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Seppuku: The Ancient Japanese Samurai Suicide Ritual

1800s | September 11, 2017

The ancient Japanese samurai seppuku tradition is considered as one of the grisliest and most painful ways to end one's life. The highly ritualized practice essentially involves the disemboweling of oneself with a dagger and bleeding out to death or having someone else, often a peer, finish the job by beheading.

The Seppuku tradition was once common in Japan's military, but like many Old World traditions, Seppuku died out as Japan was pushed to embrace the modern world during the 19th century.

Before then, Japan was pretty much closed off from the Western world, only having contact with occasional Dutch trade ships. Eventually though, Europeans and Americans were able to force their way into trading with Japan, and this was when the upheaveal into modern society occurred. The Japanese government underwent reform but was initially met with pushback from the samurai class.

The samurai engaged in killing foreigners or those who did business with them. In 1863, Emperor Kōmei issued an order to 'expel all barbarians' (Westerners), and the samurai complied with the use of their katanas, leading to an incident in 1868 when samurai soldier killed 11 unarmed French traders who were in the town of Sakai to do business. Seeking justice, Japan's French consul, Léon Roches, demanded that the Samurai be executed.

This led to an incident in 1868 when samurai soldiers killed 11 unarmed French sailors who were in the coastal town of Sakai to trade. Seeking justice, Japan's French consul, Léon Roches, insisted that the samurai be executed.

Roches assumed that the execution will be done by firing squad so he sent one of his captains, Bergasse du Petit-Thouars, to witness the execution. However, what du Petit-Thouars witnesses was the samurai marching out and performing seppuku one by one, with their peers ending things up with beheading. du Petit-Thouars stopped the execution of the ordered 20 men at 11 suicides.

After the incident, an imperial decree was handed down, declaring that samurai who killed foreigners would be stripped of their rank and punished accordingly. This meant that they would not be permitted the honor of ending their life with seppuku.

However, during World War II seppuku would see somewhat of a resurgence when Japanese officers would choose to kill themselves with their swords rather than surrender to Allied forces. But after the Allied forces took control of Japan and forced the country to adopt the Constitution of Japan over the Meiji Constitution, Japan underwent another cultural upheaval.

A parliamentary government was put in place and the Emperor became only a figurehead, which render the seppuku a tradition that had no place modernized Japan.

 

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