Rat's Nest
Bloggage, rants, and occasional notes of despair

The fine art of seppuku

It's all Charles Austin's fault.

OK, it's actually the bourbon's fault.  He did send me an e-mail that made me think of it, though.

The Fine Art of Seppuku

Seppuku (only gaijin refer to it as "hari-kari") is a highly ritualized performance, as complicated as chado (tea ceremony). The principle difference is that at the end of chado, one is merely nauseated from too much green tea, whilst at the end of seppuku, one is dead.

The first thing to do is to recruit an assistant, a kaishkunin. Contrary to what is thought, almost all forms of seppuku do not technically involve suicide, but merely inflicting fatal injury upon oneself. The kaishakunin does the actual killing. If one is ordered to commit seppuku by the bafuku (shogunal government), it will generally appoint its own kaishakunin. Otherwise, one should ask a great iaijutsuka (practitioner of the technique of killing with a single sword stroke) or a close personal friend to be one’s kaishakunin. If asked out of friendship, one may refuse on the grounds that one’s waza (sword technique) is inadequate; if the request is repeated, however, one should consent gracefully, as flaws in technique will be forgiven (by the living).

Seppuku is ideally committed by in a garden or a Buddhist temple (Shinto temples should not be defiled by death). The participant dresses in white, to express purity of intention and sits in the seiza position (legs drawn up under the body so that one is actually sitting on one’s heels). A servant places the sanbo (an unlacquered wooden table) before one. It will contain a sake cup, a sheaf of washi (paper handmade from mulberry bark) and writing accoutrements, and the kozuka (disemboweling blade). This can be a tanto (dagger) blade without hilt, wrapped in several sheets of paper to provide a better grip. Real samurai, however, use their own wakizashi. If one is of tender years, or judged too dangerous to be trusted with steel, a fan may be substituted for an actual blade.

The sake cup is filled from the left, by an attendant using his left hand (this is indescribably rude under other circumstances). The person committing seppuku then empties it in two drinks of two sips each (one sip would show greed, whilst three or more would show hesitation). This makes a total of four sips; shi, "four", also means "death" (Nihonjin just love these kinds of puns, especially when they’re about to kill themselves).

One then writes a death poem in the waka style (five lines of five, seven, seven, five, and seven syllables). The poem should be graceful, natural, and about transient emotions. Under no means should it mention that the fact you are about to die. Asano, whose seppuku precipitated the famous "Forty-seven ronin" incident, is said to have written a particularly poor death poem, showing the immaturity and lack of character that led to his being ordered to commit seppuku in the first place.

At this point, the person slips out of his outer garment (kamishimo) and tucks the sleeves under his knees to prevent him from doing something undignified like slumping to one side. He picks up the kozuka, and with his other hand picks up the sanbo and places it under his buttocks, to cause him to lean forward slightly in the proper attitude.

If the person committing is so young or so evil that a fan has been substituted for a blade, the kaishakunin executes a kirioroshi strike (a vertical cut) as soon as the person committing seppuku touches the fan to his stomach. Otherwise, he will typically wait until the person plunges the blade deep into the left side of his belly, and draws it across to the right, with a sharp upward cut at the end. A samurai who feels himself capable may then plunge the blade into his groin and cut upwards to the sternum, followed by a horizontal cut at the base of the rib cage. However, the kaishakunin is supposed to keep a sharp (heh, heh) eye out, and strike at the first sign of pain or hesitation in his principle.

The kirioroshi, incidentally, was not intended to actually sever the head, but to leave it attached by a strip of skin at the throat. It was considered infra dig for one’s principal’s head to go spinning across the room, spraying blood as it went; only low-class criminals were treated thus. Especially one should not whack one’s principal in the jaw with the katana, as Yukio Mishima’s kaishakunin did in 1970. As noted above, minor imperfections in one’s waza would be forgiven if one was acting as kaishakunin out of friendship, but acting in such a piss-poor manner gets one talked about, and not in a good way.

After the person committing seppuku is finally, the sanbo, the kozuka, and the katana are all discarded as being defiled by death.

Incidentally, real badasses did kill themselves, in the ritual known as jumonji giri. This is just like seppuku, except that there is no kaishakunin. After disemboweling yourself, you sat quietly and bled to death over the next half-hour or so. The last person to do this historically was General Nogi, who did it as junshi (following one’s lord in death) on the death of the Meiji emperor in 1912. He not only committed jumonji giri, he buttoned up his white naval blouse afterwards.

Reasons to commit seppuku were junshi (although was strictly discouraged by the bafuku and daimyo, as it used up too many perfectly good retainers), funshi (to express one’s indignation at a situation), kanshi (as an admonishment or rebuke to one’s lord for his behavior), to atone for dishonorable actions of one’s own, and to avoid capture and disgrace (and probable torture and execution) in battle. In such circumstances, of course, there usually wasn’t time for the whole ritual, so expedients as cutting one’s own throat, throwing oneself from a running horse with a sword in one’s mouth, or flinging oneself off high walls, towers, or cliffs were winked at. In 1516, Muira Yoshimoto committed suicide by cutting off his own head, something that got him a gazillion style points (he was still dead, however).

John "Akatsukami" Braue Friday, July 19, 2002