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The History of Hara-kiri, the Custom of Samurai

Have you heard of the word, “seppuku”? Even if you have not, you might perhaps have heard of “Hara-kiri” instead. They both mention the way of committing suicide in which the practitioner kills himself by cutting his own abdominal area with a short sword, which was mainly reserved for samurai (feudal warriors). It is also referred to by various other names such as “Kappuku” and “Tofuku.” Hara-kiri was a unique custom based on the old Japanese philosophy of life and death, which can be rarely found elsewhere around the world. Photo: https://www.flickr.com

 

Bushido, the Way of the Samurai and Hara-kiri

yoroi
https://www.flickr.com

The samurai class first appeared in Japanese history over 1,000 years ago. As early as back then, samurai already had a strong moral belief that their significant disgrace must be compensated by their own death. The unique suicidal capital punishment reflected their great pride and dedication in maintaining the honor of himself and his family by committing himself to his duties even at the risk of his life. The practice was considered of such noble nature that criminals or anyone from lower classes were never allowed to perform it.

Then in the Edo Period, around 400 years ago from now, such code of conduct for samurai became established as the philosophy called “Bushido (the way of the samurai).” And hara-kiri, the art of suicide, was considered an essential part of “Bushido,” or the samurai spirit.

Then it became prohibited around 100 years ago from now. But the philosophical mind set, for which the “honorable death” was highly praised, remained in the mind of Japanese people and even after the prohibition a considerable number of people still chose hara-kiri as a way of committing suicide to maintain their honor.

 

Two Famous Hara-kiri Cases in Japan

As the time progressed and the custom faded away, you will not find anyone committing suicide in such a way or for such a purpose today. Some hara-kiri cases in the past, however, are still remembered by many to date. Here we are taking a look at two of such hara-kiri cases.

1. Forty Seven Ronin (Ako Roshi)

赤穂浪士

47RONIN
https://www.flickr.com

“Forty Seven Ronin” mentions the leading figures in the incident which took place in the early 18th century and is today referred to as “Ako Incident.” In this incident, 47 retainers of a feudal lord, who was forced to commit suicide for an unfair legal decision, united in a will to avenge their master’s death, waited for a best opportunity and finally achieved vengeance against their master’s enemy. After the incident, they were punished and ordered to kill themselves by hara-kiri. But the whole story was highly praised as an example of great loyalty and has since been handed down to this day in the form of a quasi-fable named “Chushingura.”

2. Yukio Mishima

三島由紀夫

yukiomishima
https://www.flickr.com

Mishima Incident – On November 25th, 1970, Yukio Mishima, who was a novelist representing the Japanese literature at the time, committed a hara-kiri suicide after he made a speech trying in vain to inspire the members of the Japan Defense Forces into a coup d’état to amend the constitution. The speech was made at the Ichigaya Camp, the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan Self-Defense Forces. The death of the novelist, who was highly renowned not only in Japan but worldwide, enormously shocked the public at the time and has become the most well-known hara-kiri case in recent years.

 

Other Famous Things Associated with Hara-kiri

1. “Seppuku Monaka” of Shinshodo

新正堂「切腹最中」

seppukumonaka
https://www.flickr.com

Shinshodo is a Japanese sweets shop housed in the old mansion which is said to have been the very location where Naganori Asano, the master of the 47 samurai, committed suicide. The shop offers a confection named “Seppuku Monaka,” the creation of the shop master who wanted to help disseminate the heroic episodes of “Chushingura” with this confection.

The confection is Gyuhi rice cake and sweet azuki bean paste filling wrapped with rice coating. It is widely known as a treat chosen by many sales agents as a gift of apology. But more recently, the sweet has been chosen not only for the purpose of apology but for many other purposes as the word “hara-kiri” can also evoke associations with other words with such meanings as “to be frank (hara wo waru)” and “make a decision (hara wo kimeru).”

2. The Japanese Movie, Harakiri

seppuku
https://www.flickr.com

Harakiri is a Japanese movie directed by Masaki Kobayashi in 1962. Casting many prominent actors of Japan at the time, the movie won the jury prize at the 6th Cannes Film Festival. The movie depicts the story related to samurai’s hara-kiri and no other movie perhaps can better help you imagine and understand how hara-kiri used to be performed, what kind of ritual procedures were performed, and in what kind of atmosphere. But naturally for the theme, you will surely come across quite a few gruesome and painful scenes in this movie, so better beware when you actually watch it.

Related:
6 Recommended “Taiga” Drama Series: History TV You Can’t Take Your Eyes Off

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KAWATA

About the author

I'm interested in general in all things related to culture and fine arts with a focus on movies, art, and design. I hope to introduce to many people all the different sides to Japan in regards to Japanese culture.

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