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Harakiri

by Alexey R. Basov

When all things in life are false,
There is only one thing true, death.

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo,
Hidden by the Leaves

 

Spring has come, along with the festival of sakura blossoms and sun rays which grant their farewell light as the sun sets. A young, stately Samurai slowly approaches the shrine, bows, and sits down on a tatami covered with white silk. He has self-respect and his mind is peaceful. His friend sits by his left hand. The third participant of the solemn ceremony comes closer and offers the old family dagger on a white tray to his master.

“I am asking the audience to do me an honor,” he addresses the samurai who are sitting silently; their congealed faces make them look more like statues than real men. The young samurai bares his chest and clutches the dagger with both hands. He takes several seconds to contemplate its shining blade. He is collecting his thoughts. All of a sudden he violently thrusts the weapon into his abdomen and slowly pushes it upwards and to the right. Not a muscle moves on his noble face, his unflinching stare expresses emptiness. Without uttering a sound, he pulls the dagger out of the tremendous wound and puts it aside. By an incredible force of will the Samurai takes a brush and draws characters with his blood – his death poem. Finally it’s done. He looks at the sky for the last time.

What does he see in Heaven?...

The warrior bends his head forward. Immediately, his assistant leaps up and, quick as lighting, cuts off his head. A dead silence follows, then the sound of blood trickling to the floor, painting the white cloth. The soul of the Samurai has rushed to its new incarnation following his Lord’s soul in order for them to meet in a crystal flow of eternity…

Harakiri Tens of thousands of warriors chose it. They considered it their privilege and absolute proof of valor. It was how they attained full inner freedom, transcended human capabilities and achieved superhuman conscience and will. The samurai belief in the dominance of spirit over body, life, and even the instinct of self-preservation, gave them self-control and dispelled many enslaving illusions. “He who is capable of dying with dignity would live with dignity,” they used to say. They believed that the shorter one’s life, the more beautiful it was, because a large amount of energy and purity were saved. “To see the core of an apple you have to cut it, but you can do it only once,” was another way the samurai explained what harakiri meant to them. The etymology of the word harakiri is traced in The Samurai: Military Class of Japan by A. B. Spevakovsky:

“Translated literally, harakiri means ‘cutting the abdomen’ (‘hara’ → abdomen, ‘kiru’ → to cut). But harakiri has a hidden meaning as well. If we examine ‘hara,’ its idiomatic meanings in Japanese are ‘soul,’ ‘intentions,’ ‘hidden thoughts.’ According to Buddhist philosophy and the teaching of Zen in particular, the central vital area and the abode of life is not the heart but the abdomen.”

The rite of harakiri, or seppuku [1], must not be considered just a suicide. In other parts of the world, the same actions were identical on the outside but had different internal causes. Christianity, as the basis of Western civilization, renounces suicide as a right for freedom. But there were other views on the matter in the western world. What about the death of Socrates, the hardened warrior and philosopher? He could have escaped his death, and his ‘execution’ was, undoubtedly, a disguised suicide. Socrates knew better than to cling to life and died for the sake of his philosophy, making his death the ultimate metaphor. He demonstrated that nothing can stop a free man from believing in his ideals. Certainly, this is only valid for free people, because slaves would prefer any kind of miserable existence, to the point of dehumanizing themselves, over death. The way a commoner died was considered absurd and unseemly to a samurai. He called it a ‘dog’s death.’ In contrast, he considered death in compliance with Bushi-Do spirit heroic and glorious, to be lodged in the memory of future generations and illuminate their future.

Gen. Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, c. 1890.


And indeed, the samurai prepared themselves from an early age for their work in the world, and the ‘good manners of death’ [2] were some of the most important elements of their upbringing. As A. B. Spevakovsky writes,

“Experienced teachers in specialized schools explained to young men how to begin and finish seppuku maintaining dignity and showing the ability of self- command up to the last moment of life. Great popularity and glorification of harakiri in the Japanese feudal society had its effect: samurai children often had recourse to the rite. For instance, A. Bellessort describes a case of harakiri by a seven-year-old son of a samurai, who committed suicide in front of hired killers who had been sent after his father but murdered another man by mistake. During the corpse identification the young samurai decided to use this mistake to save his father and, feigning despair, drew his sword and cut his belly open without a word. The assassins believed this and left, considering their work done.
Harakiri was also not unusual for warriors’ wives and daughters; though women, in contrast to men, did not practice disembowelment but cut their throats or knifed themselves in the heart. Nevertheless, this process was also called harakiri. Suicide by throat-cutting, or jigai, was committed by samurai wives. They used either a special knife called kaiken which was a wedding gift from their husbands, or a short sword that was given to every samurai daughter during her Coming of Age ceremony. There were also cases in which long swords were used for this purpose. The custom required to bury those who committed harakiri with the weapon they had used. This may probably explain the presence of swords and daggers in female burial chambers. According to Bushi-Do code, it was a shame for a samurai’s wife not to be able to commit suicide if needed, that is why women were taught the right way to do it. They were supposed to be able to cut the cervical artery and know how to bind their knees before death so that their body would then be found in a discreet pose.”

