Seppuku is a ritual form of suicide known more popularly in the west as harikari. The word harikari translates as "stomach cutting". It is a form of death which is concerned with notions of honor. It was practiced by the ancient samurai who feared dishonor worse than death. In their eyes death by their own hand was preferable to being humilated by another.The samurai practiced seppuku as a way of taking responsibility for their own actions.
The Japanese of feudal times belived that the spirit resided in the abdomen. That was the reasoning behind cutting open the stomach as a way of proving one's honor, loyalty, and moral courage.
Seppuku has its origins in the Heian period of Japan(795-1192 AD). Prior to the emergence of the samurai as a warrior class, seppuku was a practice foreign to Japan and to the Japanese. It was not until after the introduction of Buddhism that the practice of seppuku became acceptable. Seppuku was viewed by the samurais as a demonstration of their moral character. It could be carried out quickly in the time of war if the samurai felt that they were about to lose a battle to their enemies. These seppukas were performed with little or no formal preparation. Or the seppuka could be ordered by a feudal lord after which an elaborate ceremony would surround the act up to its completion.
Most often, seppuku required at least two people. The person who was comminting the act and an assistant or "kaishaku" pronounced "kie-shah-kuu" who was responsible for cutting of the other person's head when that person told them to do so. The kaishaku was usually a close friend or associate of the other person who had chosen to die. Most samurais who commited seppuku died as a result of beheading, not by cutting open their stomachs which is often belived. Death by cutting open one's stomach could take hours to occur. Even the most robust of samurais would have been unable to bear that kind of agony.
Seppuku was committed for various reasons by the samarais of feudal Japan. In some cases it was a way of showing loyalty to one's leader. Sometimes when the leader of a group died, the samurais who followed him would show their grief by committing seppuku so that they could follow him in death. Other times seppuka was committed to show contempt for an enemy, as a form of protest, and to convince a leader to change a decision that had been previously made.
Sometimes seppuku was used as a form of capital punishment. When capital punishment was ordered to be carried out on a samurai by his leader, the condemned was given the choice between execution at the hands of another person or the option of disembowelment by the condemned own hand. It was considered a privilege to be able to carry out the sentence by yourself rather than be disgraced by being executed by a public headsman. When this privilege was granted to a samurai, the condemned was expected to perform the act without hesitating or showing any signs of uncertainity. Seppuku was a final demonstration of their courage as well as their loyalty to the ideals of the samurai warrior class.
Yukio Mishima had often written about seppuku, suicide, and early death and he had told many people that he wished to die young. In his novels, Mishima used the idea of seppuka not as a way of dying an honorable death or avoiding public humilation at the hands of an executioner for some capital crime, but as a way of taking an anti-modern stance and vindicating a belief in a system long since past.
This anti-modern stance would preoccupy Yukio Mishima not just in his writings, but in his public persona as well. Mishima's fanatical support for Japan's imperial system had caused him to be the subject of ridicule among his country's more prominent intellectuals. For years Mishima had been at odds with Japan's literary and intellectual establishment who following the Second World War were leaning more and more to the left in its political as well as social attitudes. By the time he finally killed himself on November 25, 1970 Mishima was pretty much alienated from all of Japan's major writers and literary critics with the exception of his lifelong mentor Yasunari Kawabata.
Mishima had told many of his friends that when "Sea of Fertility" his four volume work, was completed, that he wanted to die. He said that work on the four novels had drained him and that he felt empty. Seppuku is a theme in his book "Runaway Horses" which is the second volume of the "Sea of Fertility" novels ,as well as being a dominant plot device in his short story "Patriotism". "Patriotism" was later made into an award winning film written and directed by Yukio Mishima. Mishima played the part of the army officer who chooses to commit seppuku in the film. The film was released in 1966. It was an enormous commercial success in Japan.
Click here to read an essay about seppuku and suicide in Japanese literature.
To read an account of seppuku and the way of life of the samurai warrior class Click Here