Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!
With that line, Nero Claudis Caesar Augustus Germanicus thrust his dagger through his neck in suicide. Cato the Younger, hearing of the defeat of his forces at Utica, fell on his sword. Brutus, despairing of capture after losing against Antonius, did the same. All of this serves as evidence that the Romans used suicide as a means of avoiding further disgrace. The feudal Japanese took this a step further. Their ritual of suicide not only avoided further disgrace, it could actually be used to recover lost honor.
Seppuku emerged as a practice once the Buddhist theories of life being but a way to something greater and Death but a portal began taking hold. The samurai, always eager to prove their courage and loyalty, seized upon a ritualized suicide as a means of showing those traits. Doing so brought them honor in their own eyes, and as such it evolved into a means of restoring lost honor- as well as a becoming quite a profound statement of displeasure or protest in some circumstances.
There were many reasons why a samurai might want to commit this act. One of the most common ones were the loss of one’s master in battle- a horrible fate, and one which the Germanics in the West knew well and also considered a reason to die. Another common cause was disgrace- whether through intrigue, loss on the battlefield, or failure. And another reason was being ordered to do it.
The ritual itself became highly stylized and formal, much like the tea ceremony developed later by the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa during the early Sengoku period. The person to perform the ritual would wear a loose robe, most often a white one, and kneel on a rice mat (tatami). He had recently emerged from his bath, and eaten his favorite meal, so he was neither hungry nor dirty at the time of this most important ritual. Before him was arrayed upon a tray a sheet to write upon, a writing implement, and a long knife wrapped in paper with but the tip uncovered. The samurai would write his ‘death haiku’ and then sit back upon his heels and reach for the knife.
Grasping the knife, he would aim it at his abdomen, then plunge it in and make a short cut from left to right. Sometimes a samurai would also make a second cut leaping upwards toward his heart. During this excruciating process, the samurai would earn back his lost honor or make his statement by not showing even the slightest hesitation or sign of the pain he was enduring.
At his pre-arranged signal, his kaishakunin, or second, would strike with a sword to sever the spine and most of the muscles of the neck, leaving the head hanging by a flap of skin. This served three functions. Severing the spine killed the man instantly, removing the pain he was enduring. Second, the head would then hang with the face toward the chest, masking it from view. And third, the flap of skin removed the odium of total decapitation- a punishment meted out to criminals.
That was the ritual as it evolved, though there changes allowed. A man too weakened or dangerous to hold a weapon was allowed to substitute a symbolic fan for the weapon. A kaishakunin could be told his signal to strike was when the principal grasped the knife- or even began reaching for it. Other changes were on the battlefield- no bath, meal or white robe handy, but there were a lot of victorious samurai coming to get you. Torture was a given, and with the loss of the battle and often one’s daimyo as well, a quick belly-stab and cut would avoid a more horrible fate. Sometimes, if one fought well but was defeated anyway, a samurai from the victorious army would volunteer to act as the kaishakunin to display his approval of the defeated man’s honor.
Seppuku was considered an honor, and as such, reserved for the samurai class. And since it was an honor, it became an important part of pacifying a conquered province. After the defeat of the army, the prisoners could either be slain out of hand, ransomed back to their ruling family, or ordered to commit seppuku. In the west, the options were enslavement, slaying out of hand, or ransoming. Enslavement left military men alive, with the possibility of escape. Ransoming did the same, though it cost the ransoming family a bit of their fortune. Massacring the prisoners removed the soldiers permanently, but left a brutal stigma attached to the conquerors. They would have little peace in the province. But seppuku? Ordering the defeated to perform this restored their honor- which they valued above all else- and was seen as a sign of mercy and generosity- while at the same time removing the potential rebel from this life. One gathered both peace and honor by ordering the suicide- a win-win situation for the victor, and for the defeated as well.
One might think that believers in ritual suicide would be a dying breed, but that would be incorrect. Seppuku became and stayed immensely popular among the samurai- lists of famous samurai those performing it are quite long, while lists of not not-famous samurai doing it would be very, very long. During the Tokugawa shogunate, when the ruthless Tokugawas had effectively eliminated open battle and thus robbed their samurai of scenes in which to excel, seppuku became a means to demonstrate one’s utter commitment, or utter disgust, or simply a protest.- a far cry from its original basis. The fad grew to such an extent that the shogun issued edicts forbidding his retainers or their retainers from committing the act. The shogun later extended this to attempt to abolish seppuku totally. He failed, but it did finally abate the trend and acts of seppuku, the quantity of which dropped off thereafter.
A side note- seppuku, or versions of it, are still occasionally performed in modern Japan. It is not quite dead yet, though the samurai no longer exist.