The resolution to die had to be at the forefront of the Samurai’s mind. One Japanese chronicle which narrates the
exploits of the world’s greatest sword master and samurai Miyamoto Musashi, includes this story:
“One day Lord Hosokawa was asking Musashi about the body like a rock. Musashi asked him to send for Terao Motomenosuke, one of his vassals who was a disciple of Musashi’s. As soon as Terao arrived, Musashi told him, ‘Terao Motomenosuke, by your lord’s command you will kill yourself by seppuku here and now!’
Terao greeted him calmly and said, ‘I thank you for this order. Kindly give me just the time to make preparations.’ The he withdrew into the next room to prepare to die, without showing the slightest disturbance.
Looking at the back of his disciple who was walking as though nothing had happened, Musashi said, ‘My lord, that is the body of a rock.’”

The harakiri rite was quite elaborate, but was eventually altered.
Disembowelment was performed by various methods which depended on the views of the samurai’s school and on the level of preparation and self-control. The wound was always lethal and so large that observers could see the bowels which, according to samurai doctrine, represented purity of spirit and our innermost intentions. The great modern writer Yukio Mishima, who also committed harakiri, said that harakiri means to turn the spirit inside out,

“What is so ghastly about exposed intestines?
Why, when We see the insides of a human being, do we have to cover our eyes in terror?
Why are people so shocked at the sight of blood pouring out? Why are a man’s intestines ugly?
Is it not exactly the same in quality as the beauty of youthful, glossy skin?…
…Why does there seem to be something inhuman about regarding human beings like roses and refusing to make any distinction between the inside of their bodies and the outside? If only human beings could reverse their spirits and their bodies, could gracefully turn them inside out like rose petals and expose them to the spring breeze and to the sun...”

At the same time, the harakiri rite meant the destruction of the vital energy center in the abdominal area which Buddhism says is the seat of the soul. If a person is contemptible and villainous, the Japanese say he has “a sordid, sleazy belly.” If an individual requests that someone speak honestly, he uses the expression “hara o watte hanashimasho,” meaning “let us speak sharing hara” or “let us open our stomachs and speak.” [3]
The chronicles describe various methods of disembowelment, but the principle meaning was always the same: “The abdomen was cut open by a special dagger for harakiri – kusun-gobu, about 25 cm long, considered a family treasure and usually kept in the tokonoma on the sword rack, or by wakizashi (a small samurai sword). If a special weapon for seppuku was not available, which was a rare case with the samurai, the long sword could be used, in which case it was held by the blade wrapped in a cloth for convenience. Sometimes the blade of the small sword was also wrapped in cloth or paper with 10-12 cm of cutting face left exposed. In this case the dagger was held by the middle of the blade instead of its hilt. Such cutting depth was needed to avoid reaching the spine and eventually incommoding the rest of the rite. At the same time, in compliance with seppuku rules, the blade had to be thoroughly controlled, otherwise it could slip along the surface cutting only abdominal muscles, and the rite stopped being lethal.” [4]

Sometimes a samurai would substitute a steel sword for a bamboo one which was very hard to cut the abdomen with. He did not cut it but rather tore it and that required special force. Such a death was considered particularly honorable and brought fame to the samurai and his family. After the hara-kiri, the samurai would cut his throat or have his head cut off by an assistant, or kaishakunin, who also helped maintain a samurai’s dignity in case he lost consciousness and fell backwards. The kaishakunin had an enormous responsibility; his art was that he was able to catch the moment of losing control and immediately sever the head. The kaishakunin was usually a close friend or relative of the samurai committing hara-kiri. Sometimes, even a samurai’s father would be his kaishakunin or vice versa. A kaishakunin had to be a skillful swordsman because being decapitated by more than one slash dishonored the samurai.

But in most cases the ceremony went without mishaps. After it was over, the samurai would bend his head and the kaishakunin would cut it off but let it hang from the samurai’s body to maintain decorum. He cut the head off later. Using a special knife and clutching the head by the ends of the hair, he presented it to the audience. The kaishakunin used one of the prince’s or samurai’s swords so that if there were any mishaps, they could not be blamed on him. There were, however, some kaishakunin who felt responsible for mistakes and then committed seppuku themselves to make things right with God and their neighbors.

Many samurai often committed harakiri right on the battlefield. They ceremoniously recited short prayers to their revered saint and killed themselves. It was not uncommon for them to mutilate their faces before committing suicide so that the enemy couldn’t use their heads as proof of victory.
The logic behind the death cult tradition’s negligent attitude to life was that it improved the warriors’ chances of surviving in battle by making their minds sharper and more judicious. This is how famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu described it:

“In the course of my long life I personally fought in ninety battles and eighteen times I was in situations when death seemed inevitable. And once I managed to escape from danger, it was only due to the teaching of Buddhist preachers explaining that life is nothing to rave over and that you should wish for death which will liberate us from earthly sufferings and bring us to heavenly mirth and bliss. He, who keeps firmly in mind this idea of the vanity of life, will always conquer any dangers, of which others will fall victims.”

But by no means did a samurai’s worship of the harakiri cult mean he lost interest in life: “Enjoy life but be ready to quit it any moment,” said a respected Teacher. The samurai were supposed to be above existence and non-existence. They watched the world as outside observers and kept their spirits as pure as mountain water. They were able to commit their minds to unattachment, overcome their desires and serve supreme goals with the help of thousands of hours of detached solitude and meditation which is a reality which one must experience to know.
The samurai would enjoy life’s other pleasures too from time to time. They loved women, art, humor, gambling, smoking, drinking sake and dancing, but were able to part with them any moment: “It is not a shame to enter a joy house. It is a shame to lack the moral courage to leave it” a Greek sage had said. They could be desirous without being slaves to desire; the samurai had mastered themselves: “A wise man is not confined to the cage of emotions and traditional beliefs. He holds sway over them and they serve him,” taught the Guru of the East.

This detached attitude to life put the samurai on an invisible pedestal of ideals. Accepting death into their souls initiated a tremendous transformation of consciousness which elevated their spirits to new levels of wisdom. By severing the cord of vanity, the Spirit of the Samurai became as resolute as a sword. They ingrained the idea of death into their fine subconsciousness so that their lives, consciously and unconsciously, became determined by it. The samurai deliberately concentrated their mind, programmed it in a sense, with values they believed were genuine. They believed these were most effective ways of living and dying without wondering whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ like laypeople might, because the samurai were pondering them for hundreds of years. As a famous samurai said, they were men who had been thinking about their place in Existence their entire lives. These were the ways they developed their spirits and connected with infinity.

As Hidden by the Leaves tells us,
“Bushido, the way of the warrior, means death.
Where there are two ways to choose, let thy choice be the one that leads to death. Reason not; set thy mind on the way thou choosest – and push on.
One may ask: ‘Why should I die when it is to no advantage? Should I throwaway my life for nothing?’
Common is this way of reasoning; and it is common, among the men who hold themselves as important. When any choice is to be made, let no thought of success sway thy mind. Inasmuch as we all had rather live than die, that which we prefer is almost certain to be our choice.
Think of the disgrace that will be thine, when thou aimest at advantage and missest it. Think of the disgrace of the man who hath missed his mark and hath to live. When thou failest in thy purpose and payest for thy failure with death, it is true that thy life hath been laid down to no purpose; but remember, at least, that thy death would bear witness to the quality of thy mind.
Thy death would not be disgraceful. Every morning make up thy mind how to die. Every evening freshen thy mind with the thought of death. And let this be done without end. Thus will thy mind be prepared. When thy mind is always set on death, thy way through life will always be straight and simple. Thou will perform thy duty; and thy shield will be stainless. When thou canst see thy way straight, with open eyes and free from obstructing thoughts, there can be no straying into errors. Thy performance of duties will be above reproof and thy name immaculate.”
“Unworthy are the minds that always calculate. Calculation means weighing in the balance what might be lost and what might be gained. The minds that calculate can never rise above the thought of gain or loss. And what is death but loss? What is life but gain? He that calculates means to gain. ‘When and where he works for gain he must shun death.’ Hence, his cowardice. Those who are learned in letters are rich in wit and glib of tongue. Their wit is as often a veil for their infirm minds. Their tongues are often advocates for their calculating minds. Their wit is just as likely to mislead your minds as their tongues are to beguile your ears.”

