07/04/2022

Seppuku & Harakiri, An In-depth Explanation to Samurai Ritual Suicide

Seppuku & Harakiri are easily explained as the samurai method of committing suicide, but what does it actually signify? In this article, we explain what the difference is between seppuku & harakiri, what situations it is done, introduce some media you can watch, and address frequently asked questions as well as show you some seppuku memes. 


Table of Contents

  1. What’s Seppuku? What’s Harakiri?
  2. In what circumstances was seppuku done?
    1. Voluntary Seppuku
    2. Obligatory Seppuku
  3. How is Seppuku done?
  4. Seppuku in Japanese Media
    1. Seppuku Anime
    2. Seppuku Live Action Movies
  5. Seppuku Memes, Dark but Funny
    1. Commit Sudoku
    2. Vegetable / Potato Suicide
    3. SpongeBob SquarePants 
  6. Frequently Asked Questions about Seppuku
    1. When was the first seppuku?
    2. When was the last seppuku?
    3. Is seppuku a quick and painless death?
    4. Is seppuku still practiced?
    5. Do "female samurai" perform seppuku?
  7. Takeaway

What’s Seppuku? What’s Harakiri?

  • Seppuku 切腹 (cut belly) is ritual suicide by self-embowelment done by samurai usually in the presence of others. The ritual part is emphasised. 

  • Harakiri 腹切り (belly cutting) is the act of cutting one’s stomach open. The action is emphasised. It may be a suicidal act without others present. There are also no rules of conduct/correct method to carry out. 

Despite the differences, in reality both terms are used interchangeably. There are also other synonyms like Kapukku 割腹 (disembowelment). In Japan, the term Seppuku is more commonly used as compared to Harakiri outside Japan. 

In what circumstances was seppuku done?

Voluntary Seppuku

・After the death of their master. 追腹 Oibara (informal term) or 殉死 Junshi (formal term) refers to seppuku done by samurai after their master’s death. 追 meaning chase, as in chasing after their master. Otherwise, they would be considered Ronin.  

・To restore lost honour after a misdeed or disgraceful act. 

・In defeat at battle, to avoid capture and to prevent a disgraceful death by the enemy’s hand

The above are classified under Voluntary Seppuku. If you notice, the main crux of seppuku is avoiding disgrace and shame, or Haji 恥 in Japanese. Honour was of utmost importance to the samurai. 

Obligatory Seppuku

Another classification of seppuku is Obligatory Seppuku. It is used as capital punishment (death sentence) and ignores the will of the samurai, in easier terms, forced seppuku. 「詰腹を切る」(Tsumebara wo kiru)was usually the order given when a samurai is sentenced to obligatory seppuku.

How is Seppuku done?

  1. The samurai bathes/cleanses himself and dons a white kimono-like outfit called Shiro-shozoku 白装束 - usually worn by deceased in Buddhist funerals, with the right part over the left (usually left over right, only deceased wear it right over left). 

  2. Brought to the seppuku area, the samurai is seated before a short wooden table atop which is some sake, washi, writing utensils, and the blade. Behind him, the Kaishakunin 介錯人 (assistant) will be seated.

  3. After partaking in the sake and writing a death poem, the samurai will loosen his kimono and reveal his belly. He will proceed to commit Seppuku by stabbing the blade into the left side of his belly, then slide right, turn the blade, cut upwards, then downwards. 

  4. Once done, the Kaishakunin will behead the samurai. The cut needs to be precise and leaves a layer of skin behind, not severing the head completely. Ideally, the head will fall into the now-dead samurai’s hands as if he is cradling it. 

Seppuku in Japanese Media

Seppuku Anime

The explicit nature of seppuku means very limited coverage. Even anime that touch upon it use it minimally as a quick mention, flashback scene, character development point with no graphic scenes. 

The exception being 2007 anime Shigurui: Death Frenzy. 

Shigurui: Death Frenzy

Image Credit: Madhouse / ©2007 Norio Nanjo•Takayuki Yamaguchi (Akitashoten) / Shigurui Partners

A short 12 episode anime adaptation of the manga’s initial 32 chapters, Shigurui is a hidden gem of an anime for fans looking for a serious solid plot and a look at the harsh realities of samurai life. Considered an adult anime, this is not for those faint of heart as there are a lot of grotesque and gory scenes. You have been warned! 

Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer

The topic of Seppuku has arisen several times in Kimetsu no Yaiba. In Episode 22 of Season 1, Water Hashira Giyu Tomioka and Urokodaki-sensei vowed that they would together with Tanjiro commit seppuku if Nezuko were ever to eat and kill a human. It was a very touching scene considering the weight of their promise and it shows how much they trust Tanjiro and Nezuko. 

The element of Seppuku makes another experience later in the manga but since it’s spoilers we won’t cover it. 

One Piece: Wano Country Arc 

In Episode 892 “Wano Country! Land of Samurai where Sakura Dance” of One Piece, Zoro is framed for murder and sentenced to commit seppuku. 

