Why the hell did Japanese samurai commit seppuku (harakiri)?

According to its definition, seppuku is a form of “ritual suicide” practiced by Japanese samurai. But this doesn’t help you understand why on Earth they adhered to such a dreadful practice (Seppuku is one of the most painful ways to take your own life!) as the most honorable samurai code of conduct. This article tries to explain why the Japanese ended up developing otherwise unfathomable protocols for suicide as a symbol of samurai philosophy.

How seppuku started?

Before the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese society existed in an almost permanent state of instability where regional military leaders continually fought for centralized power. Warriors, or warrior leaders, who swore to always remain faithful to their lord, often faced critical life-or-death situations, and some chose seppuku, rather than surrendering to or being subjugated by their opponents, in order to maintain their dignity and loyalty.

One legendary act of seppuku that defined its spirit was committed by Shimizu Muneharu (1537-1582), who served the Mori clan, a prominent regional ruler in Western Japan during one of the most war-torn eras in Japanese history. Muneharu fought faithfully for the Mori, who was losing ground to Oda Nobunaga, an emerging, fierce leader who came to control most of the mainland Japan through a series of battles. In the face of the merciless Nobunaga, Muneharu refused to surrender when his army was trapped by siege in a local castle. He eventually agreed to commit seppuku when the Nobunaga’s forces demanded it in exchange for saving the lives of his troops. According to contemporary histories, Muneharu did it in front of his opponents with honor and dignity, showing no hesitance or cowardliness.

Seppuku as “ritual” suicide

Ironically, only 20 years after Muneharu’s death, the Tokugawa Clan defeated the successor of Oda Nobunaga and won a crucial war to start a strong shogun dynasty, which ended up ruling Japan in the next 250 years. Stability was finally restored. When there is a stable ruler, there is no war.

The samurai were officially positioned in the top ranks of the social hierarchy in the Tokugawa dynasty but, in realty, they didn’t have many opportunities to fight in actual battles because Tokugawa ruled by using crafty policies to contain regional powers in balance. Instead of fighting, high ranking samurai became bureaucrats, and low ranking ones had to find side jobs to make ends meet as they were virtually out of work.

In order to maintain ethical and moral standards in such times, samurai leaders developed strict rules, protocols and codes of conduct. Seppuku became part of this and started to be used as punishment when samurai did not abide by the strict principles. It also became a method of recovering honor when a samurai found himself a situation that could could bring disgrace on him and end his own clan’s social standing.

Whereas in the pre-Edo era seppuku was directly linked to the raison-d’etre of samurai warriors (to fight and die for their lord), Edo era seppuku increasingly became a spiritual/philosophical means to demonstrate the persistence of the samurai spirit in the absence of war.

Seppuku as an aesthetic of dying

You can do more research on this history or seppuku protocols, but one important perspective that is rarely mentioned is the fact that Japanese samurai almost always assumed that they would be fighting with other Japanese groups. As you may know, Japan consists of small islands and is isolated from outside regions, primarily mainland Asia (China) which had been an epicenter of politics, economy, culture and war. It’s a little bit like the historical relationship between England and mainland Europe, only that Japan is a little larger (1.6 times larger than the UK) and further from the mainland. The shortest distance between UK and France is about 20 miles, whereas it’s about 50 miles from the Korean Peninsula to the nearest Japanese island.

Because of its geographical setting, Japan had almost never been invaded by foreign powers until the 20th century. War for the samurai meant fighting with other samurai who belonged to different lords, not with foreign warriors who spoke different languages and came from different cultures, maintain different principles and philosophies as to how warriors should accomplish their mission. In other words, they had no doubts that their enemies also shared the same virtues, ethics and moral standards they upheld, which was, ultimately, to include the determination to sacrifice their own lives for their lord and allegiance. In the absence of war, such determination found its outlet in a form of “ritual suicide,” which ended up symbolizing the highest level of samurai spirit – thus the most painful and spiritual way to take your own life. (You are supposed to cut your abdomen, in which your spirit resides according to some beliefs, left-to-right and top-to-bottom. It is unfathomable.) It was possible because there was mutual understanding that every samurai would/should respect the one who committed seppuku regardless of your affiliation, and honor the act by taking care of the one left behind.

This wouldn’t have been possible if the enemy did not know about seppuku and willing to ruin the act by taking advantage of it. What if you are forced to commit seppuku only to see the promise broken? (In above example, Munenobu’s opponent agreed to save his troops in exchange for his life; but they could have chosen not to do so.) Or more simply, if one warrior takes his own life, this means one less threat to his opponents. If seppuku was so unique to Japan, its rise must have been due to its unique geographic setting which brewed strong sense of “I know that you know what I am doing and what I mean, even though I don’t say it explicitly,” which is seen in many other Japanese practices and behaviors.

Only in circumstances like those of pre-modern Japan would samurai have been allowed to focus so much on idealism, spirituality and philosophy of how a committed/professional warrior should live his life, rather than fighting in battle, facing enemies you knew little about. They elevated the samurai way to an aesthetics of dying which also meant for them an aesthetics of living.