How can a westerner come to understand Seppuku?

If there is one part of Japanese culture that alludes most westerners it is ritual suicide by disembowelment known as seppuku, or “Hara-kiri” as it is better known outside Japan.

Seppuku became an integral part of Bushido (The way of the Warrior) and was used in several ways:

  • Capital punishment for disgraced samurai rather than be executed (this was not an option for other classes)
  • To avoid falling into enemy hands, and possible torture and revealing military secrets
  • To follow your Lord into the next world
  • In protest of a lord’s decision

Seppuku is poorly understood and is often used to support an argument that the Japanese people hold human life in little regard, when in actual fact it is more truly a proof of the opposite.

The act of seppuku is common in historical literature and drama, the most famous in my experience is the story of Forty-seven Rōnin.

The Forty-seven Rōnin also know as the Genroku Akō incident (元禄赤穂事件) occurred at the start of the 18th century and is the story of group of samurai who are forced to become rōnin(masterless warriors) when their daimyo (feudal lord),  Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, is ordered to commit seppuku after being tricked into insulting a court official.

These rōnin plotted for over two years to avenge Asano’s honour.

Even early in my martial arts training I was exposed to mentions of these”Forty-seven Rōnin” but it wasn’t until I read the novel The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson that I learned more than that these rōnin were the epitome of bushido.

It was while reading this novel that I had a satori moment where I feel I came understand seppuku.

St. Clair Robson’s novel tells the fictional account of Lord Asano’s daughter who, also vows to avenge her father’s honour, and travels The Tōkaidō Road disguised as a high-ranking courtesan to reach Oishi, the leader of these Forty-seven Rōnin.  From her point of view he and the other rōnin have done nothing to avenge their Lord for two years.

Spoiler Alert

In the end the story matches the historical facts and the Forty-seven Rōnin succeed in killing the court official who betrayed their lord and then surrender to the will of the Shogun. The shogun deliberates; will they be executed, forced to commit seppuku, or set free?

As a typical westerner I read an appreciated the story of revenge and truly expected them to be rewarded for the honour of this act and be set free. This story, and history, had a different ending and it appears that the happy ending eventuated but was not the one I expected; The Forty-seven Rōnin, were granted “the right” to commit seppuku, thus returning the honour of both their Lord Asano and their own families.

I had a double take and read this again, while my mind raced and was forever changed.

A to Z Challenge – a retrospective

I have had my blog for over three years and have posted iregularly whenever I was inspired by something I’ve read, seen, heard, or thought but taking on the A to Z April Challenge meant writing 26 posts in one month.

The concensous is that writers write everyday and don’t wait for inspiration

When I decide to try something I do it wholeheartedly and for me and the A to Z April Challenge that meant that I approached each post as stream of consciousness, with little or no preparation apart from a list of A-to-Z with potential topics. I know that some people have prepared their posts in the weeks before April and although I admit that I may have finished on time if I had taken this approach I am unsure if I agree with it.

I tried to write each post in one session, dropping my thoughts almost unedited from my heart/mind and on to the page/screen.

This doesn’t mean that I was flippant in my writing but it did teach me to edit once and then let it go. I did fix typos in the minutes and hours after each post.

The Stats for April:

  • Followers: increased from 11 to 219
  • Views for April: 11,589
  • Comments: 260
  • Most popular post: What is the Beginners’s Mind?
    • 4,379 views
    • 241 likes
    • 116 comments

WordPress – Freshly Pressed

Although I’m tempted to claim the highlight of the month was having my “B” post promoted on the WordPress Freshly Pressed page but it has actually been the amazing blogs that I’ve discovered and the wonderful and inspring comments I’ve received, especially when posts have been re-blogged.

Thanks to everyone at A to Z Challenge, to all my followers, and the the blogs I now follow and am regularly inspried by.

The Posts:

Thanks again…


A message to me to yourself…

One of my lecturers at University was actually a popular writer in the Romance genre, under another name. He was a grammar nazi of the eleventh order but such a good orator that I could have listened to him talk about paint drying without drifting off…too much.

