Seppuku: Inside The Ancient Samurai Suicide Ritual

Kunikazu Utagawa
Private Harakiri
Samurai Suicide
Seppuku: Inside The Ancient Samurai Suicide Ritual
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The Japanese samurai tradition of seppuku has gone down in history as one of the grisliest and most painful ways to end one's life. The practice involved a highly ritualized process of essentially disemboweling oneself with a dagger and either bleeding out or having a peer finish the job by beheading.

The centuries-old practice was once common in Japan's military and it wasn't until World War II that it seemed to finally be put to rest. Like the traditions of many Old World cultures, the dying out of Seppuku was the result of Japan being pushed into the modern world during the 19th century.

Before then, Japan had been closed off from much of the Western world, only having contact with the Chinese and occasional Dutch trade ships. It wasn't until Europeans and Americans eventually forced their way into trading with Japan that its upheaval into modern society began to occur. During this time, the Japanese government began to reform and was met with pushback from the samurai class.

The killing of foreigners or those who did business with them by samurai wasn't all that uncommon. And in 1863, when Emperor Kōmei issued an order to "expel all barbarians" (Westerners), the samurai gladly did the expelling with their katanas.

This led to an incident in 1868 when samurai soldiers killed 11 unarmed French sailors who were in the coastal town of Sakai to trade. Seeking justice, Japan's French consul, Léon Roches, insisted that the samurai be executed.

Roches had assumed that the samurai would be executed by beheading or firing squad and sent one of his captains, Bergasse du Petit-Thouars, to witness the execution. What du Petit-Thouars saw instead was samurai marching out and performing seppuku one by one, followed by a particularly poor assist from their peers at beheading. The event was enough for him to stop the execution of the ordered 20 men at 11 suicides.

The incident drove the point home to Western diplomats in Japan that, for samurai, seppuku was not a deterrent against killing foreigners. An imperial decree was eventually handed down, declaring that samurai who killed foreigners would be stripped of their rank and punished accordingly. This meant that they would not be permitted the honor of ending their life with seppuku.

However, seppuku would see somewhat of a resurgence during World War II when Japanese officers would opt to kill themselves with their swords rather than surrender to Allied forces. But with the Allied forces taking control of Japan and forcing the country to adopt the Constitution of Japan over the Meiji Constitution, Japan went through another cultural upheaval.

The Emperor became only a figurehead and a parliamentary government was put in place, rendering seppuku a tradition that had no place in the Japan that emerged in the second half of the 20th century and on to the present day.

Next, check out more of Japan's Imperial era and be sure and dive deeper into the lost ways of the last samurai. Then, read up on R. Budd Dwyer, the American politician who killed himself in front of television cameras.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice is a writer who enjoys digging into all things pop culture, history, science, and anything weird.
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