Typically, a good seppuku performance would consist of the samurai driving a tanto sword into his abdomen and disemboweling himself by slashing the part from left to right. A second man attending him, called the kaishakunin, would then swing a sword down the samurai’s neck and decapitate him. By Edo times (1600-1867), seppuku had become an elaborate ritual performed in front of spectators. Although certainly a painful and violent way to die, many people saw it as an honorable and even romantic act. Incidents of seppuku decreased as Japan modernized in the late 19th century, but as we shall soon see, there are even records of people committing it in the post-WWII era.
6. The Byakkotai
Poster for a recent drama series about the Byakkotai.
For decades, anime and action movies have been casually throwing their teenage protagonists into such dangerous occupations as assassins, ninjas, samurai, vampire hunters, and angst-ridden robot pilots. This idea is awesome on screen, but actually tends to be far more terrifying and confusing in real-life. Case in point: the Byakkotai, a military unit of 305 samurai entirely composed of teenagers.
The Byakkotai, whose name meant “White Tiger Force”, participated in a year-long (1868-1869) civil war in Japan known as the Boshin War. On February 7, 1869, during the Battle of Tonoguchihara, the Byakkotai hid themselves in bushes and shot at approaching government troops. The young samurai underestimated the number of enemy soldiers, and as they tried to withdraw, a squad of them led by 16-year-old Shinoda Gisaburo became separated from the main group. With little time to think, Shinoda and the 19 other separated Byakkotai members retreated from the battlefield and fled to Iimori Hill.
What little safety they might have felt quickly evaporated when they looked down and saw that smoke was coming from their town of Aizuwakamatsu. Panic-stricken, they believed that the town had been destroyed and set on fire, meaning that the castle that held their families and lords must have burned down too. Seeing no reason to live anymore, the 20 young samurai committed seppuku on the spot. Only one of them, Iinuma Sadakichi, would survive.
In a cruel Shyamalian twist of fate, the castle hadn’t actually burned down after all. Only the surrounding town, in fact, had been set on fire. The 19 young samurai perished for nothing.
5. Takijiro Onishi
Picture of Takijiro Onishi
How does one make amends for helping advocate a military strategy that led to the loss of thousands of young men who took on suicide missions to crash their planes into enemy soldiers? (Pay attention, Al Qaeda.) According to Takijiro Onishi, one of the Japanese military leaders who helped get the kamikaze program off the ground, you disembowel yourself.
Although Onishi originally opposed the kamikaze attacks, he eventually relented and gave the strategy his blessing. Japan sent out its first batch of kamikaze pilots on October 25, 1944 during the Battle of the Leyte Gulf. A few days before, Onishi addressed the pilots himself and gave a speech praising their bravery and sacrifice. “Regrettably,” admitted Onishi to what must have been a great shock for the volunteers, “we will not be able to tell you the results.”
Before Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, almost 4,000 kamikaze pilots would lose their lives. After hearing the news, Onishi wrote a suicide note and decided to commit seppuku the next day. In his note, he apologized to the dead kamikaze pilots and their families, offering his own death as atonement. Lastly, to further consolidate his posthumous reputation as a good guy, Onishi urged the young people of Japan not to avenge his death with a nuclear Third World War, but to instead promote peace and rebuild itself.
4. Chujiro Hayashi
Picture of Chujiro Hayashi
Chujiro Hayashi was a disciple of Mikao Usui, the founder of the spiritual therapy known as Reiki. Unlike Usui and most of the world of alternative medicine, Hayashi was a real doctor, and would sometimes perform Reiki on his patients. One of the biggest practitioners in his day, Hayashi is credited with developing modern Reiki and spreading it outside of Japan.
Hayashi started studying Reiki in 1925, a year before Usui’s death. With the hope that Hayashi could develop his quackery with real medical knowledge, Usui requested that his student establish a Reiki clinic. Hayashi obliged and went one step beyond, going on a tour in Hawaii with his daughter for a few months in 1937. Hayashi gave a series of Reiki lectures and demonstrations there, and he returned to Japan in February 1938.
