By William Wetherall
First posted 15 December 2005
Last updated 1 January 2006
See also Chushingura.
The "Gift of death" section of this article was originally written for the Japanese National Tourist Organization in 2000 and appeared on its website as "Did people really commit harakiri?" The article was commissioned and written with two articles on Chushingura, which have also been incorporated into a more general article on this website.
Gift of death
The pretext for seppuku was merely a Japanese variation of the universal "gift of death" allowed members of privileged classes in countries throughout the world.
Harakiri, or "belly cutting", is more commonly called seppuku, or "cutting the belly", in Japanese. The origins of seppuku are not clear. There are no reports of seppuku in any of the many early histories, though a "belly-slicing marsh" in an 8th-century text is said to have gotten its name from a goddess who opened her belly, apparently mortified that her godmate failed to show up as promised.
Seppuku does not appear in Japanese literature until the 12th century, while some Japanese sources cite BCE Chinese accounts of warriors who apparently disemboweled themselves in battle. In fact, most earlier acts of seppuku were committed on a battlefield in the face of defeat, to avoid the indignity of being killed or captured by a foe. Similar acts of desperation, varying only in method, are described in literature the world over, including the Old Testament.
Seppuku was sometimes committed off the battlefield as a plea for someone to do something, or as a protest of innocence. More often, though, it was an act of self-execution for an infraction of a code of behavior, as in the "Chushingura" story.
As a self-administered death penalty, whether taken upon oneself voluntarily or ordered by the authorities, seppuku was not suicide, for refusal would have meant decapitation as a common criminal. Only members of the warrior caste were allowed to punish themselves this way. This pretext for seppuku was merely a Japanese variation of the universal "gift of death" allowed members of privileged classes in countries throughout the world, from the ancient Greece of Socrates to Agatha Christie's Great Britain.
The acts of suicide, some by seppuku, committed by a few Japanese military personnel and leaders during and after World War II, all fall within the "normal" range of "abnormal" human behavior, however shocking they may seem, even to many Japanese.
History of seppuku
To be continued.