His pet peeve, which I have been unable to let go of myself is:

the misuse of the reflexive pronouns such as “myself” and “yourself”

How often have you said or heard:

“I will send this to yourself.”

…WTF. It’s like the speaker is trying to over formalise their language just ostracise the potentially uneducated.

Just say “I will send this to you.”

What was one of the major points behind Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in 1946 :

“It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – George Orwell

My lecturer strode halfway up the stairs in the theater between where we sat in our uncomfortable plastic chairs, turned around and said,

“If you remember one thing from this course it has to be that self pronouns like yourself, myself, herself, himself…urgh,” he grimaced, “should not be used when they…do…not…refer…to the subject of the sentence.

Thanks Glen, mate…and no I haven’t forgotten! But I have held my tongue sometimes when I probably should not have!

Y is for Yourself

Does Rabinovich live here?

I found this little beauty while researching satire:

A KGB Officer goes twice to a man’s door asking if Rabinovich  lives there. Each time the man tells him NO;

A postcard of the Russian Revolutions of 1917

The third time, the KGB Officer arrives with a photo, which he holds up, saying, “This is Rabinovich  and it is a picture of you; why did you tell me you didn’t live here?”

To which Rabinovich replies, “This, you call living?”

“J” is for Joke

…a long bow I know but I wanted something lighter today.

I found it in a footnote from “Humor, hostility and the psycho-dynamics of satire” by Susan Isabel Stein. Literature and Psychology 2000. Vol.46, Issue 4, while researching for the post Satire it just isn’t funny

The Bureau of the Five-Grain Transmigration – from A Journey to the West

A Journey to the West is one of the four great Clasics of Chinese literature and was written in the sixteenth centuury by Wu Cheng’en. In the west it is better known by as “Monkey” because of the 1960’s cult television series of that name.

A scene of Journey to the West

A scene of Journey to the West (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It tells the story of the pilrimage of the buddist monk Xuangzang. In this excerpt the character Pilgrim (aka the Handsome Monkey King) is called by the derogatoryly term pi-ma-wen, by “Idiot” (aka. Piggy).

“Just now when we entered the hall,” Pilgrim said, “I chanced to notice a little door on our right. Judging from the foul stench coming through it, I think it must be a Bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration. Send them in there.”

Idiot, in truth, was rather good at crude labour! He leaped down, threw the three statues over his shoulder, and carried them out of the hall. When he kicked open the door, he found a huge privy inside. Chuckling to himself he said, “This pi-ma-wen truly has a way with words! He even bestows on a privy a sacred title! The Bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration. What a name!” Yu, A.C. 1977, The Journey to the West Volume II Pg. 315. (Translation of)

An illustration of Zhū Bājiè

It seems as though even the classics can’t let a good peice of toilety humour pass them by.

“F” is for the bureau of Five-Grain Transmigration

Seppuku – a must have for writers of Japanese characters


General Akashi Gidayu preparing to carry out Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582

The concept of Seppuku is so ingrained in the culture and psyche of the Japanese people that, as a western writer, you cannot expect to be able to write believable Japanese characters while it remains abhorrent to you.

I remember when this occurred for me; it was a combination of “a moment of satori” with the realisation of a satirical attack—beginning with an “aha” and ending with me choking on the thought as the illusionary barriers that my subconscious had used to hide, and possibly protect my mind, from the truth. It was while reading a novel set in feudal Japan – loosely based around the Forty-Seven Ronin.

With many concepts that I have encountered in philosophical and martial arts studies it cannot be taught or learnt in isolation it can only be transmitted at the intersection of two minds, with the greater challenge for the recipient; it almost becomes them discovering the concept anew.

Satire; it just isn’t funny

This blog’s title is “Satire: It just isn’t funny” and I’ll start it by describing satire along these lines—what it is not.

  • It is not Parody (an imitation of another’s work in order to ridicule it or its subject)
  • It is not Slapstick (an exaggerated physical “pie-in-the-face” comedy )
  • It is not a Farce (an exaggerated situation comedy such as Fawlty Towers)
  • And it is not a sermon or a lecture and, definitely, is never innocent or aimless.

