Why Do Japanese Commit Hara-Kiri?

A frustrated Bridgestone tire executive committed hara-kiri this week in his boss’ Tokyo office. Newspapers tell us that suicide by hara-kiri is rare, but not unheard of, in modern Japan. Why do Japanese commit hara-kiri?

Hara-kiri is a ritualized form of suicide with roots in 12th century Japanese samurai warrior culture. Rather than be captured, a defeated swordsman would stab himself in the left belly, draw the blade to the right, then pull upwards. Encyclopedia Britannica adds that “it was considered exemplary form to stab again below the chest and press downward across the first cut, and then to pierce one’s throat.” Obviously, bleeding to death from a gut wound or suffocating from a throat wound is a slow and miserable way to die. As practiced by defeated samurai, it was meant as atonement. It also demonstrated enormous psychological courage, which was a way of winning back some measure of honor even in defeat.

In later years, Japanese officials would sometimes commit hara-kiri to protest a superior’s decision. Like self-immolation, hara-kiri is meant to attract attention and show a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause. The Bridgestone executive may have been protesting his firm’s corporate restructuring. Japanese officials sometimes killed themselves to atone for botching an assignment, or out of grief over a leader’s death. When the Mejii emperor died in 1912, his leading general committed hara-kiri out of respect for the dead leader. (Please don’t ask Explainer to get into the whole samurai-master thing.)

From at least the 15th century, the Japanese emperor employed hara-kiri as a punishment, sending a messenger to give a ceremonial dagger to the person he wanted dead. The unlucky recipient had no choice, of course, but because the death was self-inflicted it was considered more honorable than ordinary execution. Often, in a concession to physical suffering, a friend standing behind him would lop off the condemned man’s head just after he stabbed himself. (Novelist Yukio Mishima received such an assist from a colleague when he committed hara-kiri in 1970.) Sometimes, in an even more symbolic version of the ritual, the friend would lop off the condemned man’s head as he reached out for the dagger but before he stabbed himself.

Encartasays that for many centuries there were an estimated 1,500 instances of voluntary and obligatory hara-kiri per year. But in 1868 or 1873 (sources disagree) the emperor abolished obligatory hara-kiri, and voluntary procedures became less frequent as well. Still, during World War II many Japanese soldiers committed hara-kiri rather than tolerate capture. Finally, hara-kiri (meaning “belly cutting”) is not a word that most Japanese use. The common term for the practice in Japan is “seppuku” which roughly translates to “self-disembowelment.”