of seppuku known as jūmonji giri (十文字切り, “cross-shaped cut”), in which there is no kaishakunin to put a quick end to your suffering. It involves a second and more painful vertical cut on the belly. Cutting upward to create a sort of flap that the bowels would spill out of. It had a distinct, 1, 2, 3 rhythm to it. Making all three cuts without stopping due to the pain and discomfort was extremely difficult, even for hardened warriors. A samurai performing jumonji giri was expected to bear his suffering quietly until he bleeds to death, passing away with his hands over his face.
To not choose a kaishaku shows you are really, really, REALLY sorry and want to atone your wrongdoings with your suffering.
If you are a woman, it is easier. The female ritual suicide is called ‘jigai’. Just descend to seiza and slice your neck arteries open with a tantō. It is good manners to tie your feet together so that your legs won’t open and reveal your private parts. Samurai girls were taught already as children on how to perform jigai correctly.
A tantō is the traditional weapon, but other large knives will do as well. During the WWII, many Japanese used the standard issue Army bayonets.
Why did samurai considered seppuku honorable?
When a samurai did something shameful enough to require him to commit seppuku, it brought shame to his entire family. His family name was destroyed. But by committing seppuku, it was a way to demonstrate their will to support the flawless reputation of their families.
What happens if a samurai refuses to commit seppuku?
The whole point of seppuku was to prove that you were a man of honor. To react against this command was, pointedly, to disobey the entire samurai code. During at least the 4 centuries before 1868, when samurai governance was replaced by emperor and civilians, Japanese justice used collective pressure to ensure compliance. Peasants were organized into groups of five (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) and any infraction by one person resulted in punishment coming down on everyone. I steal something, my entire family loses a hand, or gets put in jail, or gets tortured, etc., etc.
Any samurai who was commanded to disembowel himself and refused, or worse, tried to escape, could expect that any people on this earth who were of any value to him would suffer. They would suffer well beyond any pain he might have felt with seppuku, and any survivors among them would curse his memory.