HONOR: Seppuku and the Samurai (witness accounts)


Seppuku (maybe you’ve heard of its other form, Harai-kiri) is something you’ll probably never see. You’ve also probably heard that it was a Samurai’s way of “dying with honor” – that way being to die by stabbing himself in the abdomen…that’s kind of true:

Seppuku wasn’t just stabbing yourself in the sweet abs and dying an honorable death. When performing seppuku, the dishonored samurai would usually dress in white, have a last meal, write a death poem, then perform the seppuku ceremony to restore honor to himself and his family.  However, it wasn’t just him getting all stabby, no, the samurai would grab a short knife called a tanto mid-blade (a piece of cloth was usually wrapped around the middle of the blade for a better grip), stab it into their left side and draw it across the abdomen thereby gutting themselves.  It was at this point they would lean forward and extend the neck for the kaishakunin (usually his buddy or a combat enemy that felt he fought with bravery) to decapitate them.

Crazy, huh?

Prior to performing the seppuku, the samurai would pull his arms out of the ceremonial white outfit and tuck the sleeves under his knees so the uniform would brace their back.  This was done so that when the body went limp they would fall forward which was considered the honorable way…on your back wasn’t the way to go.  The kaishakunin’s goal was to then decapitate with such precision that the head would come off but leave a little skin in the front so the head would fall into a sort of cradled position. 

This is what seppuku was, and it’s how the Japanese restored honor.  That being said, there was a man that served as an ambassador to Japan and witnessed a few of these ceremonies.  Keep in mind that the practice of seppuku was sort of a wives tale and he saw this stuff happen.  Here are some of his accounts from his book, Tales of Old Japan:

1) I will add one anecdote to show the sanctity which is attached to the graves of the Forty-seven. In the month of September 1868, a certain man came to pray before the grave of Oishi Chikara. Having finished his prayers, he deliberately performed hara-kiri, and, the belly wound not being mortal, dispatched himself by cutting his throat. Upon his person were found papers setting forth that, being a Ronin and without means of earning a living, he had petitioned to be allowed to enter the clan of the Prince of Choshiu, which he looked upon as the noblest clan in the realm; his petition having been refused, nothing remained for him but to die, for to be a Ronin was hateful to him, and he would serve no other master than the Prince of Choshiu: what more fitting place could he find in which to put an end to his life than the graveyard of these Braves? This happened at about two hundred yards’ distance from my house, and when I saw the spot an hour or two later, the ground was all bespattered with blood, and disturbed by the death-struggles of the man.

2)There are many stories on record of extraordinary heroism being displayed in the harakiri. The case of a young fellow, only twenty years old, of the Choshiu clan, which was told me the other day by an eye-witness, deserves mention as a marvellous instance of determination. Not content with giving himself the one necessary cut, he slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side, with its sharp edge to the front; setting his teeth in one supreme effort, he drove the knife forward with both hands through his throat, and fell dead.

And a pretty insane account…

3) As a corollary to the above elaborate statement of the ceremonies proper to be observed at the harakiri, I may here describe an instance of such an execution which I was sent officially to witness. The condemned man was Taki Zenzaburo, an officer of the Prince of Bizen, who gave the order to fire upon the foreign settlement at Hyōgo in the month of February 1868,—an attack to which I have alluded in the preamble to the story of the Eta Maiden and the Hatamoto. Up to that time no foreigner had witnessed such an execution, which was rather looked upon as a traveller’s fable. The ceremony, which was ordered by the Mikado himself, took place at 10:30 at night in the temple of Seifukuji, the headquarters of the Satsuma troops at Hiogo. A witness was sent from each of the foreign legations. We were seven foreigners in all. After another profound obeisance, Taki Zenzaburo, in a voice which betrayed just so much emotion and hesitation as might be expected from a man who is making a painful confession, but with no sign of either in his face or manner, spoke as follows:

I, and I alone, unwarrantably gave the order to fire on the foreigners at Kobe, and again as they tried to escape. For this crime I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.

Bowing once more, the speaker allowed his upper garments to slip down to his girdle, and remained naked to the waist. Carefully, according to custom, he tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backwards; for a noble Japanese gentleman should die falling forwards. Deliberately, with a steady hand, he took the dirk that lay before him; he looked at it wistfully, almost affectionately; for a moment he seemed to collect his thoughts for the last time, and then stabbing himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side, he drew the dirk slowly across to the right side, and, turning it in the wound, gave a slight cut upwards. During this sickeningly painful operation he never moved a muscle of his face. When he drew out the dirk, he leaned forward and stretched out his neck; an expression of pain for the first time crossed his face, but he uttered no sound. At that moment the kaishaku, who, still crouching by his side, had been keenly watching his every movement, sprang to his feet, poised his sword for a second in the air; there was a flash, a heavy, ugly thud, a crashing fall; with one blow the head had been severed from the body.

A dead silence followed, broken only by the hideous noise of the blood throbbing out of the inert heap before us, which but a moment before had been a brave and chivalrous man. It was horrible.

The kaishaku made a low bow, wiped his sword with a piece of rice paper which he had ready for the purpose, and retired from the raised floor; and the stained dirk was solemnly borne away, a bloody proof of the execution. The two representatives of the Mikado then left their places, and, crossing over to where the foreign witnesses sat, called us to witness that the sentence of death upon Taki Zenzaburo had been faithfully carried out. The ceremony being at an end, we left the temple. The ceremony, to which the place and the hour gave an additional solemnity, was characterized throughout by that extreme dignity and punctiliousness which are the distinctive marks of the proceedings of Japanese gentlemen of rank; and it is important to note this fact, because it carries with it the conviction that the dead man was indeed the officer who had committed the crime, and no substitute. While profoundly impressed by the terrible scene it was impossible at the same time not to be filled with admiration of the firm and manly bearing of the sufferer, and of the nerve with which the kaishaku performed his last duty to his master.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a level of honor that has been wayyyy lost.  I can’t even imagine the preparation that would go into something like that.  This wasn’t only limited to samurai…eventually it became an option for the condemned…and if the condemned refused, well, they would basically tie them down and do it anyway…better to go under your own power I would imagine.



Categories: EVERYTHING (in no particular order), Jiu Jitsu and Judo

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1 reply

  1. I think the most admirable thing to note about this scene is not just the willingness to understand and carry out one’s own execution… but the fact which the foreign representative notes specifically: it was the man who gave the order and “no substitute”. I truly admire this about traditional Japanese history… the sense that taking responsibility for something MUST equate “scale of mistake” to “how high up the chain of command it goes”. I once saw an example in Japanese culture when a subordinate tried to take responsibility for a screw-up she was ordered by her superior to “bite her tongue” (translation). She was told in no uncertain terms that she was not important enough to be the “fall guy” for how big the screw-up was. Presumably the hidden message was “how dare you try and save MY ass when the buck SHOULD stop higher on the food chain”.

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