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Belly slitting: from the 12th century

Japanese ritual suicide is known in the west as hara-kiri, but the Japanese use the term seppuku. Both mean the same, but the former is low slang - the difference, perhaps, between 'belly slitting' and 'stomach cutting'.

The custom goes back to the rise of the samurai class and their code of bushido in the 12th century. Like a Roman falling on his sword, hara-kiri is a way of avoiding any form of dishonour - including the dishonour of falling into an enemy's hands. It may also be practised as a supreme gesture of loyalty to a feudal lord, choosing not to survive him.


In a code as strict as that of the samurai, it is inevitable that the precisely correct way of committing suicide is laid down. The practitioner should plunge a short sword into the left side of the stomach, draw it sharply across to the right side and then turn it upwards. To demonstrate perfect courage in the face of extreme pain, it is desirable to follow this with two more strokes: the first is a stab into the top of the stomach, pressing down to join the original wound; the second is a simple jab into the throat.

Voluntary hara-kiri of this sort is practised by a few even in the 20th century. But the samurai were also subject to obligatory hara-kiri.


If sentenced to death, a samurai is allowed to avoid the shame of public execution by committing hara-kiri. Again the ritual is precise. The condemned man sits cross-legged on a red carpet. A short sword is nearby. Behind him stands another samurai (a friend or relative) with a longer sword. As the condemned man reaches for the short sword to plunge it in his stomach, the friend cuts off his head.

Hara-kiri of any kind can be guaranteed to provide a tingling highlight in Japanese heroic tales. A famous event in Japanese history - the simultaneous suicide of forty-seven loyal retainers, or ronin - provides one of the classics of the kabuki theatre.


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