Seppuku was part of the honour code of Japanese samurai and could be performed for several reasons. Literally meaning, “stomach cutting”, samurai would sacrifice their own lives by method of disembowelment. Performed by the shorter of the two swords samurai carried, the wakizashi could be used to cut open the abdomen, and then upwards toward the naval; this method was called jumonji. This method avoided the damaging of any vital organs and thus, the victim could sometimes wait hours before death. It was believed that one’s soul or spirit resided within the abdomen. Opening the abdomen meant laying bare one’s soul and showing resolution to expiate a crime, or to demonstrate innocence and honour.
One of the most common reasons for performing seppuku was to avoid being captured by an enemy. It was custom to take the heads of fallen enemies on the battlefield. Wounded and helpless warriors left on the battlefield favoured death in a form of “honourable suicide” rather than being by mutilated by an enemy solider, especially if that enemy soldier was of a lower-ranking. For the Japanese, to be taken prisoner alive was a great dishonour, and those who survived battle through cowardice were ostracised.
Seppuku later developed into a form of execution and punishment. A second person would stand behind the person about to perform seppuku (who would be sat in a cross-legged position), and the head would be struck off after the first incision. This was viewed as the only honourable way out of an impossible situation if someone of the samurai class had been accused of a crime. Once this act had begun in motion, it could not be interrupted for any reason, even if a pardon note were to arrive. The act was to be carried out with the utmost dignity by all who were present.
Other reasons for performing seppuku included if a samurai felt duty-bound to give his lord pragmatic but unwelcome advice. Seppuku-junshi was commonly practised in the early Tokugawa period and literally meant ‘following the lord in death’. The most famous example of this is when General Nogi Maresuke, hero of the Russo-Japanese war, committed seppuku to follow the late Emperor Meiji in his death in 1912. Another form, hito-bashira, was less common but still encompassed the idea of honour. When the hole was being dug for the cornerstone of a new building, the person willing to become hito-bashira would climb into the hole and commit seppuku. It was believed that after foundation stones had been laid upon his corpse, his spirit would protect and guard the building.
For whatever reason seppuku was performed, honour and pride were highly strung within victim and anyone else present during the act.