Seppuku: Genuine or Gesture?

Seppuku Graffiti

Graffiti Depicting the Act of Seppuku

Suicide is not an act generally encouraged or praised in modern society. In feudal Japan, however, Seppuku is essential to the cultural and Confucian code of honor. Taiko explores the nuances of this act in society and distinguishes between genuine acts and polite gestures.

As a modern American reader, getting a grasp of the Seppuku portrayed in Taiko took some time and an open mind. Hideyoshi, future Taiko, is one of the most frequent promisers of Seppuku in a way that most likely demonstrates a gesture. In the same way that someone might offer his or her last piece of gum to a friend knowing that the friend will politely decline, Hideyoshi offers his life in order to demonstrate his loyalty. The first time that Hideyoshi vows Seppuku is, essentially, over a bet to finish the Kiyosu castle wall in three days. However, it is made clear that Nobunaga does not readily accept this gesture; “Even Lord Nobunaga acted as if he didn’t want [Hideyoshi] to commit Seppuku over this” (157). Later, Hideyoshi yet again promises Seppuku if he is unable to coax Hanbei down from Mount Kurihara. Although he doesn’t claim to be disgenuine with his offer, Hideyoshi acknowledges that “it had slipped out almost unconsciously, from his own zeal” (285). Suicide is a common form of showing loyalty and dedication to a cause or person, but in certain contexts, is not considered to be a binding agreement. In these cases, Seppuku is serving as a polite gesture without the necessary bind to follow through.

Taiko does not only offer examples of Seppuku as a gesture. In other situations, Seppuku is given as a punishment or is genuinely offered in dire circumstances, particularly in war. For example, the Oda Clan is waging war on Odani Castle, which has increasingly become hopeless for Nagamasa and his family. Instead of agreeing to surrender, Nagamasa arranges and hosts his own funeral while he is alive, and then proceeds to commit Seppuku. In this instance, the promise to die by one’s own hand is seen as more honorable than giving in to the enemy. Even though Seppuku is perceived as being violent and dramatic, it is held to the highest degree of respect. When Nobunaga is discussing Yoshiaki’s exile, he exclaims, “Excuse my rudeness, but I suspect you don’t even know the proper way of cutting open your own stomach” (391). In this sense, keeping someone alive to live in shame is a harsher punishment than allowing someone to commit suicide.

Part of the reasoning behind the prevalence of Seppuku in feudal Japan is the attitude towards death. Japanese culture embraces death as a part of life, and more specifically as a part of samurai culture. The Shogun in Taiko states, “That is the duty of a samurai, after all. It’s really nothing more than arranging flowers at a funeral” (389). Similarly, this belief that “your body is not just your own”, aids an individual’s willingness to commit their life to honor.

Ultimately, death is an integral part of life in feudal Japan, whether one is a samurai or not. Embracing death through Confucian practices, samurai loyalty and cultural honor creates a society that used Seppuku not only as a gesture, but with genuine intentions.

Works Cited

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko. Trans. William Scott Wilson. New York: Kodansha USA, 2012. Print.

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