Naruto Shippuden

Image Credit: Naruto Shippuden / Kishimoto Masashi Scott/Shueisha・TV Tokyo・Pierrot

In Episode 175 of Naruto Shippuden anime, fans get a look into Kakashi-sensei’s past and background which has always been fraught with mystery. 

Gintama

Seppuku is used in a humorous context in Gintama for no reason other than Gintama being Gintama. Here’s a brief introduction to Gintama for those of you who don’t know it. Gintama is set in Edo during the samurai era except that aliens called Amanto have conquered Edo and now they live harmoniously with humans. The age of samurai has ended though our protagonist, Sakata Gintoki considers himself a samurai though he wields a wooden sword and works in a Yorozuya (Odd Jobs). 

There are several references to seppuku in the anime.  The most common one is Hijikata Toshiro (based of Hijikata Toshizo) of the Shinsengumi’s threats to make his underlings commit seppuku if they didn’t follow his orders.

Seppuku Live-Action Movies

Harakiri (1962)

Image Credit: 切腹 Shochiku Co,. Ltd. / Movie Walker Press

Renowned as the best samurai movie ever made, Harakiri (Original Name: Seppuku) was released in 1962. The movie is about Ronin Hanshirō Tsugumo who wishes to commit seppuku on a feudal lord’s land. Whilst seeking permission to do so, he explains his life story. It is available to watch with English subtitles on Amazon Prime Video as well as Apple iTunes (trailer available). 

Other Movies with Seppuku Scenes

Photo Credit: Amazon / たそがれ清兵衛 (Twilight Samurai

The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Last Samurai (2003) also featured seppuku scenes though unlike Harakiri (1962), seppuku wasn’t the main focus of the movies. They are still very worth watching for samurai fans wanting a look at how life was like during the samurai era. The Twilight Samurai in particular has won 12 Japanese Academy Awards for its excellent portrayal of samurai and touching drama.

Seppuku Memes, Dark but Funny

Commit Sudoku

 

Image Credit: I AM ARG / Andrew Gregoire 2013 

“Commit Sudoku” instead of “commit seppuku” is the intentional and humorous misuse of Japanese word seppuku with the number game sudoku. Many artists have created their own “commit sudoku” artwork, but Andrew Gregoire’s is still the best, not to mention high quality! 

Vegetable / Potato Suicide

Due to copyright reasons, we are unable to include the Potato Suicide scene here. So, have a photo of a potato instead.

To see the Potato Suicide GIF, visit here.

A scene from Dai Mahou Touge, or Magical Witch Punie-chan, wherein a potato peels off its own skin to prepare himself as an offering to Punie-chan gained worldwide popularity. The peeler atop a short table and the “suicide” on a mat looks similar to a formal seppuku ritual layout. You can find the scene easily on Google with the term “potato suicide”.

SpongeBob SquarePants

In Season 11 Episode 18 Krusty Kleaners of SpongeBob SquarePants, a parody of seppuku is done by SpongeBob. After messing up a customer’s order, SpongeBob wields a spatula like a short sword and stabs it into himself. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Seppuku

Image Credit: © 2017 – 2022 Ronin Gallery

When was the first seppuku?

In 1170, Minamoto Tametomo was considered the first to commit seppuku. He was renowned for being an excellent bowman. After his capture by enemy forces, his elbow was destroyed to prevent him from ever using a bow again, and he was exiled to Oshima Island where he committed suicide by seppuku.

When was the last seppuku?

In 1970, Yukio Mishima, a celebrated literary, model, and actor. He became involved in politics, even setting up a militia group called Tatenokai. With the aim of restoring imperial rule to Japan, he stormed a military base with members of his militia and took the commander hostage in a coup attempt. Not taken seriously by his audience, he knelt to the ground and committed seppuku or jiketsu. Jiketsu (自決) is a militarized term meaning "to cease one's life". If you are interested to know more about the events, there's a movie about it called "11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate 11・25自決の日 三島由紀夫と若者たち" released in 2012.

※ BBC, “Yukio Mishima: The strange tale of Japan’s infamous novelist

Is seppuku a quick and painless death?

No, seppuku is excruciatingly painful. Committing seppuku is proof of one’s bravery as it takes a huge amount of courage and resilience to not just make the initial stab but to slice across. This is where the assistant Kaishakunin comes into play, ending the pain quickly and precisely. Kaishakunin are usually chosen by the person committing seppuku. A trustworthy person is picked, usually a close brother or friend. Kaishakunin must be strong of heart to deliver the final blow and deal with the emotional aftermath.

Is seppuku still practiced?

No, Seppuku was officially banned in 1873. 

Do “female samurai” perform seppuku? 

Yes, especially if they expected to be captured. Not just Onna Bugeisha, even some wives of samurai or feudal lords would opt to commit seppuku upon their husband’s deaths. 

Takeaway

Now a dead (thankfully) custom, the only way to learn about Seppuku is through reading and the rare anime/movie on the topic. We hope this article gives you an understanding about the great significance Seppuku carries. Now when encountering the topic of Seppuku in anime / manga or other forms of media, you’ll have a deeper understanding and empathy for the characters and the weight of vows like in Demon Slayer. 

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