REVIEW: Seppuku: A history of Samurai suicide

Book by Andrew Rankin

History of SamuraiIn 1581, the Japanese lord Kikkawa Tsuneie, who had agreed to surrender his besieged castle if he was allowed to commit suicide, “heroically disembowelled himself,” according to a contemporary text. On his death day, he carefully chose his robes (“a pea-green kimono and coat of black silk with matching pea-green lining”), graciously allowed three retainers to kill themselves too, recited two poems, sliced himself once across the belly and again in a north-south direction, spoke to the swordsman ready to deliver the coup de grâce (“Generals will be inspecting this head. Make sure you cut it off well”), and died. “Such was the glorious end of lord Kikkawa, who was 34,” sums up the chronicle.

Honour cultures have always put a premium on a good death, meaning a bloody and defiant one, but few have taken it to Japanese extremes. Medieval Japan, racked by endemic warfare, had no tradition of prisoner-taking; to fall into enemy hands was, usually, to be put to death in a shameful fashion. (The very act of being captured, which inferred cowardice, was shameful in itself.) Samurai fighters also cultivated an aesthetic sense foreign to Western feudal warriors—King John of England entertained his dinner guests with hangings, not poetry recitals.

Seppuku combined everything samurai cared for. Exceedingly painful, it demonstrated courage and offered an opportunity to recite poetry or, even better, to write a poem in one’s own blood: it allowed a samurai to see himself as the master of his own fate. By the end of the Middle Ages, it was the only right way to die. After the Tokugawa shogunate enforced peace on Japan in 1603, it used seppuku as an upper-class death penalty—enemies would be ordered to do it—but smoothed its edges. The condemned had barely to touch the dagger (or a substitute paper fan) before the headsman struck. When Japan modernized in the 19th century, resisters brought back the real thing in a last-ditch defence of Old Japan, seeing seppuku as the very essence of national honour.