Seppuku or ritual disembowelment is often considered by those of us in the western world to be a common form of institutionalized (by ritual)suicide: an ancient custom dating back to the age of Samurai under the code of bushido. However, in Japaneseculture, it escapes this easy stereotype and is considered something much more complex and meaningful than mere suicide. T. Harada, writes: ‘It was not mere suicide. It was an institution, legal and ceremonial…by which warriors could expiate their friends or prove their sincerity’.
From historical evidence as well as by contemposrary Japanese cultural identification with seppuku we can ascertain that “ it is at least questionable whether thinking of seppuku as a variety of suicide is justified” (Fairbairn 144). Seppuku, in its original form as practiced by the bushi, involved slicing open the abdomen normally with a cross-cut from left to right and then slicing upward to the navel. The method might result in the victim living on for hours before death. For a bushi who was accused of a crime, whether innocent or guilty, seppuku was often the only honorable death.
One central reason for the form of seppuku was the fact that the Japanese believed the soul or spirit of a person resided in the abdomen. By cutting open his abdomen the bushi could ‘lay bare his soul’ and show his firmness to atone for his crime, or demonstrate innocence and earnestness. For a bushi who actually committed crimes seppuku was considered a lenient punishment, which preserved his honor and property. “ A samurai might commit seppuku after having felt duty- bound to give his lord sensible but unwelcome advice, as a means of demonstrating his absolute sincerity” (Blomberg 75).
Disembowelment in Japanese History Page -2- The sensational nature of seppuku as a painful and self-punishing act, as it is most commonly viewed by Western eyes is founded on a number of divergences inphilosophyand spirituality that divide the East and West culturally. Foremost among these divergences is the perception of death. In Western society death is viewed in linear terms, with little or no expectation that the “ soul” would be reborn into earthly life.
Japanese culture regarded death as cyclical and based in reincarnation; therefore to die honorably was more important than to live at all costs. “ The connection with death is another part of the image we have of the samurai. The way of the samurai is found in death. aspects of the samurai connection with death figured prominently in Shogun” (Hurst 520). The belief in honor, coupled with the belief in reincarnation and in the cyclical, ever-present force of death, allowed the Japanese to regard seppuku as an act of preservation rather than an act of suicide.
To Western eyes, the samurai willingly commits suicide, but to the Samurai, death and disembowelment is a much preferable remedy to shame or disgrace than living on past the point of moral or martial defeat. To atone for a crime or to acceptresponsibilityfor some error, by seppuku, or to gain glory and honor by the sword in battle: these concepts are one and the same to the Eastern mind. The samurai were conditioned to slaying others, especially peasants, with calm.
“ Although the bushi alone were entitled to be executed by decapitation with a sword, zanzai, a public execution was regarded as a disgrace” (Hurst). Disembowelment in Japanese History Page -3- “ The convicted criminal was paraded through the streets to the common execution ground, with placards recording his crime carried before him. He had to kneel on the ground in order to be dispatched by the public headsman, and his severed head was then gibbeted for a certain period,
with a wooden sign proclaiming his name and the nature of the crime” This disgraceful type of public ridicule disgusted the bushi; “ only samurai proper could be sentenced to commit seppuku as punishment for a crime” (Hurst 521). So, far from an appalling and self-despising act, seppuku evolved out of a Japanese sense of honor and integrity, which, in its formality and tradition becomes rigidly different from contemporary Western standards for moral, ethical or legal punishment. For the Samurai the punishment lay in living, not dying.
Because the seat of the soul was in the abdomen, the naked “ exposure” of one’ soul also confirmed that the act of seppuku was not so much rooted in suicide or self-abnegation, but in revelation and in a (final) demonstration of personal will and moral fortitude. Over the centuries, common citizens sought to copy the ethical system of the leading elite, widening the practice of seppuku far beyond its original elitist conception. In fact, the tradition persisted well into the twentieth century: “ Especially among military men of bushi stock the custom of seppuku lingered on […
] Many of the conspirators behind the attempted military coup of 1936 killed themselves in this manner when the coup failed” (Blomberg 191). In due time a non-lethal, symbolic variant of seppuku penetrated Japanese culture: “ Imagine that the ritual of seppuku was further attenuated so that it involved nothing more than reaching out to a ceremonial dagger after which the seppuku’s aide whirled a ceremonial sword round his head Disembowelment in Japanese History Page -4- three times, then shook the seppuku’s hand.
In this case, seppuku could not be suicide because the individual engaging in it would be aware that by doing so he could not arrange his death. And yet he would have done seppuku”(Fairbairn 145). If there is a widely understood Western parallel to the Japanese practice of seppuku, it may lie in the famous death of Socrates which has been much discussed by historians and philosophers. Socrates’ death as recorded by Plato noted that he had been accused, among other things, of introducing unusual religious practices and of corrupting young people. At his trial he defended himself but was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In the month leading up to his execution by means of a self administered cup of hemlock, Socrates did not accept the possibility for escape arranged by friends because it would have gone against his sense of duty to avoid the punishment decreed by Athens. Then on the appointed day, he drank the hemlock before the hour stipulated for his death. (Holland, 1969, p. 74) Though Socrates drank the cup of hemlock (and so could technically be said to have died by his own hand) “ yet even this cannot make a man a suicide, given the fact that his death was not decreed by him […
]. Suicide would have to have been the case that by acting as he did Socrates intended not only to do that which he ought to do or had to do, but that he wanted to be dead and intended to bring about his death” (Fairbairn 148). The ritual of seppuku is, then, far from being a desperate act of a suicidal nature, an act of self and soul preservation that, viewed through the prism of Japanese history and culture, emerges as a strong symbol of national and racial orientation, particularly impacting views of ethics, honor, and personal responsibility.