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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The Cunningham Classic – one of Australia’s Spring Cycling Classics

I’m making lighter post today for day three of the April A to Z Challenge.

Saturday 6 August 2011 was the 29th annual Cunningham Classic but for me, only a three year cyclist it was my first. The race was held soon after Cadel Evans won his first Tour de France so it was hard not to get caught up in the  huge buzz of excitement about cycling in Australia.

The race, for all but the elite riders, was 96km from Gatton to Warwick in Southern Queensland. The main climb looks hard on the profile but it is only the last few kilometers that hurt.

Cyclists are split into two main groups by their physiology; either sprinters or climbers. I’m definitely more of a sprinter so I was not entertaining any aspriations of wining the King of the Mountain (KOM) jersey.  Professional riders all talk about riding through the pain and that the climbs don’t hurt them any less than us mere mortals, it’s just that they can go faster.

The race started at a slow pace and it was only some hard words from my teammates that stopped me from attacking even though we had 70km to go. My team had set a goal for me to be about fifth wheel coming in to the last km as that would be the best position heading in to the final sprint.

In hindsight I may have been better off attacking and racing 70km solo.

So I did as I was told and stayed in the pack. Eventually the pace increased to what you would expect in a race and when we hit the climb all of those vying for the KOM jersey were up the front while I just wanted to stay close enough that I could make contact again once the road leveled off. I was keeping pace with most of the riders until someone passed me on the outside. I dug in and got on to his wheel. It hurt and kept hurting but something clicked and I was able to stay with him right to the top.

So now I was about 5 minutes behind the lead group. No one left with me looked like trying to catch them so just put my head down and rode as hard as I could. There were about twenty riders on my wheel the first time I looked around but about twenty minutes later when I finally caught up with the lead group there was only two left. “Now for a rest,” I thought and sat in the middle of the pack. Eventually a few of us took turns at the front and a rider in red told me that there was someone who had broken away and we had to try and catch them. Later we found out that he was in the C grade race behind us so we had no need to chase him down.

This “red guy” kept the pressure on though and I was doing a little too much work on the front, while the other “smarter” sprinters sat in the pack.

About three kilometers from the finish the speed increased and the lead group was suddenly down to just six riders with me on the back; I had achieved my team objective – now I had to win it. One km out we hit a slight rise and everyone got out of the saddle; the sprint had started. The rider in front of me, “red guy”, was slow to start and a gap of two lengths had opened up in front of him. I was about to go around him when he jumped out of the saddle and accelerated. I was pretty tired already so I slipped back into his slipstream and was right on his wheel; there was at most a few inches between us – the perfect spot to slipstream.

Except at that instant he “sat up” (that’s cyclist jargon for giving up) and as we were on a slight rise it was as though he’d put on the brakes and my front wheel clipped his rear wheel and my bike was pulled out from underneath me.

I’ve been training in the martial arts for over twenty years so I naturally tucked my head in and “rolled” forward. Seemed like a good idea at the time and there was not a scratch to my helmet but this type of roll is not meant to be performed at 45km per hour. I hit the bitumen shoulder first and tumbled over and over, while “red guy” rode off, probably unaware what had happened.

The Cunningham Classic is superbly organised and every lead group of riders had a medical and support car following them so I had an off duty Ambulance officer at my side within seconds.

My left leg, hip, arm and shoulder were cut and blood was flowing freely from a gash on my left knee. They gave me one of  those pain relief whistles, where you breath in on them to be administered pain relief and, boy, did I need it. X-rays at Warwick hospital confirmed that I had completely snapped my collarbone and would need surgery to put a titanium plate on it.

I was a bit vague about “red guy”s race number but I’ll never trust a rider in red again! Ouch! And no I don’t have a zipper on my spine, I wouldn’t let them cut off my jersey until there was no alternative, and they took the x-ray with it still on.

Thanks to Upperlimb.com (the race sponsors…mmm) for putting me back together.

I was off the bike for three months and still not back to the fitness, or the weight, I was last year but:

“Bring on the 2012 Cunningham Classic” – I have unfinished business!

“C” is for the Cunningham Classic

The first 95 kilometres of the 2011 Cunningham Classic was so much fun, my best riding to that date…

the next 10m,,, not so much fun!