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.

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What would Takuan Soho tell Mark Cavendish?

A letter by Takuan Soho(1573-1645) to Mark Cavendish, pro tour cyclist, winner 15 Tour de France stages

Although you see the rider that moves to pass you, if your mind is not detained by him and you meet the rhythm of the advancing bike; if you do not think of blocking your opponent and no thoughts or judgements remain; if the instant you see the moving bike your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the lead from him; the line that he was going to use will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the line that defeats your opponent.

Adapted from the letter by Takuan SohoThe Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom” to Yagyu Munenori, head of the Yagyu Shinkage school of swordsmanship.

What defines an “Intelligent” species?

I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.

I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.

It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.

A screen capture of the YouTube video “I’m a stupid Cat”

Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”

And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.

Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?

It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.

A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?

I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.

The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.

Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:

“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) – in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)

Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.

So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?

…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?

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…


Who is the real Zo Boone? A new Koan is born

This is my final post in the A to Z Challenge for 2012…a few days late, but better late than never.

Zo Boone is one of the POV character’s in the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. She is the granddaughter of John Boone; the first man on Mars, and (spoiler alert) was killed in a human flying accident. But in the Twenty-second  Century humans can “back themselves up” and she features again later in the series. But…is it truly her?

There are quite a few passages in Hugo and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson’s books that have “the stench of Zen”. The one below was a particularly enlightening one for me, it “stank” of the following “popularised” Zen Koan:

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping
  • If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does it make a sound

A  little bit of exposition:

  • The scene is set on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, where Zo is on a Twenty-second  Century Eco-Holiday. An early theory about the formation of Miranda suggested it was formed by the collision of two planetesimal bodies melding to form a single moon.

After that they hiked down the spine of the buttress in silence. Over the course of the day they descended to Bottoms Landing. Now they were a kilometre below the rims of the chasm, and the sky was a starry band overhead; Uranus fat in the middle of it, the sun a blazing jewel just to one side. Under this gorgeous array the depth of the rift was sublime, astonishing; again Zo felt herself to be flying.

“You’ve located intrinsic worth in the wrong place,” she said to all of them… “It’s like a rainbow. Without an observer at a twenty three degree angle to the light being reflected off a cloud of spherical droplets, there is no rainbow. The whole universe is like that. Our spirits stand at a twenty three degree angle to the universe. There is some new thing created at the contact of photon and retina, some space created between rock and mind. Without mind there is no intrinsic worth.” – Blue Mars (Pages 435-436).

This rainbow analogy pays forward in so many ways and is reminiscent of many Aikido teachings of Koichi Tohei‘s:

The Mind leads the body

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohe...

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohei (1976) (Photo credit: daninofal)

Do not think that the power you have is only the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our  mind and body and become one with the universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours. – Koichi Tohei

and merging it with the rainbow analogy:

A greater thing is formed at the intersection of mind and body.

Post Singularity, who am I?

Returning to the character Zo, the capability to back up and retrieve ourselves that Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts will be possible this century raises the question of identity to another level.

What if you are thought to be dead, and a recent backup copy is used to retrieve you, and then months or years later you are found alive and there are now two of you?

Who is you? Is the retrieved you, who has lived and grown as a separate entity, now terminated? I think the technological advances approaching us will shatter our society if we do not begin to address them in the near future.

So is this Zo Boone that went on an Eco-Holiday to Miranda the real Zo? Does she have the same rights?

This is doing my head in, and a new modern-day Koan is born:

Who is the real Zo Boone?

“Z” is for Zo Boone

releasing your and your character’s VOICE

Photo Credit: Ian Kahn

In the writing world there are two types of VOICE:

  1. Your authorial style, that is unique if
  2. The style of speech and thought pattern or processes of a character

Authorial VOICE

We all have our favorite writers and it is this that we often  recognise from the first sentence of a work. It is more than a style of Point of View (POV) and many author’s work can be recognised from blind readings; Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I’ve found to have a unique authorial voice.

At University and in writer’s groups I found it useful to imitate the voice of an author I admired. This exercise is like the Form/No-Form training in martial arts but eventually you must relax the form you are imitating until your own appears and it becomes something only you could have written.

It can be as enlightening to turn this exercise on its head and attempt to imitate a writer you dislike, let yourself go and become that writer; you’ll recognise some habits from your writing that you need to drop.

Character Voice

Characters, too, should have a unique voice. I’ve found that I must inhabit the character’s mind to achieve this though. I try to have a minimum of one hour put aside to write in isolation so that I have the time to reacquaint myself with the character and then inhabit them comfortably.

For antagonist or evil characters it is challenging to enter their minds but also to exit their minds unscathed.

I find songs a great source for words to use in character dialog; songs are like haiku (the better ones at least) where every word, every syllable, should be there only on merit. Most of us are lazy in our speech and we often use the incorrect word because it just pops out. If not overdone this can provide a character with a unique voice.

The same two elements of writing apply for a blog; the words should drop out of your head or heart and on to the page, only editing typographical errors.

“V” is for Voice

1Q84 – Murakami’s cult masterpiece

Haruki Murakami’s epic novel 1Q84 was an instant success in Japan and soon its publishers were in a mad rush to get the work published for the english language market.

Oddly mirroring the plot line in the novel where one of main characters ghost rewrites a story, the publishers of 1Q84 were in such a hurry to get it to market that they enlisted the services of two different writers to translate the work; one for books I and II, and another for book III.

Set it Japan in 1984 the story revolves around two central characters:

  • Aomame (written with the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh); a female fitness instructor and part-time assassin
  • and Tengo, an aspiring novelist and part time editor and maths lecturer

The point of view alternates each chapter with Aomame and Tengo and the reader slowly learns their connection. Murakami enjoys playing with the time period too and takes his time explaining iconic objects of the time.

1Q84 features an immaculate   conception, telekinesis, transmigrating souls and a talking crow. But the   more blatant oddness of Murakami’s plots tends to distract us from their   roots in emotions that are just as unaccountable. A virtue of his writing is   that, carried away, you rarely sense the strain. – Anthony Cummins The Telegraph UK


Knopf / Getty Images

The title 1Q84 has its roots in a few different places; it is set in 1984, there is of course George Orwell’s novel 1984, and in the story Aomame coins the term for the odd version of the world she finds herself in; it is 1984 but also no longer the same. The name of the letter Q is also the same sound in Japanese as the number nine “Kyu”. And the complexity of this too mirrors that of the storyline in many ways.

…Yes, this is a Haruki Murakami novel, where magical and dreamlike phenomena are deadpanned into existence with the same calm craft that his characters routinely employ in cooking themselves delicious-sounding Japanese meals. – Stephen Poole, The Guardian UK

Murakami has a knack for oddball twists (talking cats, raining fish) and in 1Q84 this continues with terrifying “little people” emerging from the mouths of goats and people and a moss coloured second moon hanging in the sky.

Having Tengo and his editor and co-conspirator discuss the writing and editing process delivers some classic writing advice:

“When you introduce things that readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

and on story development:

“Once a gun appears in a story, it will be shot and someone will die”. 

1Q84 is a masterpiece but I am left a little frustrated at having to read the translated story rather than Murakami’s original Japanese work.

Q is for 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami