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.

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

What is the One Point, hara, or lower dantien?

The one point (also hara or lower dantien) is often explained as the centre of gravity and this is a good start, or “in the ball park” as a Japanese Sensei of mine once joked. But this is only the stepping off point.

For each of us the One Point is the centre of the universe.

The universe is of infinite size and therefore every point in it is also at its centre. Imagine the universe shrinking around you until it is compressed to a single point as inconceivably small as the universe is inconceivably large. This is the One Point, and we can learn to control and use it.

I have found that the One Point becomes the centre of my mind and can be moved about to stabilize myself mentally or physically.

In the West there is a saying “to keep yourself grounded” and this too is a good place to begin, as it too incorporates control of both your physical body and your mind. 

To keep one point is the first of the four basic principles of Aikido (Ki no fudo ho). If we achieve one of these principals, we also achieve the others but if we try to achieve more than one we will not achieve any.

It is as easy to recognise when someone has one point; they are relaxed, happy, centred, balanced, “grounded” and they move without breaking this form, they strike the ball sweetly, throw faster, run effortlessly and always have a light floating feeling. The opposite is also true when we lose one point; our form is bad we bounce around and look to be trying too hard.

If your find you have lost one point, shrink the universe by half and by half until it forms at your centre, and let your mind move there where it too is the centre of the universe.

“O” is for the One Point

No-Form, No thought, No Mind

When we study a new art form we are given forms of movement and told to repeat them endlessly. Our teachers are vigilant and correct our form when we stray but a hair’s breadth.

In Search of Simplicity

As we advance we are given ever more complicated forms to practice, yet we see our teachers break their own rules, seeming to do exactly what we are berated for.

I see shades of Form and No-Form argument in the following passage from Takuan Soho.

The mind that becomes fixed and stops in one place does not function freely. Similarly, the wheels of a cart go around because they are not held rigidly in place. If they were to stick tight, they would not go around. The mind is also something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation. – Takuan Soho

One must know the correct form intimately, from the subtle angle of a finger to the large movements of the torso, before we can perceive where to lesson our grip on that form.

You cannot throw the pieces of a cart in a pile and expect to use it as a cart. It must follow the form…but not too rigidly or it becomes a model of a cart—not the real thing itself.

It is the same when we practice any art form, we copy the masters endlessly, searching for those subtitles that belay their importance, hidden many times by large flourishing strokes of the brush or pen.

In the martial arts the form alone is not effective in actual combat.

When one has reached maturity in the art, one will have a formless form. It is like ice dissolving in water. When one has no form, one can be all forms; when one has no style, he can fit in with any style. – Bruce Lee

In a passage from his novel “Musashi“, Eiji Yoshikawa wrote:

Yoshino told Musashi he was rigid and would lose any battle in that state. She cut open her lute to show him how it could produce such varying sounds with only four strings.

It had a central wooden piece that was held in place but not firmly.

“If the cross piece were as taut and unbending as you are, one stroke of the pick would break a string, perhaps even the sounding  board itself.”


Takuan Soho’s writing is infused with wit and multiple levels of meaning. In the following passage he discusses the ‘Mind of No-Mind’ motif.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches the mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

An old poem says:

To think, “I will not think”—
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

You have got to love that!

“N” is for No-Form, No-Thought, No-Mind

What is Immovable Wisdom?

As with many terms used in Zen and the martial arts, Immovable wisdom is often misinterpreted to have a mind that does not move, when it is almost the exact opposite; it does not stop, or is not stopped. This state is sometimes described in Japanese as Fudoshin, Immovable Mind, and many physical tests for it have been developed for Aikido (and other disciplines) examinations.

Fudoshin - Wallpapers on the web

Early in their study students will misinterpret this “test” and will become hard like wood or stone…and fail. Instead they must learn not to allow their mind to be moved, or caught, by the examiner. The mind must become like still water; not “caught” by the hook as it passes through.

…the mind that does not stop at all is called Immovable Wisdom. – Takuan Soho

Takuan Soho, in a letter to the Samurai Yagyū Munenori, wrote of  “Immovable Wisdom” and how a person near enlightenment was capable of controlling a thousand arms, their mind not stopping at any particular one. He goes on to say that …one who understands this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.

…the ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its 1000 arms. The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have 1000 eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander. But if one understands a little better, they will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man, or the slander of the other, and they will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing manifests its principle well.

he goes on…

All religions are like this… The ordinary man thinks only on the surface, the man who attacks… is even worse. This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are settled in the one conclusion.

“I” is for Immovable Wisdom

The sentient mind should not be underestimated

In over twenty years of training in the martial arts, specifically Aikido, the most valuable notion I have discovered is the untapped power of the sentient mind.

In general terms, how often have you felt your mind disturbed and looked up to see someone watching you. Just as in combat when we sense an opponent’s attack before they physically move, so can we sense another sentient mind’s attention on our mind.

The sentient mind is a powerful instrument and should not be underestimated

I’ve witnessed some Atheists get quite flustered and occasionally angered when other people pray for them. Although I tarried in this mindset for a short period I now value the act of prayer and meditation. It is a conscious act to extend positive energy to another being or set of beings.

I don’t believe in an interventionist God. But I know darling that you do – Nick Cave (Into my arms)

This is as good a place to start to describe my viewpoint on prayer. We are not products of the environment we exist in but we are influenced in many ways by it. I grew up in a staunchly Catholic family and school system but I was encouraged not to limit my viewpoint to those taught by religious leaders, or held by the society of the time. The most profound influence however was reading The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (2006) by Dr Carl Sagan based on his Gifford Lecture under the theme The Search For Who We Are.

Dr Carl Sagan is known to have said that there is no scientific evidence that God exists but he also acknowledged that neither has evidence that God doesn’t exist been provided.

 It is the act of prayer or meditation that adds value, not the actor’s faith in some hirsute gentleman or any other vision of a divine entity.

So I encourage all sentient beings especially Atheists to practice the art of prayer or meditation.

Communicating across time

Ice BarrierThe human mind is strongly rooted to the time of our formative years and communicating clearly with people whose mind is stuck in another time can be fraught with misunderstanding. There is some barrier that separates us and this barrier is further clouded by blind faith and religious doctrine, making the lucid transfer of ideas and concepts sometimes impossible. Even communicating with others from the same time is difficult; some unnatural barrier separates our minds.

Not everyone’s mind suffers this in a constant manner. A person’s training, whether in the martial arts, Zen, philosophy, or theoretical studies, can help to uncover a mind’s latent ability to communicate across this barrier and see more clearly. In some extraordinary individuals this ability is naturally evident and the power of their mind is perceptible through their writing alone, lingering like the low pitched hum of a bass string long after their death. Sometimes when I read I feel this sound, in the back of my head as it oscillates some hidden segment of my consciousness in attempt to release it from its binds.

I often struggle against a feeling of contempt at some people’s limits in this regard and when I find no echo or response to my attempts to communicate a sense of isolation hangs like a lead shot weight in my belly. Othertimes I find myself treating people like this in a condescending manner and avoid topics or discussions their minds cannot handle safely; just like we do with children—protecting their young minds from seeing or hearing things that could scar them. Unfortunately most people’s minds will not grow up and they will remain like Peter Pan; stuck in Neverland…and never able to reach their full potential.