Military defeat was the main reason why the samurai committed harakiri. A good illustration of this is the suicide of Kusunoki Masashige and his samurai:
“Making his way to the north from Minatogawa, Masashige came to a village. There, intending to disembowel himself, he took off the armor, inspected his body and found eleven wounds on it. He had seventy two men with him and no one had more than three-five wounds.
All Kusunoki kinsmen, thirteen in number, and their warriors totaling more than sixty, sat in a row in the hall six kens long and, uttering a tenfold call to buddhas, disemboweled themselves all at once.
Masashige addressed his younger brother Masasue from his elevated seat. ‘The last wish of a man before death determines his fate in the future. Now, what do you want of all things existing in the nine worlds?’
Masasue laughed huskily. ‘To be human in each of the seven rebirths and each time hunt the Emperor’s enemies to extinction.’
Masashige smiled happily and told him, “Your wish is unkind, but it is the same as mine. So, let us be reborn together and make it come true.’
And with this reciprocal oath the brothers ran their swords through each other and collapsed on the same cushion.” [5]

Another source claims that Masashige and his brother first committed harakiri, then severed each other’s heads. Earlier that day they fought a hopeless battle with an enemy who far outnumbered them. Bushi-Do canons say that a samurai must do everything to be victorious. He must accept a battle at any time and preserve his life as long as there is a chance for struggle. American soldiers during WWII observed how surviving Japanese sailors kept swimming around after their vessel had sank and refused to be rescued. They held grenades between their teeth and detonated them if any attempt was made to lift them aboard an enemy ship.

Honor and ethics were important. The story of forty-seven ronin is about a samurai who was bound by the duty of retaliation for his late lord. One day, he went to see his parents. His father asked him not to participate in the assassination attempt because another one of his sons was going to be involved, thereby fulfilling the duties of both. Instead, he asked him to take care of his parents who would starve without him. The samurai listened quietly to his father’s request. His dilemma was whether he should compromise filial piety or neglect giri toward his master. He opted to commit harakiri on his own and leave a letter for his friends explaining that he was protesting his master’s secret peace negotiations with the enemy and expressing regret for missing the retaliation.

Harakiri was also used to resolve problems, like in the brilliant Patriotism by Yukio Mishima which tells the story of an imperial army officer who committed suicide with his wife. In another tale, the young and wild Oda Nobunaga would sometimes get carried away which caused one of his minions to commit suicide in order to divert attention from his vicious conduct. This was mind-blowing for Oda Nobunaga and inspired him to drastically change his life and achieve greatness. The practice continued even after the samurai class was abolished. After hearing about an attempt to murder the future Russian czar Nicholas II while in Japan, a young woman from a samurai family murdered herself and sent a letter explaining that she was “…unable to bear the disgrace of the murderous assault on the son of the reigning Russian Czar, the guest of the Japanese Emperor. If the world sees how hard it is even for a woman to suffer this disgrace, people would not blame the whole Japanese nation for one madman’s mistake. She sacrifices her life in proof thereof.” [6]

The samurai also committed harakiri if they could not avenge an insult or dishonor. Numerous examples confirm that anything which couldn’t be resolved by a duel was settled by harakiri, the most glorious way to die. Stand-alone practices called oibara or tsuifuku (later called junshi) were the harakiri committed after a samurai’s master dies. The samurai believed that this guaranteed they would be reborn close to their master and thus serve him with the same loyalty again. The decision to commit suicide was sometimes made instantly, spontaneously, as this story shows:

“The prince asked: ‘And what is the way to kill oneself?’
Yoshiaki, choking back his tears, said: ‘This way…’
And without finishing the phrase, he drew his sword, turned it against himself, thrust it into his left side and cut through several ribs moving towards the right side. Then pulled the sword out, placed it before the prince, fell flat on his face and died.
The prince immediately took the sword and examined it. Since the blood was on the hilt, the prince wrapped it in the sleeve of his garment, exposed his snow-white body and, plunging the sword close to his heart, fell on the same cushion where Yoshiaki lay dead.
All of those who came with the prince cried, ‘We will follow the prince!’ and, uttering in concert a call to buddhas, committed harakiri all at once. Seeing this, the warriors, more than three hundred in number, who stood in the yard, started to run swords through each other and fell to the ground face down.” [7]

