Sunday, June 6, 2010

Seppuku: Ritual Suicide

Here we will talk about another topic from the book, "Bushido: the Soul of Japan," which has been introduced in a previous entry on Gaijin Explorer called "Thoughts on Japanese Etiquette." Below is an excerpt from "Bushido: the Soul of Japan," on the topic of seppuku, traditional Japanese suicide as practiced by samurai. As a matter of fact, it is an excerpt from another book called, "Tales of Old Japan", and notes the account of a foreigner who personally witnessed a seppuku ritual. After reading much about Japanese culture, this is the first such account I have ever come across.
"We (seven foreign representatives) were invited to follow the Japanese witnesses into the hondo, or main hall of the temple, where the ceremony was to be performed. It was an imposing scene. A large hall with a high roof supported by dark pillars of wood. From the ceiling hung a profusion of those huge gilt lamps and ornaments peculiar to Buddhist temples. In front of the high altar, where the floor, covered with beautiful white mats, is raised some three or four inches from the ground, was laid a rug of scarlet felt. Tall candles placed at regular intervals gave out a dim mysterious light, just sufficient to let all the proceedings be seen. The seven Japanese took their places on the left of the raised floor, the seven foreigners on the right. No other person was present.

"After the interval of a few minutes of anxious suspense, Taki Zenzaburo, a stalwart man thirty-two years of age, with a noble air, walked into the hall attired in his dress of ceremony, with the peculiar hempen-cloth wings which are worn on great occasions. He was accompanied by a kaishaku and three officers, who wore the jimboari or war surcoat with gold tissue facings. The word kaishaku, it should be observed, is one to which our word executioner is no equivalent term. The office is that of a gentleman; in many cases it is performed by a kinsman or friend of the condemned, and the relation between them is rather that of principal and second than that of victim and executioner. In this instance, the kaishaku was a pupil of Taki Zenzaburo, and was selected by friends of the latter from among their own number for his skill in swordsmanship.

"With the kaishaku on his left hand, Taki Zenzaburo advanced slowly toward the Japanese witnesses, and the two bowed before them, then drawing near to the foreigners they saluted us in the same way, perhaps even with more deference; in each case the salutation was ceremoniously returned. Slowly and with great dignity the condemned man mounted on to the raised floor, prostrated himself before the high altar twice, and seated himself on the felt carpet with his back to the high altar, the kaishaku crouching on his left-hand side. One of the three attendant officers then came forward, bearing a stand of the kind used in the temple for offerings, on which, wrapped in paper, lay the wakizashi, the short sword or dirk of the Japanese, nine inches and a half in length, with a point and an edge as sharp as a razor's. This he handed, prostrating himself, to the condemned man, who received it reverently raising it to his head with both hands, and placed it in front of himself.

"After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:-

"'I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.'

"Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backward; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately with a steady hand he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist in the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to his right side, and turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

"A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible."

Well ... what do you think?

Seppuku was a legal and ceremonial ritual that was performed when a samurai wished to "expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity." To my knowledge the ritual is perfomed as is recounted in the passage above, and as you may have noticed, seppuku is not just stabbing yourself in the stomach with a knife to die, but the ideal follows that you would cut across your belly from left to right, and then upwards making an L-shape incision. To do so without a sound and with your eyes open was of the noblest kind, anything less would reveal weakness. An interesting thought is that by opening the bowels, one reveals to it's viewers the person's true virtue; one can judge the purity and honesty of a man by literally seeing his guts.

I wonder how many thousands or millions of Japanese have committed seppuku in history.

I have read widely on this subject, and Mr. Nitobe's writing is certainly the best I've come across. For those curious for more information, I highly recommend you to read his book, "Bushido: the Soul of the Samurai." I take fancy with so many traditions from Japan, perhaps more so than any other culture in the world, but I do not understand seppuku. I can conceive to try to understand a human's suicide, but this one of seppuku that was so highly revered and institutionalized by feudal Japan reveals nothing of merit to me. Thoughts of the story of Abraham from the Bible pass through my mind. Abraham, the man who was asked by God to kill his own son, which was carried out until the last second when God said that it was not necessary and the task was merely a test of his faith. In all honesty, what the fuck? It is said that wisdom of Japan is not wisdom to acquire but experience to feel, and the same could be said for Christianity, and so I may never penetrate the Greatness of these acts of killing. And you know what? I think that's fine. When I think of bushido, I think of purifying oneself to experience higher levels of existence through right conduct in our seemingly dirty and chaotic world. I have grand images of loyalty and honor; loyalty and honor to the life I am lucky enough to have. I will honorably follow my life to the end, but that end will not be of my own hand.


  1. Wow, my day just took a really dark turn.

  2. Ah, but what about the bright shining of an honorable death! Ha, I really love this account though. Gives a lot of attention to detail, and then sums up with a feeling must gaijin would feel: "it was horrible."