The Sound of Waves

The Sound of Waves Seppuku

Seppuku, or hara-kiri more informally, is a form of ritual suicide practiced by Japanese samurai and daimyo. It was originally just for the samurai as part of their bushido code, but has been practiced by many other Japanese throughout the centuries. Seppuku comes from the word setsu, "to cut", and fuku, "abdomen." It was usually a single horizontal cut, which was then followed by decapitation from an accomplice called a kaishakunin. A more painful version also exists, however; both a vertical and horizontal cut are administered and the performer then waits calmly to bleed to death without being decapitated.

There are several reasons for a samurai to commit seppuku, which include personal shame deriving from cowardice in combat, dishonesty, or moral failing, or a judicial punishment ordered for a samurai by a daimyo or for a daimyo by his shogun due to some wrong that the subordinate committed. Seppuku on a battlefield was often executed quickly, with the defeated samurai disemboweling himself with his short sword or dagger and a comrade decapitating him afterward.

Seppuku that was planned, however, was more time-consuming and intricate, characterized by extensive rituals completed before the act. It was usually completed in a garden or Buddhist temple. The performer dresses in white to symbolize the purity of their intention and sits upon their heels on the ground. They receive from their servant a wooden table with a sake cup, a sheaf of paper, writing utensils, and a disemboweling blade. True samurai used their wakizashi, or sword.

First, the samurai's cup is filled with sake by his servant, and then is drunk in two drinks of two sips each. A death poem is then composed. The samurai then takes off his outer garment. He draws his blade and plunges it into the left side of his stomach and then draws it across to the right. The kaishakunin will intervene at any sign of hesitation. His job is also to decapitate the samurai, but the intention was not to sever the head but to leave it attached by a strip of skin at the throat. This was to prevent the indignity that arose from the messiness of a severed head rolling about the sacred space.

Minamoto no Yorimasa was the first recorded individual to commit seppuku at the Battle of Uji in 1180. This soon became a recognized component of the samurai code to prevent warriors from falling into the hands of their enemies and avoiding shame and torture. The first time a European observed and recorded a seppuku was in 1868; this was the "Sakai Incident," in which nearly a dozen French sailors arrived at the Japanese town of Sakai but did not announce their presence, resulting in panic and chaos. After some of the sailors were shot dead in a scuffle, the responsible parties were sentenced to death and started to commit ritual disembowelment before the captain. In surprise and horror, he pardoned the remaining samurai. Several other 19th century accounts of Europeans witnessing seppuku exist.

Even though seppuku died out as a judicial punishment in the late 1800s after the Meiji Restoration, several notable individuals still committed the act. In 1895 a few military men committed seppuku as a protest for returning conquered territory to China; General Nogi and his wife performed the act when Emperor Meiji died; some Japanese chose this fate rather than death or capture by the Americans during WWII; and Yukio Mishima, Japan's most notable author, committed seppuku after a failed nationalist coup in 1970.