What does all Satire have in common?

I have listed a few things that Satire isn’t but what are the characteristics that all satires must have?

  • they must have a target: wether that be a person, an institution, or simply a human vice or behaviour
  • they must be imbued with innuendo and double meaning
  • they must ambush their target
  • And certainly A Satire must be funny.

Ahhh I hear you think…but you said satire isn’t funny?

No…I didn’t say that satire isn’t funny, what I said was that Satire just isn’t funny. So satire is funny, but its ‘sense of humour…is more prone to elicit a sardonic smirk rather than hearty laughter (Stein 3)’.

This brings forward another misused term ‘Wit’, which is also misused and misrepresented. Wit like satire is more ingenious than funny and, as with satire, we laugh because we see and understand this cleverness not because it is funny in isolation. We laugh too at the poor fools who do not see this cleverness, wether they be the targets of the writing or simply the oblivious masses.

Augustan Satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope often expressed their contempt for political leaders and royalty of the day through vague compliments full of double meaning an innuendo.  Monty Python’s famous Oscar Wilde sketch is a farcical attack on satirists using this method of attack. At a gathering in honour of the Prince of Wales, one of Wilde’s fellow writers proposes a toast: ‘…your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss.’ After a moment of confusion the Prince takes offense and demands an explanation. The group escape retribution explaining that his Royal Highness ‘…shine[s] out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.’

Jonathan Swift summarised the aim of satire in his work Intelligencer, Number III:

Satire is used to attack human vices, either individually or of society in general, with the intent to encourage those ‘of genius or virtue to mend the world as they are able (Swift – Intelligencer, Number III)’.

A Particular Target:

When the target of the satire is a particular person then the attack must be allusive and subtle. If it is not then the target’s cognitive dissonance will spring up and allow them to ‘switch off’ and think humph…you disrespectful little turd!. The attack is therefore unsuccessful.

Susan Stein from Texas Tech University says that:

a satire must ambush and ‘surprise an unsuspecting victim like a “literary Trojan horse” that promises to tell…[them what they]…do not want to know (Stein 1, Connery and Combe 1-2)’.

Behaviour or Vice as a Target:

Sometimes the person or group is beyond help and the satirist instead makes them appear so absurd—and the reader so angry—that this person group, and their behaviour, is no longer acceptable.  Take for example any medium that ridicules Shane Warne or George Bush jnr.: We all realise by now that they are not going to change, but by exaggerating (rarely required in Warnie’s case) and making their behaviour so ridiculous we may be able to save ourselves and society from future generations of would-be Warnies or Bushes.

When a satirist attacks a vice or behaviour then the satire often uses a fictional character who exhibits this behaviour to an absurd degree. Once again to be thoroughly effective the attack must ambush the reader and make them a co-despiser of this behaviour long before they realise that it is themselves who are inflicted by this particular vice.

Why do we write?

If a piece of writing does not alter our behaviour it is pointless.  But this doesn’t have to get too high and mighty.  Not everything we write is going to bring down a government, or help reconcile an unhappy marriage.  It could simply be a nostalgic drama that reminds you to value each moment of your life—prompting you to stop your writing and play ‘hide-n-seek’ with your kids.

Treading a precarious path

The best satire treads upon a lofty ridge with pointless farcical comedy on one side and intellectual self-servicing on the other.  Recently I read an article in Tirra Lirra and found the author was attempting to be far too clever.  He used deliberate mistakes in the text to demonstrate the decline in the English language brought about through annoying tinkering.  These mistakes were so subtle and so technical that even the author realised he had to point them out.  Satire’s intrinsic wit or cleverness makes it particularly prone to this type of flaw.

