[ Editor's Pick ]
Seppuku - A Practical Guide.

By Nick May


It is hanami time in Japan and readers thoughts turn naturally to ritual disembowelment. Here in handy cut out form is the Gleaner guide to elegant self-immolation - please don't call it hari kiri..

Seppuku is highly ritualistic, exquisitely precise and earns you maximum respect from students and potential job interviewers alike. However, to avoid excessive pain, thoroughly internalise this fact: seppuku is all about RITUAL. Often one was not even required to DO anything, merely reaching for the knife was considered to be the act initiating your second's coup-de-grace (the famous "47 ronin" were despatched thus). In almost all cases death occurred from having the head almost separated from the body. (Never describe this as beheading, traditionally reserved for common criminals and quite beneath the dignity of gentlefolk.)

Obviously you have to decide well in advance why you are doing it as precise etiquette varies. Resistance, remonstrance, show of loyalty, affirmation of the correctness of one's own position, expiation of a crime and the wiping out of disgrace are all perfectly good reasons; being refused a work visa is not (though it might come under funshi, or seppuku to express great indignation). After all, even in matters of self disembowelment a man must retain a sense of proportion. We will discuss "basic" seppuku and leave you to furnish your own flourishes.

Seppuku absolutely requires a minimum of two participants. Waiting to die from disembowelment is a notoriously drawn out process, very messy and trying for the spectator. Since the Empo era (late 17th century) only loonies such as Mishima and characters in Samurai dramas actually waited for hours to contemplate their entrails by- the-light-of-the-rising-sun - there is no need for you to indulge in anything so vulgarly melodramatic. You will require the services therefore of a Kaishakunin, or "second" whose duty it is to despatch you with a sharp sword at your signal. The exact moment he strikes is entirely for you to decide - obviously the later and more painful your death the better your chances with that next visa. For maximum effect and minimum pain we suggest you fake it. Be sure however that your second has no higher ideals than you, and of course better nerves and swordsmanship.

Choosing an appropriate Kaishaku-nin is obviously very important. You should consider the following. Beheading being very infra dig points are deducted for actually detaching the head. Make sure your kaishakunin has practiced and perfected the "daki-kubi" cut so that your head is left attached to the body by a short flap of skin. This ensures your face is hidden, demonstrates his prowess with a sword and entirely remove the stigma of decapitation.

There are three ritual systems indicating when it is appropriate to strike; choose the one most appropriate to you. Do chat to your kaishaku-nin beforehand and establish precisely when he is to intervene. DON'T rely on a student, in our experience they make lousy kaishikunin - they've all seen far too many samurai movies and read too few history books. They will almost certainly insist you not only disembowel yourself but write your name in kanji with your own blood on a silken handkerchief given-you-by-fair-virgin-lady ("and no, katakana won't do") before carrying out their ultimate duty. If you are a child, point out that it is customary to strike at the earliest possible moment. The knife itself, the kozuka, should be of about 11.5 inches, wrapped in paper with the final inch exposed. Check it is steel and not a painted bamboo substitute. Youth can be cruel.

Dress and execution. A loose kimono should be worn. As soon as the Sambo tray with the knife is placed before you, allow the kimono to fall open, reach forward, pull the tray toward you, pick up the knife and cut from left to right. The "jumonji", the crosswise cut, may be omitted by colonials but gentlemen will know better. The final upward jerk may result in a "summa cum laude"! Remove the knife, replace it carefully on the Sambo and signal the Kaishaku-nin to proceed. (You may of course omit all steps following pulling the tray towards you if you have successfully chosen your second.)

The last meal.
Anise chopsticks should be used to lend a funereal note to this feast of puns. Three slices of pickle should be served, "mikire" means both "three slices" and "cut flesh".

In general your friends will try to create an atmosphere of mourning as though you are already dead. Don't be offended - this consideration is intended to put you at your ease! Immediately prior to the act you may be offered a last cup of water (if it is sake it will of course be served with the left hand poured to the left - don't try this at a party, it's rude). Your cup will be filled in two pourings, you must drain the contents in two pairs of two sips. "Three" is taken to imply repetition, two indicating definitely-not-repetition-no-way! 2 X 2 is 4, or shi, which can be read as "death". How comforting such intellectual jeux d'esprit at this time!

And that is about it. DON'T engage in any of the degenerate forms of seppuku that involve stabbing yourself with a paper fan: they are vulgar and a paper cut can be quite nasty. DO cover the tatami in your apartment or your guarantors will have to replace it and definitely DON'T chew gum or ask for a last cigarette. Be considerate of others and try not to make a lot of noise.

The rules for seppuku are as complex as for the tea ceremony, and the result roughly the same; if pushed we would have to recommend self-disembowelment over a slow death from lethal boredom, arthritis and bitter tea.

"Live briefly but gloriously, One's evanescent life is but a preparation for death. The fall of the blossom is as moving as its beauty on the limb and the final moment, as ceremonialized in the ritual of seppuku, is indeed the moment of truth" (From Jack Seward's "Hara-Kiri"- TUT 1968)- [ Amazon link ] a good introductory guide.)

To further assist our readers the Gleaner will run a short course, the communal passing-out parade to coincide with the next attempt by the Mayor of Hiroshima to speak to the UN.

(May not be reprinted without written permission)
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