Seppuku, a highly ritualized form of suicide that involved cutting one’s own stomach, was once part of the bushido samurai code, and considered an honorable way to die and, until the 20th century, was quite common. So what happened? Why did this practice die out?
Now, this is not to say that suicide is not still a relatively common practice in Japan, nor that some people don’t attach rituals to their suicide. But, while martial suicide is a practice found in numerous cultures, the act of ritual self-disembowlment is peculiar to Japan. However, after World War II, the act of seppuku has become so rare as to be shocking. The seppuku of famed author Yukio Mishima in 1970 was seen as anachronistic and something of a national embarrassment, and judoka Isao Inokuma’s 2001 death by seppuku was an anomaly. But in the 19th century, seppuku was not only a relatively common practice, it was a much-desired death among members of the samurai class.
For two centuries, Japan existed in relative isolation. It was forbidden for Japanese citizens to leave the country, and trade with the outside world was limited to Chinese and Dutch ships, which were permitted to enter Nagasaki harbor. But in the mid-19th century, all that changed when Americans and Russians invaded Japan, taking trading rights by force. What resulted was a period of major social upheaval for Japan.
Many members of the samurai class resented the government reforms that came with reopening the ports and the appearance of foreigners on their shores. The imperial household had long held a largely symbolic position in Japan, but with the appearance of these foreigners came a kind of cultural fundamentalism, with many Japanese recommitting to the Emperor against the Japanese government. It was also a period that saw a number of killings of foreigners and those who made treaties with foreigners by members of the samurai class. Some of these samurai (who, in order to avoid bringing punishment down on their lords, would sometimes renounce their lords and become rōnin) would commit voluntary seppuku following these killings. Others were arrested and, if they were fortunate, permitted to commit obligatory seppuku as a judiciary punishment.
Matters were not helped by the Emperor Kōmei, who in 1863 issued an order to “expel all barbarians.” While the government was passing reforms to modernize Japan, many samurai took this as moral permission to kill foreigners. Westerners who made the mistake of pushing their ways through samurai processions (something considered extraordinarily rude) or violated Japanese laws, might find themselves on the wrong end of a samurai’s blade.
It was during this period that the Western fascination with seppuku (known by the somewhat more lurid term “hara-kiri” by Western writers). British diplomats Ernest Satow and Algernon Mitford witnessed incidents of judiciary seppuku and published detailed accounts of what they saw back home. Far from believing seppuku to be a barbaric practice, these writers stressed the nobility (and impressively quiet decorum) with which the condemned conducted themselves, and deemed it an honorable act of chivalry.
But things changed with the 1868 Incident at Sakai. Sakai is a costal town, which at that time was still closed off to foreigners, but in March of 1868, thirteen French sailors rowed to shore. There is some disagreement about what they did while they were there; some claimed that the sailors were a bit rowdy while eyewitnesses reported that they had only purchased some fruit. But the samurai of the Tosa clan took this small foreign invasion quite seriously, killing eleven of the unarmed sailors. Japan’s French consul, Léon Roches, insisted that the culprits be executed. Twenty samurai, mostly chosen by lots, were sentenced to death by obligatory seppuku.
Roches sent one of his captains, Bergasse du Petit-Thouars, to witness the execution, which they had anticipated would be by beheading. Much to Du Petit-Thouars’ surprise, the first samurai, Minoura Inokichi, marched out, shouted insults at him (saying, “You won’t want to eat meat after this, Frenchmen!”) and disemboweled himself. This was actually a particularly aggressive and grisly seppuku ceremony, lacking much of the reserved decorum that Satow and Mitford had written about. On top of that, the kaishaku, whose job it was to chop off the head of the seppuku practitioner once he had finished cutting his stomach, were particularly incompetent, hacking through the samurais’ necks rather than slicing them off with a single cut.
After eleven samurai had cut their stomachs, Du Petit-Thouars declared that the ceremony was over. Eleven samurai had died for the murders of eleven soldiers, and the captain decided that was sufficient. Believing he was performing an act of mercy, Du Petit-Thouars left over the objections of his Japanese hosts. This actually proved a grave mistake, with the official Japanese reports calling the Frenchman a coward. The Westerners were little kinder, with Satow shaking his head at Du Petit-Thouars’ actions, saying that he made it seem that the French were more interested in revenge than justice.
Other Western diplomats living in Japan learned something very important from this incident: judiciary seppuku was not a deterrent to killing Westerners. A glorious and honorable martyrdom was hardly a punishment to the more xenophobic samurai. The British consul general petitioned the government to outlaw judiciary seppuku, and by April 8th, an imperial decree had been handed down, saying that any samurai who killed a foreigner would “be stripped of their rank, and will meet with a suitable punishment.” Translation: even if a samurai is the one who kills a foreigner, judiciary seppuku would be out of his reach. That did, in fact, prove a deterrent to killing foreigners. There was one incident in 1870 when a battle between two rival samurai factions did result in a final judiciary seppuku, but otherwise, the practice was dead in the courts.
While judiciary seppuku may have ended with the imperial decree, martial seppuku continued as a dying cry of the samurai class. In 1868, a return to imperial rule under Emperor Meiji was announced. This was the proceeded by the resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu as shogun and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate — which, in turn, initiated the decline of the samurai.
