Unyielding Pride on the Stage of Defeat

Unyielding Pride on the Stage of Defeat

The previous article on seppuku was met with a lot of responses, so I would like to write a follow-up. As mentioned, seppuku initially was not something one did to take responsibility for a mistake but was done in order to follow a deceased master to death or to kill oneself before being captured and shamed by the enemy.

Of course, completing seppuku is accompanied with severe pain, and it required strong willpower. Someone who was mentally weak would probably pass out due to the shock. But that is actually the point! Seppuku, being a form of suicide with prolonged agony, became the “Stage of Defeat”. Even though he lost in battle, this was the one and only chance to showcase how brave a warrior he was.

Seppuku(harakiri) scene in Ukiyoe

For example, in the Kakitsu Incident in 1441, the 6th Muromachi Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori was assassinated by Akamatsu Mitsusuke. Later, the shogunate army launched a full attack and the Akamatsus were completely defeated. But in that defeat, a brave warrior from the Akamatsu side named Nakamura Danjo climbed up the turret and called out:

"Now I'm going to cut my stomach. All you Samurai who have a heart should see this as an example." He cut his own stomach in a cross, took out his intestines, and threw it down at the enemies while abusing them. He returned to the castle, set fire to his master’s chamber, and burned himself to death. His enemies must have been completely disgusted by the ghastly sight of one coping with his own pain and throwing his internal organs while hurling abuses. The mere thought of it is scary and grotesque, but the fact is Nakamura Danjo has indeed managed to seal his name and bravery in the history books. It was indeed his big stage.

As times changed, in the Edo period seppuku also changed from a form of suicide in order to follow one’s deceased master into the afterlife, into a form of punishment, and this led seppuku to be formularized. The person committing seppuku would pay a silent bow to the coroner, then remove his garment from the right. He would then pick up the dagger with his left hand and switch it to his right hand. Next, he would press his stomach 3 times with his left hand, then stab himself about 3 cm above the navel, then pull it to the right.

At that moment, the beheader would cut his head off. It was considered noble to not completely sever the head but to leave it attached by a thin piece of skin. This was influenced by Confucian teaching that it is dishonoring to your parents to have your body divided, and also the belief that it is honorable to die with your head facing forward toward your enemy. As the head is thinly attached to the body, it would dangle down to the chest with its weight and the body will fall forward too.

An illustration of Samurai getting beheaded

With the beheading complete, they would enclose the are so the body would not be seen, and an assistant would take the head to the coroner to confirm the death. Thus the seppuku ritual would come to a close. They would then stick a dipper into the body and place the head over it, thus reattaching the head and the body, before wrapping it in silk and laying it in a coffin.

In movies or TV dramas, the dagger used for seppuku is often shown in a Shirasaya and wrapped in a cloth which is further wrapped in white paper as the person commits seppuku. However, Shirasaya were only invented in the late Edo period for the purpose of preserving the dagger. This is used purely for dramatic effect, and in reality, the dagger was only wrapped in cloth.

Though such dramas, movies, and other modern entertainment mediums have also misled the public with a very stylized and often glorified image of this form of ritual suicide, the reality is always a far cry from our modern ideals. 

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