You use the term “seppuku” rather than “hara-kiri,” which is more familiar to Westerners. Is there a difference between the two and why did you choose to use “seppuku?”
As this is an issue that is sometimes confusing for Westerners, I have gone to some lengths to explain the differences between these words in the introduction to the book: "The word hara-kiri has seldom been used in Japan, where seppuku is preferred both in speech and in print. Hara-kiri could be translated as ‘belly-cut’ and seppuku as ‘cutting the stomach,’ though these are imperfect approximations. While hara-kiri is sometimes dismissed as a vulgarism, it would be more accurate to say that seppuku is a polite euphemism. By employing the Chinese readings of the two characters that form the word, it is a way of saying ‘cut the stomach’ without actually uttering the Japanese words for ‘stomach’ (hara) and ‘cut’ (kiru). Seppuku is the more recent term, making its first appearance early in the fifteenth century and has been standard terminology since around 1600 [. . .] By the nineteenth century, seppuku had become an all-embracing term for samurai suicide, which did not always involve disembowelment [. . .] The prevalence of the term hara-kiri is a result of its appearance in early accounts of Japan written by foreigners, to whom this word was more easily comprehensible than seppuku [. . .] Today the word hara-kiri is so exotic that some Japanese even assume it to be an import, a misreading by foreigners of the seppuku characters.”
You’ve said that seppuku is a fact of samurai history, but has been subjected to beautification and hyperbole. Can you offer some examples and explain why this has happened?
Everyone knows the famous tale of the 47 ronin, who committed ritual seppuku suicide after wreaking revenge on the enemy of their late lord. Fewer people know that the ronin did not actually cut their stomachs; they were beheaded after a symbolic seppuku ceremony. It is easy to see why such details get covered up or beautified. It preserves the reputations of the samurai concerned – and it makes for a better story!
What are some of the primary sources you used in doing your research? Did you have difficulty obtaining them? And, if so, why was that?
The primary sources include ancient historical records, medieval battle histories, records of the military households, reports by samurai doctors and execution supervisors, and various kinds of samurai texts. The difficulty lay not in obtaining the sources, but in disentangling fact from fiction. Some of the early battle histories describe warriors who continue fighting for several minutes after disemboweling themselves. Clearly such episodes cannot be taken at face value. I have avoided overtly fictional texts and concentrated on texts that claim to be factual, while pointing out to the reader the sometimes dubious nature of the evidence being presented.
Clearly, death with honor is not unique to the Japanese. What about the act of stomach cutting? Was this method of ritual suicide uniquely Japanese?
There are tales of stomach-cutting in myths and warrior legends of other cultures. Some ancient Chinese texts contain stomach-cutting suicides, which probably constitute the origin of the Japanese seppuku tradition. But the formalized ritual of seppuku is unique to Japan.
Was there a prescribed set of rituals that accompanied seppuku? Can you explain some of the most important components?
For centuries there was no ritual: warriors slashed their bellies in battle to avoid capture. In the seventeenth century a set of protocols was devised covering all aspects of the suicide ritual: a table for the dagger, a white kimono for the condemned man, seating positions, rules for the swordsman who acted as executioner, candles and incense for atmosphere, etc.
What roles and purpose did decapitation play in the ritual?
Medieval Japanese warriors quickly learned that a cut to the stomach is not immediately fatal. It became standard practice for a friend or colleague to administer a death blow, usually by decapitation. By the eighteenth century, seppuku rituals were often performed without a stomach cut.
Was seppuku distinctly male? Did women ever perform seppuku? If so, under what circumstances?
The first reference to stomach-cutting in ancient Japanese texts describes the death of a female: the goddess Aomi is said to have committed suicide by stabbing herself in the stomach and leaping into a river. Samurai wives often assisted their husbands in their suicides, or died alongside them. Stories of samurai wives cutting their stomachs appear in texts from the Tokugawa period, but these are believed to be largely fictional. The seppuku ritual is an exclusively male formulation. Seppuku legends helped reinforce the status of the samurai class during the long peace of the Tokugawa period. Women had nothing to gain from theatrical suicide.
What was the connection between seppuku, shintoism, and the rise of Japanese nationalism in the nineteenth century?
Seppuku (and the samurai class) had been abolished by the end of the nineteenth century, but a nostalgia for samurai values endured. Military officers liked to think of themselves as modern samurai, and there were some seppuku-style suicides. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 the Minister for War and the Head of the Special Attack Squadron both killed themselves by cutting their stomachs.
In 1871, a motion abolishing judicial suicide was passed into law. However, what followed was a bloody period of mass suicides by belly-ripping. What was the reason for this reversion and what were the implications for the samurai class?
Knowing that there was no future for the sword or for the samurai in Japan, a small number of diehards ripped themselves to pieces. It was the last furious paroxysm of the samurai class.
In your book, you quote an American sailor on the USS Randolph, describing a kamikaze pilot during WWII. How were the suicidal acts of kamikaze pilots related to seppuku?
Like stomach-cutting, aggressive suicides in battle were a feature of Japanese warfare since ancient times. Medieval warriors who feared they could not win the battle hurled themselves into the enemy ranks, to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible before they died. According to the samurai ethic, there is no dishonor or weakness in dying; all that matters is how you die.
What do we learn from the book about differing attitudes toward suicide in Japan and in the West?
In the West, suicide has traditionally been viewed with horror or contempt. Christians deemed it sinful, doctors diagnosed it as madness. But attititudes toward suicide have varied among cultures. Self-immolation rituals featured in many Asian cultures and religions. During the Pacific War, Americans were confronted with the aggressive suicidal tactics of Japanese soldiers. Today, at a time when fanatical suicides are making headlines again, an examination of the seppuku tradition offers insights into the psychology of self-destructive warriors, and can teach us about an alternative conception of martial suicide, one that hails it as an act of unassailable purity and transcendental courage.