As Bushi-Do spirit evolved, junshi became widespread. In 1651, following the death of shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa, his loyal retainers, both princes and common warriors, all committed seppuku together. But it became too much. The practice turned into a cult and devastated feudal houses. The government had to take emergency measures to stop junshi since fatalities were comparable to those of a tsunami. In 1663 a law was passed which banned death after one’s master, but it was not effective. So another draconian approach was adopted: a law which stipulated the decapitation of the samurai’s entire family if he committed harakiri after his master’s death. It worked. But junshi was not fully eradicated because according to Bushi-Do’s unwritten code it was the highest act of heroism.

The suzerains themselves forbade their retainers to commit junshi, and this was more efficient than the government’s measures. But even suzerains were not always able to prevent suicides because the samurai were extremely sensitive about honor. Surviving their masters was like moral betrayal. Being granted permission to commit suicide from their masters was considered the highest honor. In The Abe Family, Mori Ogai describes how suicide after a master’s death seemed natural in any situation: “In the middle of the cremation ceremony a murmur ran among the samurai escorting the coffin, “Look, falcons, falcons!”
Two falcons hovered in the blue sky above the shrine cedars. They spun over the well hidden under an umbrella of blossoming sakura branches, and swiftly descended on it. Right in front of the astonished men, the birds, one strictly following the other, darted down into the well.
…More than ten retainers had taken their own lives since their lord died. Eight men at a time committed harakiri two days ago, another one yesterday. No one in the whole province failed to cherish the idea of suicide.
The falcons were the lord’s prized birds, and it was without doubt that they met their death voluntarily.”

A screenshot from Patriotism (1966)

Junshi continued into the 20th century. General Nogi, commander of the Japanese forces at the siege of Port
Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 1905) asked Emperor Meiji for his permission to kill himself because he thought that, despite their victory, too many warriors under his command were killed. [8]

Here is how general Okazawa describes it:
“On the day of his triumphant return the commander was granted an audience with the Emperor during which he briefed his sovereign on the details of the battle at Port Arthur. The Emperor praised the general for the victory and then kept silence, despite the general’s multiple pleas to be allowed to commit suicide in atonement of the brave deaths of many sons of His Majesty…
When the general was about to leave, the Emperor said, ‘I know that your soul is tormented by the outrageous price paid for the capture of Port Arthur. But you should remember that to die is easier than to live. Your time to die hasn’t come yet. But if you are still resolute in your decision, let it happen after my death.’”
Several years passed and the Emperor departed from this world. Nogi and his wife immediately committed harakiri and their majestic funerals, as well as the series of suicides which took place throughout the country demonstrated just how strong Bushi-Do spirit was.
The brilliant writer Yukio Mishima committed harakiri as a sign of devotion to Bushi-Do as late as 1970. Great and dismal is the burden of a free and fearless man and thorny is his Way…


Lastly, harakiri was a way to avoid...
__________________________

READ FULL CHAPTER IN THE BOOK Samurai. Ascension

[1] Many words in the Japanese language have “Chinese” versions. The word seppuku is a “Sinicized” variant of the Japanese word harakiri and it better conveys the idea of disembowelment, or cutting the belly open. Seppuku was preferable due to the heavy influence of Chinese culture.
[2] The ‘good manners of death’, or shi-no saho, dictated that the samurai die easily and stylishly, with a smile. A glorious death was called shinibana. An ungraceful, shameful death, or shinihaji, dishonored both the samurai and his family which became marred for having brought up an unworthy individual. Behavior during harakiri was reported in special scrolls which were kept for generations.
[3], [4] Spevakovski, A. B. (1981). Samurai, the military class of Japan.
[5] From Taiheiki (Chronicle of Great Peace).
[6] E. Byalz. (1906). On Martial Spirit of the Japanese and Their Defiance to Death.
[7] The logic behind this scene is described in Taiheiki (Chronicle of Great Peace).
[8] Both sons of the brave general perished in the war. Upon learning of the death of his first son, he wrote to his family asking them to delay burying the ashes until he and his other son died in order to sepulcher them all together.

 

Torii watercolor painting Miyamoto Musashi painting Samurai katana painting

 




I will not get lost...
The North Star is shining in the darkness...
The road to Valhalla, straight like a sword, is always in front of me!

Copyright 2000-2019 Alexey R. Basov, Tatiana Basova. All rights reserved.

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