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.

Showing what happened is not telling the story

As I’ve mentioned before I have a tendency to say too much and write condescendingly to the reader. Am I trying to show off my knowledge on a subject when it has only a fleeting relevance to the story at hand? 

There is “what happened” and then there is “the story”. If I write only what happened then the story is lost. 

Comparing the two is like comparing the works of the two Australian World War I photographers; George Wilkins and Frank Hurley. Wilkins’ photographs are encyclopedic; bursting with facts and showing the absolute truth. 

Lt James P Quinn


Hurley’s on the other hand were described as “lies” by the pair’s commander Charles Bean (a comment one would expect from a historian). But Hurley’s photographs depict the scene with an intrinsic truth that combines the scene itself with the human mind that perceives it. Hurley used what was at the time referred to as “darkroom tricks” to conjoin several different photographs; using the sky from one photograph with the foreground of trench scene of another. The end result is an image that more truthfully portrayed how the moment was felt by the photographer or the subject. 

Hurley’s photograph “Over the top” depicts Australian soldiers charging from trenches while combat aircraft fly overhead in a sky filled with smoke from shrapnel and bomb explosions. On the picture’s right, smoke issues from a crashed plane. 

Frank Hurley - Over the top

Frank Hurley's Over the top


I need to follow Hurley’s lead in my creative writing and let go of the minute detail; take a step backward and fix myself inside the mind of my characters; and see the scene tainted by their feelings, values, and desires. 

An idea on how to achieve this is to begin by writing what happens; a script almost. This scripting must also include details about how I plan to lead the reader’s mind; setting them up to be surprised; what I’m not telling them. When this plan is clear I can then set aside time each day to retreat into the character’s mind/world and just write –  not having to worry about the larger picture or setup. The plan would include rules such as “don’t mention the war” or “throw in a moment of self-doubt here”.