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Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Ritual of Japanese Suicide

For most of the world, we believe that harikiri is the Japanese word for suicide, and involves stabbing one’s self in the gut and sliding the blade to the right to disembowel.

Some believe it’s pronounced Harry Carey or Hairy Carry. It’s neither. It’s much more than that.

It’s actually pronounced: Hah-ree-key-ree. Sorry Cubs fans, then again, congratulations on winning the MLB 2016 World Series (of baseball)

Regardless, when considering use of the Japanese word for suicide, there is also seppuku (Seh-poo-coo).

Harikiri (腹切り) and seppuku (切腹) use the same Japanese kanji letters: 腹 = belly and 切 = to cut.

While harikiri and seppuku essentially mean the same thing, it’s Japanese - so they don’t mean the exact same thing.

There are subtle differences… one of which I figure is”class”

Harakiri is a slightly less formal way to refer to the same action than seppuku.

For that reason, harikiri is not used as often in Japanese, as it is elsewhere.

Personally, I had always assumed that harikiri involved the ritual suicide via cutting open one’s own belly…

... but that seppuku was more formalized with ritual and involved the self-disembowelment followed by the person’s second (kaishakunin, 介錯人) cleanly removing the head with a katana sword stroke.

I would say that a warrior/samurai (get it… warrior slash samurai) would use the term seppuku because it uses the full ritual, while a non-warrior would use the singular suicide action and call it harikiri.

Now… I have no idea just how difficult it is to atone for one’s error in judgement by inserting a blade deep enough into one’s belly and then slicing up and across… I mean… I know it’s supposed to be done very quickly… but still… the suicidee (Suicider? Or is that when you try to kill yourself by drinking too much apple juice?) isn’t going to die all that quickly.

Yes, the guts ‘fall out’, but so what? Unless they are severed, they can still perform its designed bodily functions.

The problem, I would imagine, is the blood loss… but again… it’s not a quick death by blood loss, which means a lot of moaning and suffering and generally not looking as stoic as one would hope in attempting to apologize to the gods for one’s transgression… or to whomever one thinks they are doing this for.

That’s where having a ‘second’ is most important. He is the one that causes a quick death with the lopping off of the head.

So… I would imagine that those who could, would use a second and commit seppuku, while those who were alone, would do it themselves the best way they could.

There is also a discussion, that it was actually very rare for individuals to actually cut themselves with their own blade in this ritual.

Instead, it is said, as soon as the person wanting to die would touch their own blade, the ‘second’ would cut off the head.

If this actually occurred, we would have to call this ‘assisted suicide’, rather than just suicide.

Of course, since this is Japan, even offing one’s self involves a ritual.

It was actually ‘formalized’ in the 17th century.

Death before dishonor
  • If a planned seppuku, it was done in front of spectators;
  • Pre-planning involved bathing (before the spectators), dressed in a white kimono known as a shini-shōzoku, served a last meal (it should be one’s favorite… I mean who wouldn’t?). Imagine if you spilled something on the robes?! Death would be a welcome reward;
  • Personal choice made of Tachi (long sword), Wakizashi (short sword) or Tanto (knife) used to pierce and slice own abdominal area;
  • At the suicide site, Blade and cloth were placed on a tray and given to the one about to die;
  • Blade is placed in front of person, he might choose to create a death poem… but honestly, this was more the domain of the true high level samurai warrior;
  • He might have a ceremonial cup of rice wine sake;
  • With his selected kaishakunin standing by, he would open his kimono, take up the blade of choice—which was held by the blade with a portion of cloth wrapped around so that it would not cut his hand and cause him to lose his grip;
  • Thrust the blade into his own abdomen, making a left-to-right cut;
  • Kaishakunin performs kaishaku, the cut that decapitates the head in such a way that a slight band of flesh is left the head to the body, so that it can be hung in front as if embraced (in the manner of daikikubi = embraced head).
Because of the precision required to perform kaishaku, it was a good idea that the the second/Kaishakunin be a skilled swordsman. The victim and the kaishakunin would agree well in advance when the latter was to make his cut.

Usually dakikubi would occur as soon as the dagger was plunged into the abdomen. The process became so highly ritualized that as soon as the samurai reached for his blade, or perhaps his fan, then the kaishakunin would strike.

A fan was used if the person dying was too old to properly or safely wield a blade - or, if it was a warrior enemy and thus not safe to arm them,

The second/kaishakunin was usually, but not always, a friend. If a defeated warrior had fought honorably and well, an opponent who wanted to salute his bravery would volunteer to act as his second.

And because you want to know what the women thought about all of this death before dishonor stuff—well, they weren’t let off easy.

Especially for women married to high-ranking samurai or any woman not spoken up for by a samurai clan leader (saying they would look after her and her family), the woman was expected to perform the female version of ritualistic suicide, aka jigai.

In times of war, especially, when a quick death was preferable to being captured by the enemy—usually rape then murder, or from those kinky devils murder then rape—the women would cut a neck artery with a single stroke.

If a ritualistic jigai ceremony was available because of dishonor, the woman would tie her knees together so that when she collapsed her body would not be found in an undignified position (legs open)

Did you know that the word jigai (自害) is actually the Japanese word for suicide, though a more modern version is jisatsu (自殺).

To be frank, jigai is NOT the female equivalent of seppuku or even harikiri.

While the Japanese are nowadays certainly not above trying to kill themselves via suicide, the ritualistic way of seppuku or harikiri is generally not observed, except by those trying to make some point about honor. People hang themselves, jump in front of trains, take pills, whatever.

I should note that when it comes to jumping in front of a train, the victim’s family will receive a bill from the train line for the victim causing delays, or for the necessary clean-up or damage to the train.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Over in Saipan, after Allied forces had pushed the invading Japanese troops to the point of surrender during WWII, The Japanese soldiers leaped off the cliff, shouting ‘banzai’ as they fell to their death. “Banzai is a lot of things, but essentially it’s a battle cry to honor the Emperor. Those Saipan cliffs are now known as the Banzai Cliffs—or so I was told by the locals when I visited Saipan in 1992 or 1993.

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