Seppuku is a ritual form of committing suicide in the Japanese society. Behind this gruesome and barbaric act lies the concept in Japanese thinking that an honorable death is more desirable than a life in shame.
The earliest reliable reports about seppuku are from the 11th century, when several powerful family clans fought for supremacy in feudal Japan. But the habit of committing suicide on the battlefield to avoid being captured by the enemy is certainly much older.
The way of ritual seppuku came up probably during the period of the civil wars in the 15th and 16th century.
With the final unification and pacifying of Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1543-1616, and the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Seppuku was no longer officially supported. It was even forbidden by two decrees - in 1603 and in 1663. But the practice continued to exist nevertheless. It was again officially abolished by the Meiji government in 1868.
The latest known case is from 1970, when Yukio Mishima, a well-known but rather nationalist writer in Japan, committed suicide in seppuku manner. The act caused worldwide attention in the Western media.
Seppuku was considered a privilege for the samurai class and the nobility. Feudal Japanese history is full of cases of defeated enemies, who were 'forced' by their conquerors to commit suicide. This was considered as a grace. The looser received a chance to keep his honor.
If the circumstances allowed it, the ritual suicide was executed in a formal, procedural manner. Even spectators were not uncommon. The suicide candidate was clad in a white kimono. Before the final act, he was expected to write his death poem, formerly a practice common for the higher social classes.
Now the seppuku candidate was supposed to take a short dagger and cut his abdomen by slicing it from the left lower part of his upper body upwards in right direction. This must have been extremely painful. Then the candidate was supposed to lower his neck. This was the sign for the assistant, the kaishakunin, who stood behind him, to proceed to the last step - to blow off the seppuku candidate's head - possibly with one blow of his sword.
The kaishakunin could be a person close to him, sometimes his best friend. The kaishakunin had it in his hands to shorten the suffering of the suicider by executing a strong and swift blow.
Suicide was often committed by samurai warriors and noblemen on the battlefield. Then there was no time for the above ritual and seppuku was done hastily.
The reasons to commit suicide were manifold.
Suicide was not unique for men. For women existed the practice of stabbing into the heart with a knife or a long and sharp hair-pin.
A number of suicides that took actually part in history, became legend and subject to Kabuki plays and thousands of book and ukiyo-e illustrations.
When Yoshitsune was surrounded in his last castle resort by hostile troops sent by his own brother, he killed first his wife and his own children. Then he committed seppuku. This happened in 1189.
In 1582, the reckless tyrant Oda Nobunaga was forced to commit suicide after one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, had successfully revolted against him.
The most spectacular case were the 47 ronin - masterless samurai. The real events happened in 1701 and 1702. Their lord, Asano, had been forced by the Shogun to commit an unjustified suicide for the sole reason of a heated sword duel, that resulted in some minor bruises. The opponent, Kira, had provoked the duel by his rude behavior, but got away without any punishment. The 47 vassals of the dead Asano vowed revenge. In the end, they raided Kira's mansion during a night assault and decapitated Kira with the very same sword used for Asano's suicide. The 46 ronin (one had died before) were arrested and forced to commit seppuku themselves in spite of an outcry of the public.
In 1877 Saigo Takamori, the leader of a rebellion against the imperial Japanese government, was defeated in the battle of Satsuma in Southern Japan. He was wounded and committed seppuku in samurai manner on the battlefield. He became a folk hero for the Japanese people. The story of Saigo Takamori later became the not historically correct background story for the film The Last Samurai.
In 1895, fourty men of the Japanese military protested against the return of the Liaotung peninsula to China by committing seppuku. The Japanese had gained an unexpected and easy victory against the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894/1895. The peninsula had been returned as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, hammered by mediation of the USA.
When Emperor Meiji died in 1912, general Nogi committed seppuku.
Seppuku is a rather frequent topic in Japanese Kabuki and Noh plays. Compared to Western theater plays by Shakespeare or Schiller or Italian operas, this is nothing unusual. Outstanding however is the frequent depiction of suicide scenes in the visual arts of Japan - mainly on ukiyo-e, the traditional woodblock prints. But most seppuku scenes are images, which illustrate Kabuki plays.
Seppuku scenes were designed by all major artists who took commissions from the Kabuki theaters - among them Kunisada Utagawa, 1786-1865 and Kuniyoshi Utagawa, 1797-1861. These images are characterized by the use of a lot of red color for the blood. Among the artists of Japanese woodblock prints, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, 1839-1892 has a reputation for especially bloody prints.
Until today, suicide plays a special role in the Japanese society. Students commit suicide because of a botched university examination, businessmen for the shame of bancrupcy and company employees because they lose their job. The Japanese suicide rate is the highest among industrialized countries.
The suicide rate in Japan is 17 compared to 11 per 100,000 in the USA. On the other hand the murder rate in Japan is only 1 compared to 7 in the USA. Combined chances to die by suicide or by murder are the same in both countries with 18 per 100,000.
Friedrich B. Schwan, "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt", 2003, IUDICIUM Verlag, Postfach 701067, D-81310 München, ISBN 3-89129-749-1.
Author: Dieter Wanczura