The act of seppuku, ritual self disembowelment, began with Minamoto Tametomo and Minamoto Yorimasa in the latter part of the 12th century in the Kamukura era. There are three classical kinds of seppuku. The term "hara-kiri" which is popular in the West is not in common Japanese usage as it means "belly cut" or "gut cut". This would be like saying that someone who died out of a sense of taking responsibility (no matter how deeply misguided) has "gone tits up". Not so respectful of the person's intentions.

Junshi: Suicide in order to follow one's lord into death. Quite common in the days of open warfare, junshi was banned in the Edo era as wasteful. The last famous example was that of the General Nogi Maresuke in 1912 following the death of the Emperor Meiji.

Kanshi: Suicide as remonstration. Not common, this involved killing one's self in order to make a point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion had failed. For example, Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide, commited suicide to make a youthful and highly irreverant Oda Nobunaga change his ways. I suppose Yukio Mishima's botched attempt might count.

Sokotsushi: Here, a samurai would kill himself as a way of making amends for some transgression. This is possibly the best-known reason for seppuku, and has perhaps been popularized far out of proportion to its frequency. One well-known instance involves the Takeda general Yamamoto Haruyuki, who flung himself into the enemy after his plans had put his lord Shingen Takeda into danger. Badly wounded, he then commited seppuku.

During the Ashikaga period-the first familial period of the so-called Feudal Age of Japanese history-the bushi gradually rose in status to eventually take power from the Japanese court. Under these bushi served many samurai: warriors who harbored a severe scorn for the easy life of the court families. This was no more apparent than their form of ritual suicide: seppuku.

Seppuku (pronounced sep POO koo) is essentially ritualistic disembowelment. To commit seppuku, one would plunge a dagger into the side of one's abdomen and slowly draw the blade across. Of all the conceivable ways to end ones own life, this is perhaps the most painful way it can be accomplished.

This ritual is part of the way of the samurai, which honored loyalty and fearlessness. A samurai was obligated to end his life when his he was disgraced, and Seppuku was seen as a way to do this with extreme honor.

When this ritual was performed, a samurai was expected to remain stone-faced and not utter a sound. If he did break his composure, however, a buddy—the kaishaku—would be standing over him with his sword drawn; prepared to neatly sever his friend's head from its body in order to retain the samurai's honor and dignity.

This suicide ritual is also known as hara-kiri. Both seppuku and hara-kiri use the same kanji. In seppuku, the kanji for cut/cutoff comes before the kanji for belly; in hara-kiri they are reversed. Both translate into "belly slicing" or "belly splitting." The difference is seppuku carries dignified connotation; hara-kiri is a slang term and was considered vulgar by the samurai.

Thanks to Shro0m for the infomation on the kanji forms of seppuku and hara-kiri.

Historically, by the late Heian era, seppuku was considered to be a bushi's preferred way to independently pay for their crime. By the mid-Edo era, it had became nothing more than a name and formality, where the actual killing is done by a person from behind who beheads the criminal.

The concept of commiting suicide as a noble act gave many Americans a culture shock during and after World War II. During the war, many Japanese citizens believed that it is more honorable for their country to commit suicide rather than be taken in as a POW by the Americans. Seppuku is no longer practiced in Japan.

Synonyms: jijin, hara-kiri, kappuku, tofuku.

parts translated from

Better known as hara-kiri (although this term was considered vulgar by the samurai) Seppuku was a form of suicide reserved solely for the samurai because it took such a vast amount of courage to go through with it. The samurai to be killed would usually be dressed in a white kimono, and would kneel on a pillow. A close friend chosen as his second would stand about a meter to the left. (His task was to cut off the samurai's head as soon as he showed significant pain.) The samurai would then expose his abdomen (where the spirit was believed to reside), unsheath a knife laid before him, and begin an incission through his stomach that moved from left to right. The blade was then turned in the wound and brought upward. To complete the entire ceremony was considered a great honor, but usually the second would decapitate him before he finished, as it was indescribably painful throughout.

There were three types of Seppuku:

Junshi was suicide after the death of one's lord. This was eventually outlawed as wasteful.

Kanshi was a rare form where one killed oneself to make a point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion failed.

Sokotsu-shi was the most common form, and consisted of commiting suicide to make ammends for a transgression. This could include striking another with a sword out of anger which was often punished by obligated suicide. In another case, an unfortunate samurai was compelled to kill himself by law for harming a dog during the later samurai period.

Sep*pu"ku (?), n.

Same as Hara-kiri.

Seppuku, or hara-kiri, also came into vogue. W. E. Griffis.


© Webster 1913.

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