Many samurai who remained loyal to the shogunate were displeased with the new direction that the country was taking, and anti-imperial samurai rebellions raged in the following decade. Perhaps the most famous to Western readers is the Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigō Takamori, whose final stand against the Meiji government provided the historical basis for The Last Samurai.
Takamori didn’t have the opportunity to commit seppuku himself; he died from bullet wounds during the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877. But so certain were his supporters that he would take control of his own death that commemorative prints of his imagined seppuku appeared immediately, and it took years for people to understand how Takamori really died.
But there were other famous incidents of seppuku during this period. During an 1868 battle in Aizu during the Boshin War, the youngest brigade of soldiers was known as the Byakkotai the “White Tiger Force.” The brigade was supposed to consist of 16 and 17-year old sons of the Aizu samurai, but some of the boys were even younger. During the battle, 20 members of the squad looked over the castle town and believed that they saw a fire. Thinking that their force had been defeated and their lord was dead, the boys decided to commit suicide. One read a death poem, in accordance with the samurai tradition. They then proceeded to kill themselves and each other in a number of ways, some of them driving their blades into their stomachs. One boy, Iinuma Sadakichi, survived his wounds and learned the terrible truth: the smoke they had seen was from cannon and rifle fire. The castle was not on fire and the battle had not yet been lost. The boys’ tragic adherence to the samurai code immortalized them, however. When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini heard the story, he donated a column from Pompei to stand by the boys’ graves.
In 1876, the Meiji government put a major nail in the coffins of the samurai class and seppuku by banning the carrying of swords. Only commissioned army officers and certain security officials, it decreed, could carry swords. Supporters of the samurai were incensed. The sword was a symbol inherently tied to the samurai, and a ban on swords made anti-reformist outrage even stronger.
Kaya Harukata, a Shinto priest, and his former classmate Ōtagurō Tomō founded a new Shinto faction, called Keishin-tō, the Party of Divine Reverence. It became more commonly known, however, as Kumamoto Shinpūren, the Kumamoto League of the Divine Wind. Harukata and Tomō recruited the sons of samurai families and students from the Shinto schools, many of them teenagers. Others were men outraged by what they saw as the decline of Japanese culture. In the end, the force was less than 200 men strong, but they decided to attack Kumamoto, where an Imperial Japanese Army was stationed. It was 173 samurai against some 2000 armed troops. And, to make the odds even worse, the Shinpūren fought only with swords, a symbol of their commitment to the samurai way of life.
Although the samurai made an impressive showing against the superior manpower and firepower of the Imperial Army force, they were eventually beaten back. A few dozen made it back to their shrine, where they decided to disband and say their farewells to the living world.
The suicides went on for days, with the defeated fighters disemboweling themselves to avoid capture. Some performed seppuku while on the run from the army and police. Others made it to their homes, where they were able to speak with their family members before slicing their bellies. Still others went to relatives, friends, and temples to find a venue for their suicide. All told, 87 of the rebels died by suicide. The tale of the Shinpūren Rebellion would inspire other anti-reformists, but samurai culture eventually lost out; the Meiji government was victorious and the emperor remained in power until his death in 1912.
Modernization, it seemed, had killed seppuku.
Thirty-five years after the Shinpūren Rebellion, former Commander of the Imperial Third Army General Nogi Maresuke begged off the funeral of Emperor Meiji and was later found dead from two crossed wounds gut across his stomach. Nogi was himself a member of the samurai class, but during the early Meiji period, he took the side of the imperial government, crushing the very rebels that his friends and family were often sympathetic to. In fact, Nogi’s younger brother was killed fighting for the rebels during an insurrection in Hagi.
Nogi may have become suicidal after an incident involving the Satsuma Rebellion, during which he lost the regimental flag presented to him by Emperor Meiji. A fellow officer, Kodama Gentarō reported that, after the flag was lost, he discovered Nogi about to disembowel himself and ended up confiscating the man’s sword. After the emperor died in September 1912, Nogi put his affairs in order, rewriting his will and visiting his friends. Then, on the day of the funeral, he and his wife went into a large windowed room in their residence where Nogi stabbed his wife (this appears to have been consensual on her part) and then sliced his own abdomen.
The Japanese reaction to Nogi’s death speaks volumes about how the Japanese viewed seppuku at the time. This sort of death was anachronistic, and some commentators were actually quite outraged by it. Nogi had committed a violent act from Japan’s past while Japan was enjoying a more modern image in the world. It struck some as selfish, sullying the national character for his own samurai ego. The message was clear: seppuku was not an act that belonged in modern Japan.
Martial suicide would see a resurgence during World War II, including acts of seppuku. And when World War II found the Allies victorious, many officers decided to kill themselves rather than surrender. But in the wake of World War II, Japan underwent another great upheaval. The Allied forces occupied Japan and forced the country to abolish the Meiji Constitution in favor of the Constitution of Japan. The Emperor became a figurehead once again as Japan adopted a parliamentary-based government. And when, in 1970, Yukio Mishima barricaded himself in an office of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, delivered a speech demanding that power be returned to the emperor, and then disemboweled himself, the reaction from embarrassed Japanese commentators was non unlike the response to Nogi’s suicide: that seppuku was simply not an act that belonged to modern Japan.
Source: Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide by Andrew Rankin
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.