The Ritual of Seppuku

by Wayne Muromoto, publisher: Furyu the Budo Journal

The ritual of seppuku varied from age to age in Japan. It was first recorded at the end of the Heian period, when a samurai from the Minamoto was in a losing battle and fell on his sword, killing himself while around him the yashiki burned to the ground. Later, it became codified as a dignified and less unsavory way to die than to face capture and torture. We're talking Dark Ages here, when all over Europe and Asia torture and mutilation was not at all an uncommon fate for the loser.

By the Sengoku period, seppuku had evolved into what has been codified as seen in rather well-known Iai Ryu like the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-Ryu. I also studied Takeuchi-ryu batto-iai, and so the following comments are based on what my Sensei in Japan from the Eishin-ryu and Takeuchi-ryu said about the subject, besides some reading in the Japanese texts.

Seppuku on the battlefield was what you could make do with; i.e., if you didn't have time to take off your armor, you'd just slit the veins in your neck or fall on your sword AKA Marc Antony style. If you had time and it was a formal affair, you dressed all in white to symbolize purity. You wrote a short poem that had to gently signify your state of mind (besides the obvious "I WANT TO GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!") and the season. You know, sorta like "The cherry blossoms fall. Life is like a dream, bah-dum, bah-dum. There goes my baby. Sittin' on the dock of the bay. . .")

I've heard said that Lord Asano, the former lord of the 47 Ronin, wrote a pretty junky death poem, which might indicate his immaturity and lack of self-discipline, which made him attack Lord Kira and start the whole blood vendetta.

You would be either in a Tatami room but more likely on a gravel clearing in a garden. There would be about three attendants from your lord and/or the shogun to observe the ritual and to file a report, and various sundry attendants as well as the kaishaku, or the one who in other posts was called the "second."

Anyway, you then had a raised tray of unlacquered wood presented to you as you sat in seiza, made only for that occasion and then thrown away. On the tray would be a sheaf of washi, white Japanese paper, and on top of that would be small trays of munchies and a low, wide sake cup. You had a bite to eat to go with your sake alcohol, perhaps as you composed your poem.

So composed, you would then begin the ritual. A low wooden dais with a bare blade on a stack of folded washi paper is presented to you. The shoulders of the outer garment (kamishimo) would be slipped under the knees to keep yourself from falling backwards and ending in a rather undignified position. If possible, the low wooden dais would also be placed under your buttocks, so that you would be leaning slightly forward.

The bare blade is wound in the middle of the paper (it is not in a scabbard or handle because it will be discarded later for being so inauspicious) for gripping.

Cutting yourself took various forms. The most common was a straight horizontal cut across the belly, from left to right, with a sharp pull upwards at the end, thereby creating a flap so the guts could fall out, literally exposing your true intentions (belly and spirit in Japanese language are often synonymous,as it is in Hawaiian. And in English, having no guts is having no conviction). If you were strong enough to do that to the end, you would then lean forward at an exact degree, in proper spinal alignment, without jerking your head up from the pain. Why? Jerking up compresses the neck bones and makes it harder for the kaishaku to cut through the joints. That's why proper posture is so important in Iai. You wouldn't want to have that guy hacking at your head a couple of times, now, would you? ( :-[ )

When you lean forward, off goes your head; if you were a samurai following proper ritual, your kaishaku would indeed cut only to within a thin span at the front. Blood will gush anyway, but it was sort of in bad taste (!!!) to have the head being lopped off and flying through the air in a garden. You lopped off heads indiscriminately only when beheading criminals.

Not all samurai were capable of such self-control and strength involved in this kind of Seppuku, and variations evolved. Women could stab themselves in the neck, severing veins and arteries and dying quickly, like samurai who were clad in armor. Women, children and even male samurai could just touch the blade and they could have their heads cut off, if they felt they couldn't do the actual belly cut. Later, the inauspicious blade on the dais was often totally replaced by a fan or a sakaki branch.

Now then, for your macho guys contemplating something to do on a boring Saturday night, the harder way to commit Seppuku was called jumonji giri. You cut across your belly as in the usual way, then withdraw your blade and then cut straight up the center, creating a cross, or the letter ten (juu) in Japanese. Try that and tell me how it feels in the morning.

Historically, the last person to do that was General Nogi, who committed Seppuku at the turn of this century after his beloved emperor died. Dying to follow one's lord or partner in the afterlife was called jushin. Nogi cut himself in jumonji giri, then buttoned his navy white uniform up primly and died. His wife followed him by stabbing herself in the neck.

A lot of literary types romanticized Yukio Mishima's death, but my own sensei's views was that Mishima was a good writer but a right-wing crackpot when it came to martial arts. His second was a good Kendo person, but not very good at handling a real sword, so while Mishima was in agony, his second took a couple of tries before he cut off Mishima's head. He whacked Mishima's jawbone (one of the hardest bones in the body) and chopped at his neck bone a couple of times before he lopped the head off, and it flew through the air ignominiously.

My Eishin-ryu Iai. Sensei shook his head when he told me that story, probably because he disagreed with Mishima's right wing views and secondly because he must have thought that it was piss-poor waza.

For those of you still with me after this gruesome blood feast, it must be noted that being kaishaku was also a very great responsibility. So in the Eishin-ryu, kaishaku is "easy to do in Kata, hard to do in real life." You had to mix compassion (because you were chosen by the person dying as a close friend who knew you wouldn't make him/her suffer too long) with strength and technique good enough to cut with one blow. Sorta like medieval Kevorkian, I guess.

The sword was held out of the sight of the person dying, to keep the person from getting too nervous. So you raised it just out of the eyesight of the person, and you stood in Hanmi or crouched in chuu-goshi to the left of the person. In some schools, the sword is held at different heights according to the relative status of the person dying, either in a kind of gedan, behind the back, or in Jodan.

After the cut is complete, the sword is wiped with washi and the place is cleaned up. The sword is discarded for being tainted by death. How you cut, its particulars, etc. depends on your ryuha.

BTW, Yamada Asaemon was the "shogun's executioner" and he often performed kaishaku for many samurai who had fallen from grace and had to commit Seppuku Yamada never took money for his service, as he felt taking money for killing someone in so solemn a rite was distasteful and vulgar. He made a living from testing swords. So if you had a sword to be used in a Seppuku, he would test it and certify it and get paid. Then he'd be asked to perform kaishaku. He kept things separate.

Finally, every school that had kaishaku also has a host of kuden, oral transmissions, passed on only directly from master to student. In the Takeuchi-ryu, there are five codified kuden, that deal with various aspects of Seppuku These have been handed down for centuries, even though the need for Seppuku has passed. It's just part of history and tradition. The kuden deals with particular situations in Seppuku, including the possibility of ranshin, Katana no sabi, and so on. I don't feel particularly open enough to explain these right now as the Internet is not exactly face-to-face direct transmission, not that they're anything mystical or whatever.