My writing, especially when I am careless, can slide deep into this ‘ravine of intellectual self-servicing’.  A year or two ago I wrote a satirical piece under the title A Noble Proposal, and it is modelled—quite obviously—on Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.  It is a fictional ‘First Speech’ to the Australian Parliament by a new federal MP. Masqueraded by the MP’s proposal to encourage the mass-suicide of the Baby-Boomer generation is an attack on our political leaders and the western political landscape of the early twenty-first century. 

The intrinsic humour of this noble proposal was designed to entice the reader long enough to ambush them with a few barbs at the ridiculous waste endemic to the western political system and the way our supposedly democratic countries are governed.

In one section of A Noble Proposal, the MP justifies—with plain and simple economic reason—the community supported mass suicide of the Baby-Boomer generation. He then goes on to explain how the proposal can be enacted.

Of course not all Baby-Boomers may wish to, or be permitted, to make this noble sacrifice. The supporting legislation can be defined to create a new section in the public service to constantly evaluate the status of Baby-Boomers who attempt to avoid their responsibilities. Baby-Boomers will be required to complete a quarterly Baby-Boomer Activity Statement (BBAS), that will of course include a processing fee. Every financial quarter these BBAS Statements will be used to determine each Baby-Boomer’s eligibility for the scheme and also become a source of government revenue. Eventually the Baby-Boomers will be either: unable to meet these payments—enabling their compulsory participation, or they will become eligible through normal age and outcome based evaluation criteria.

Here the target becomes self-evident and it is one common to many satirists—‘a deep sense of the insufficiency of reason alone as a guide to man[kind] (Ward)’. In our time every venture or proposal is primarily judged in economic terms. And by justifying the eradication of an entire generation with reason alone I highlight—ad absurdum—the result of excluding the moral viewpoint.

Satirists as Malcontents

The satirists of an Age are often categorised as misanthropic malcontents, to which I must agree in part. They criticise and attack humanity, either someone or some vice but do not always provide an obvious alternative. But to do so would push the work off its precarious ridge and begin to slide down another slippery slope towards a sermon or lecture. A satire must lead the readers mind to believe that they have discovered the solution on their own.

Satire is more of an authorial viewpoint than a genre of literature and I believe that most good authors exhibit some satirical tendencies. In a recent discussion with some fellow writers, we compared the importance of brain surgeons over writers. Although I do not deny the brilliance of brain surgery, I was quite disappointed in our consensus to elevate these mere mortals to a higher plane than writers. Sure they may save a few lives but so do our bus drivers—wether they are aerial or terrestrial in transit. Now writers and some other artists can do much more than save a few lives.

  • we are the legislators of tomorrow (source unknown)
  • we provide feedback and test-run changes in society
    • and we can inspire generations into action and illicit positive change in society.

I know I have digressed…but I did warn you that satire just isn’t funny.

Bibliography

 Clark, J., 2006. English Expression: is their a Cause for Concern? Tirra Lirra. Mt Evelyn: Vol.14, Num. 4; pg. 2, 6 pgs. 

Harris, R. 2004. The Purpose and Method of Satire [online]. VirtualSalt. 24 October 2004. Available from: http://www.virtualsalt.com/satire.htm [Accessed May 2006].

Monty Python. 1973. Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Season Three: Oscar Wilde Sketch. London: First broadcast 18.01.1973, BBC.

Sandner, D., 1998. Shooting for the moon: Melies, Verne, Wells, and the imperial satire. Extrapolation. Kent: Spring 1998. Vol.39, Iss. 1; pg. 5, 21 pgs.  http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed September 2006).

Smart, M., 2006. A Noble Proposal. (unpublished).

Stein, S.A., 2000. Humour, hostility and the psychodynamics of satire. Literature and Psychology. Providence. Vol.46, Iss. 4; pg. 26, 16 pgs.  http://www.proquest.com/ (accessed September 2006).

Swift, J. 1729. A Modest Proposal. Course Reader KWP402 – Persuasive Writing. Queensland University of Technology.

Swift, J. 1999. A Tale of a Tub and other works. Oxford University Press.

Ward, D. 1973. Jonathan Swift: An Introductory Essay. London: Methuen & co Ltd.