1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hara-kiri

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HARA-KIRI (Japanese hara, belly, and kiri, cutting), self-disembowelment, primarily the method of suicide permitted to offenders of the noble class in feudal Japan, and later the national form of honourable suicide. Hara-kiri has been often translated as “the happy dispatch” in confusion with a native euphemism for the act. More usually the Japanese themselves speak of hara-kiri by its Chinese synonym, Seppuku. Hara-kiri is not an aboriginal Japanese custom. It was a growth of medieval militarism, the act probably at first being prompted by the desire of the noble to escape the humiliation of falling into an enemy’s hands. By the end of the 14th century the custom had become a much valued privilege, being formally established as such under the Ashi-Kaga dynasty. Hara-kiri was of two kinds, obligatory and voluntary. The first is the more ancient. An official or noble, who had broken the law or been disloyal, received a message from the emperor, couched always in sympathetic and gracious tones, courteously intimating that he must die. The mikado usually sent a jewelled dagger with which the deed might be done. The suicide had so many days allotted to him by immemorial custom in which to make dignified preparations for the ceremony, which was attended by the utmost formality. In his own baronial hall or in a temple a daïs 3 or 4 in. from the ground was constructed. Upon this was laid a rug of red felt. The suicide, clothed in his ceremonial dress as an hereditary noble, and accompanied by his second or “Kaishaku,” took his place on the mat, the officials and his friends ranging themselves in a semicircle round the daïs. After a minute’s prayer the weapon was handed to him with many obeisances by the mikado’s representative, and he then made a public confession of his fault. He then stripped to the waist. Every movement in the grim ceremony was governed by precedent, and he had to tuck his wide sleeves under his knees to prevent himself falling backwards, for a Japanese noble must die falling forward. A moment later he plunged the dagger into his stomach below the waist on the left side, drew it across to the right and, turning it, gave a slight cut upward. At the same moment the Kaishaku who crouched at his friend’s side, leaping up, brought his sword down on the outstretched neck. At the conclusion of the ceremony the bloodstained dagger was taken to the mikado as a proof of the consummation of the heroic act. The performance of hara-kiri carried with it certain privileges. If it was by order of the mikado half only of a traitor’s property was forfeited to the state. If the gnawings of conscience drove the disloyal noble to voluntary suicide, his dishonour was wiped out, and his family inherited all his fortune.

Voluntary hara-kiri was the refuge of men rendered desperate by private misfortunes, or was committed from loyalty to a dead superior, or as a protest against what was deemed a false national policy. This voluntary suicide still survives, a characteristic case being that of Lieutenant Takeyoshi who in 1891 gave himself the “belly-cut” in front of the graves of his ancestors at Tōkyo as a protest against what he considered the criminal lethargy of the government in not taking precautions against possible Russian encroachments to the north of Japan. In the Russo-Japanese War, when faced by defeat at Vladivostock, the officer in command of the troops on the transport “Kinshu Maru” committed hara-kiri. Hara-kiri has not been uncommon among women, but in their case the mode is by cutting the throat. The popularity of this self-immolation is testified to by the fact that for centuries no fewer than 1500 hara-kiris are said to have taken place annually, at least half being entirely voluntary. Stories of amazing heroism are told in connexion with the performance of the act. One noble, barely out of his teens, not content with giving himself the customary cuts, slashed himself thrice horizontally and twice vertically. Then he stabbed himself in the throat until the dirk protruded on the other side with the sharp edge to the front, and with a supreme effort drove the knife forward with both hands through his neck. Obligatory hara-kiri was obsolete in the middle of the 19th century, and was actually abolished in 1868.

See A. B. Mitford, Tales of Old Japan; Basil Hall Chamberlain, Things Japanese (1898).