Often called “hara-kiri” in the West, “seppuku” is a form of ritual suicide that originated with Japan’s ancient samurai warrior class. The grisly act typically involved stabbing oneself in the belly with a short sword, slicing open the stomach and then turning the blade upwards to ensure a fatal wound. Some practitioners of seppuku allowed themselves to die slowly, but they usually enlisted the help of a “kaishakunin,” or second, who would lop off their head with a katana as soon as they made their initial cut. The entire process was accompanied by great ceremony. Among other rituals, the doomed individual often drank sake and composed a short “death poem” before taking up the blade.
Seppuku first developed in the 12th century as a means for samurai to achieve an honorable death. Swordsmen performed the ritual to avoid capture following battlefield defeats, but it also functioned as a means of protest and a way of expressing grief over the death of a revered leader. Beginning in the 1400s, seppuku evolved into a common form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed crimes. In each case, it was considered an act of extreme bravery and self-sacrifice that embodied Bushido, the ancient warrior code of the samurai. There was even a female version of seppuku called “jigai,” which involved cutting the throat using a special knife known as a “tanto.”
Seppuku fell out of favor with the decline of the samurai in the late-19th century, but the practice didn’t disappear entirely. Japanese General Nogi Maresuke disemboweled himself in 1912 out of loyalty to the deceased Meiji Emperor, and many troops later chose the sword over surrender during World War II. Perhaps the most famous case in recent history concerns Yukio Mishima, a renowned novelist and Nobel Prize nominee who committed ritual seppuku in 1970 after leading a failed coup against the Japanese government.