Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Culture: The Samurai Ritual of Seppuku

Traditional samurai culture is famous for its many rituals, code, and formal view of life, but one of the most well-known is the tradition of "seppuku". Seppuku 切腹 is another, more formal way of saying "hara kiri" 腹切り (pronounced hah-rah-kee-ree, the first one is usually written and the second one spoken), which is ritual suicide through cutting one's stomach open.

Seppuku was originally done by the samurai class and at times required permission. Sometimes the samurai chose it himself, upon the death of his lord, defeat in battle, or to protest a superior's decision. Sometimes he was ordered to by his lord or a conquering enemy, for various reasons.

Battlefield seppuku was much less ritualized, but the other form that grew alongside it and eventually became a part of the judicial system in its own right had a basic series of steps, which could vary but generally went like this:

The samurai would be bathed, dressed in white robes and would eat his favorite meal. Once finished, a special knife (tanto) would be placed in front of him, and he would then write a "death poem" reflecting on the moment, his impending death, or his life, ideally in a serene, impassive way.

In a sign of how much writing and art were valued in old Japan, a great warrior leaving behind a death poem with poor handwriting, cliched sentiments, or one that just wasn't very good would knock a dent in his legacy.

After the poem he would take up the knife and cut himself horizontally across the stomach. To prevent undue suffering, a second man (usually a friend, comrade, or sympathetic enemy) would stand behind him with sword drawn, and cut his head off once the horizontal cut had been made. All of this occurred in front of spectators.

In a grotesque bit of etiquette, the decapitating slice done perfectly would stop short enough to leave a flap of skin connecting the head to the body, so the head would flop over rather than go bouncing across the floor.

Seppuku went the way of the samurai and is no longer used or seen in modern Japan, minus the unique case of accomplished writer Yukio Mishima in 1970, who committed seppuku after leading a failed coup attempt at a military base.

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