Samurai Committing Seppuku | A Japanese Suicide Ritual

ritual seppuku suicide ceremony

In Japan, honor and dignity have long been a central part of the culture. In the feudal era, especially, honor was important in nearly every strata of Japanese hierarchy. Even in modern Japan, the Bushido principles and values that drove every samurai decision are used to influence and inspire Japanese people to be better. Seppuku was an integral part of life as far back as 1170 — the first recorded instance of the act. If you’re interested in learning more about this Japanese suicide ritual, read on here for a brief overview from our experts.

What is Seppuku?

Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri, translates to a phrase along the lines of “cutting the belly.” It is a Japanese suicide ritual by disembowelment. It was always voluntary and consisted of the person performing the elaborate ritual on themselves. A samurai committing seppuku would plunge either a wakizashi, tachi, or tanto into their gut and slice horizontally. Then, they would remove the blade and stab themselves in the heart or slash across their own throat to ensure death.

Becoming a Ritual

In the 1600s, during the Edo Period, seppuku was standardized to include an elaborate ritual — usually performed in front of an audience. The samurai, or another high-ranking individual, would bathe and dress elaborately in white robes. After eating a last meal and writing their death poem, they would enter an arena of sorts and sit in front of a knife on a piece of cloth. The ceremonial drink of sake began the ritual. The samurai would then open their kimono, pick up the knife, and plunge it into their stomach.

At this point in time, the Japanese suicide ritual had evolved to include a second (usually a trusted friend or advisor) who would complete the ceremony by decapitating the samurai in one swing.

Why Did Samurai Commit Seppuku?

samurai committing seppuku after invasion

There are several reasons why samurai would choose to commit seppuku including:

  • After defeat in battle

  • To avoid torture or falling into enemy hands

  • At the command of their lord

  • Because of an extremely dishonorable act

  • Due to the death of their lord

  • As part of a peace agreement between clans

Most of the time, only samurai were expected or allowed to perform seppuku, but there are cases in which vassals and nobility committed Japanese ritual suicide. Vassals usually committed a type of ritual suicide called junshi when their lord died.

Notable nobles who committed suicide after defeat or at the order of their lords include:

  • Minamoto no Yorimasa, poet and warrior monk (1180)

  • Hōjō Takatoki & Family, last regent of the Kamakura shogunate (1333)

  • Oda Nobunaga, feudal lord and Great Unifier of Japan (1582)

  • Sen no Rikyū, historical figure and father of the Japanese “Way of Tea” (1591)

  • Chujiro Hayashi, a disciple of Reiki who made it an international practice (1940)

  • Yoshitsugu Saitō, lieutenant general in the Japanese army during WWII (1944)

Seppuku in Modern Japan

poet and author yukio mishima
olympic athlete isao inokuma

Seppuku is no longer used as capital punishment after it was abolished in 1873, but voluntary ritual suicide is still a part of Japanese culture. While seppuku is far more rare in modern times, the most recent Japanese ritual suicides were performed by poet and author, Yukio Mishima, in 1970 after an attempted coup, and by Olympic medalist, Isao Inokuma, in 2001 possibly due to financial losses.

The practice of seppuku further solidifies Japan’s reputation as a highly principled nation whose people prefer death over dishonor. Explore the Swords of Northshire blog to learn more about Japanese history and culture today.

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