In May 1940, the Japanese government demanded that Hayashi give them information about military targets in Honolulu, presumably because they weren’t planning anything evil. Although Hayashi was once a naval captain, he was now a pacifist, and so refused to talk. The authorities suspected that Hayashi was a spy. They accused him of treason, and afraid that the honor of his family was being threatened, Hayashi committed seppuku in the presence of his wife and students on the 11th.
3. Yukio Mishima
Picture of Yukio Mishima.
The genius behind such classics as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima was arguably post-war Japan’s foremost midget novelist. He was a wildly talented and prolific man, writing 34 novels in two decades, in addition to outshining his contemporaries as an actor, bodybuilder, model, playwright, poet, and radical far-right fanatic.
Due to a misdiagnosis of tuberculosis, Mishima couldn’t serve in World War II. Although upset that Emperor Showa renounced his claim of divinity, Mishima saw the unholy meat-bag as the physical essence of the Japanese nation. In October 1968, Mishima founded the Tatenokai, a private militia of attractively muscular young men who swore to protect the emperor.
On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four of his Tatenokai boy-toys seized a military building and attempted to launch a coup to restore Emperor Showa to his former power. After tying the head of the building up to a chair in his office, Mishima went out to the balcony and gave a speech of the Tatenokai’s demands to a crowd of 1,000 soldiers. Being 25 years too late, however, the soldiers only laughed and ridiculed Mishima. He then returned inside, and in the spirit of his half-assed coup, sloppily commited seppuku. With several slapstick slashes of mild tragicomedy, Mishima’s first kaishakunin repeatedly failed to lop his head off. After a few moments of painful agony, the task was given to another henchman, and Mishima was at last decapitated.
2. Nogi Maresuke
Picture of Nogi Maresuke.
Nogi Maresuke was an army general who served in the Satsuma Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War. The son of a samurai, Maresuke was seen by many as a model of traditional Japanese values like loyalty and self-sacrifice. Even 100 years after his suicide, people pay their respects to what they see as a great patriot.
In one notable incident, after suffering staggering losses in a battle during the Russo-Japanese War, Maresuke asked Emperor Meiji for permission to commit suicide. The emperor refused, telling Maresuke that he wasn’t allowed to die until the emperor himself did. While internet Freudians might easily interpret Maresuke’s devotion to Meiji as some repressed form of intense homo-eroticism, this sort of obedience was only to be expected by any good old-fashioned samurai.
Following the end of the war, Maresuke was granted the title of count and made the head of the prestigious Gakushuin, a school for the children of the Japanese nobility. He also embarked on several philanthropic projects, giving money to hospitals and memorials set up for both the Japanese and the Russians. When Emperor Meiji died in July 1912, Maresuke naturally thought the e̶r̶o̶t̶i̶c̶ honorable thing to do was to kill himself and his wife by seppuku. After the emperor’s funeral, Maresuke slashed his stomach three times and then tossed himself onto his sword for a grand finale. His wife followed him after, although not exactly into the same national veneration.
- Oda Nobunaga
Painting of Oda Nobunaga.
Oda Nobunaga was indispensable in putting an end to Japan’s Sengoku period, a chaotic time from 1467 to 1603 in which Japan was plagued with social upheaval and military conflict. Although he wasn’t the one who ultimately united the country, he’s one of the most admired historical figures in Japan, and has even had the distinction of appearing in a critically-acclaimed strategy RPG with global superstar Pikachu.
Sadly, Nobunaga didn’t live to see Japan’s unification in 1603. Before his suicide, he succeeded only in capturing the eastern side of the country. It would be Tokugawa Ieyasu, his old ally, who would be the one to unite Japan and establish a government that would last more than 200 years.
Some two decades before that would happen, Nobunaga was staying at a temple in Kyoto when he was betrayed and ambushed by Akechi Mitsuhide, a general and vassal of his. Realizing that he was surrounded, and practically powerless without his partner Pikachu, Nobunaga committed seppuku. His last words, reported to his page Mori Ranmaru, were said to have been “Don’t let them in.” The page then loyally set the temple on fire. Interestingly, only Ranmaru’s body was recovered. Nobunaga’s body was never found, which suggests that he was either consumed by the flames or faked his death. (Most historians, chiefly the duller sort, say it was the former.)