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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > Christmas 2017 > Seppuku: Japan’s Honour Suicides

Seppuku: Japan’s Honour Suicides

For many Japanese, among them the mighty samurai, death was far more preferable than shame or disgrace. Hareth Al Bustani reveals the bloody details
READY TO DIE The method was violent and extremely painful, but samurai had to take their own lives with no sign of emotion

Flames lick away the shadows in the inner recesses of the great temple. Taki Zenzaburo kneels on a red scarlet rug in silence. An officer hands him a short sword, wrapped in paper. With poise, Zenzaburo lifts the blade to his head and announces: “For this crime, I disembowel myself, and I beg you who are present to do me the honour of witnessing the act.” As his robes fall to his waist, he gazes at the blade. In some ways, his 32 years have all been in preparation for this moment.

Western observers were shocked when Taki Zenzaburo committed seppuku
ALAMY X3, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1

Suddenly, he thrusts it into the left side of his abdomen and slowly drags it to the right, before turning it and pulling up – all without a grimace. His final act is to stick out his neck and signal to his trusted pupil, and dear friend, who beheads his master in one stroke.

Minamoto no Yorimasa took his own life after defeat in battle

This was the grisly scene a British diplomat witnessed on a trip to Japan in 1868. He was one of the first foreigners ever to observe the act of seppuku, or belly cutting, a highly ritualised form of suicide soon to be banned. To a European, the ritual was bizarre, horrifying and morbidly impressive; to the Japanese, such a death was just part of life.

A poster for the 1962 film Harakiri, which is another term for ‘belly cutting’
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About History Revealed

When we began thinking of how best to celebrate our 50th issue, we thought it would be great to look at the turning points in history, to pick which decisions had the greatest impact on the world. But as we started to come up with a list of key moments, it soon became clear that this was a herculean task; we were going to need some help. A few phone calls and emails later, we had assembled a panel of experts including some of the most respected and popular historians, writers and broadcasters in the land. We quickly realised it’s not possible to define the single biggest decision in history – how could anyone? – but the variety of responses we had illustrated the vast richness of history. So, from Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, to Decca Records choosing to pass on the Beatles, we present 50 decisions that, for better or worse, have shaped our world. Before I let you go, I’d like to thank all of our readers most sincerely for your support since we launched – here’s to the next 50 issues!