SEPPUKU; TODAY, AND NOT WITHOUT REASON, THE ACT OF SUICIDE IS A TABOO AND HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT, BUT IT WAS NOT ALWAYS SO.
IN SOCIETIES SUCH AS CLASSICAL GREECE OR ROME, AND EVEN IN MASSIVE IBERIAN EXAMPLES SUCH AS THE TAKING OF NUMANCIA, THE PRACTICE OF SUICIDE WAS RELATED IN CERTAIN CASES TO ASPECTS SUCH AS HONOUR, RESISTANCE OR THE RECOGNITION OF GUILT. SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENED IN MEDIEVAL JAPANESE SOCIETY WITH HARAKIRI.
Called seppuku, harakiri or hara-kiri “cutting of the belly”) was the Japanese ritual suicide by unravelling. Seppuku was part of bushido, the ethical code of the samurai, and was performed voluntarily in order to die with honour rather than fall into the hands of the enemy and be tortured, or as a form of capital punishment for those who had committed serious offences or had disgraced themselves. The seppuku ceremony is part of a more elaborate ritual usually performed in front of onlookers by thrusting a short weapon into the abdomen, traditionally a tanto, and cutting from left to right. Seppuku was a key part of bushido, the code of samurai warriors. The act could be voluntary, used by warriors to avoid falling into enemy hands or to atone for a breach of the code of honour, or compulsory, by order of a feudal shogun or court in the event of a samurai committing a crime of murder, theft, corruption, etc. In such a case, the accused was usually placed in the custody of a trusted daimyo and given a time limit for the completion of seppuku. If this was not done, the defendant was automatically executed. Seppuku was usually carried out in due time, as the family of an executed person inherited his dishonour and was deprived of the property they were responsible for, which meant losing their membership of the samurai caste and, in many cases, practically starving to death. Before performing seppuku, they drank sake and composed a final farewell poem called zeppitsu or yuigon, almost always on the back of the tessen or war fan. At the fateful moment, the practitioner would kneel in the seiza position, open his kimono – usually white, which even today is only worn by corpses – tuck the sleeves of the kimono under his knees – to prevent his body from falling unseemly backwards in death, carefully wrapped the tanto blade (dagger about 20-30 cm long) in rice paper – since dying with blood on his hands was considered dishonourable – and proceeded to plunge the dagger into his abdomen.
The whole ritual consisted of plunging the dagger into the left side with the blade to the right, cutting to the right firmly, then returning to the centre and finishing with a vertical cut almost to the sternum. But of course this was too painful and at the same time unpleasant for the audience. It could easily result in part of the intestinal packet spilling out onto the floor. Moreover, the samurai did not die instantly, but suffered an agony of several hours. Since neither the practitioner of seppuku wanted to suffer so much, nor did the public want to watch this macabre spectacle, a suicide helper, kaishaku in Japanese, was made available to the practitioner. This kaishaku was often selected for the purpose by the condemned man himself. Often it was a friend or relative. His mission was to stand by the practitioner’s side and behead him at the appropriate time. This time was usually set in advance at the will of the suicide. Most commonly, a signal was agreed upon to be given by the one who was about to die, after which the assistant acted with deadly swiftness. In most cases, the executioners did not actually strike the target and the simple gesture of taking the dagger and bringing it close to him was the signal for the kaishaku. Some samurai measured the value of seppuku practitioners according to how far they had gone in the practice of the ritual before the assistant proceeded with the decapitation, with those who managed to perform the vertical cut to the sternum being considered of exceptional value.
Noblewomen could commit suicide for a multitude of reasons: to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy, to follow their husband or lord in death, when ordered to commit suicide, etc. And technically, a woman’s suicide is not considered harakiri or seppuku, but rather “suicide”, jigai in Japanese, as opposed to the usual term for the word, jisatsu. The main difference with seppuku is that, instead of cutting open the abdomen, in jigai a cut was made in the neck, severing the carotid artery with a double-edged dagger called a kaiken. Beforehand, the woman had to tie her ankles, thighs or knees with a rope, so as not to suffer the dishonour of dying with her legs open when she fell.
Although seppuku was officially banned in Japan in 1873 as a judicial penalty, its actual practice has not completely disappeared. There are dozens of documented cases of people who have voluntarily performed seppuku since then, including the 1895 case of several soldiers who performed it in protest at the return of conquered territory to China, General Maresuke Nogi, Emperor Hirohito’s educator, and his wife upon the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, and many soldiers who chose to die rather than accept surrender in the aftermath of World War II. On 25 April 1911, the famous Italian writer Emilio Salgari took his own life in Turin by practising this technique with a yatagan, and in 1970, the famous writer Yukio Mishima and one of his followers performed a semi-public seppuku as a protest against the moral misery and degradation of having abandoned the ancient Japanese virtues and adopted the Western way of life. Mishima performed it in the office of General Kanetoshi Mashita, having addressed the troops in the barracks to join them in the act of protest. His kaishakunin, a 25-year-old man named Masakatsu Morita, tried three times to behead him without success. Finally, it was Hiroyasu Koga who carried out the beheading. Subsequently, Morita proceeded to perform his own harakiri, in regret for not having been able to assist Mishima’s harakiri. Although his cuts were not deep enough to be fatal, he signalled to Koga to behead him as well.