Seppuku: Inside The Ancient Samurai Suicide Ritual

Published June 21, 2017
Updated September 25, 2021

These fascinating facts illuminate the grisly ritualistic suicide practice of seppuku once carried out by Japan's elite samurai.

Kunikazu Utagawa
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Seppuku: Inside The Ancient Samurai Suicide Ritual
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The Japanese samurai tradition of Seppuku is one of the grisliest and most painful ways to end one's life. The practice involved a highly ritualized process of essentially disemboweling oneself with a dagger and either bleeding out or having a peer finish the job by beheading.

The centuries-old practice was once common in Japan's military and it wasn't until World War II that it seemed to finally be put to rest. Like the traditions of many Old World cultures, the dying out of Seppuku was the result of Japan being forcibly opened up to the outside world during the 19th century.

Before then, Japan had been closed off from much of the Western world with only occasional contact with the Chinese and Dutch trade ships. It wasn't until Europeans and Americans eventually forced their way into trading with Japan that its upheaval into modern society began to occur. During this time, the Japanese government began to reform and was met with resistance from the samurai class.

The killing of foreigners or those who did business with them by samurai wasn't all that uncommon. And in 1863, when Emperor Kōmei issued an order to "expel all barbarians" (Westerners), the samurai gladly did the expelling with their katanas.

This led to an incident in 1868 when samurai soldiers killed 11 unarmed French sailors who were in the coastal town of Sakai to trade. Seeking justice, Japan's French consul, Léon Roches, insisted that the samurai be executed.

Roches had assumed that the samurai would be executed by beheading or firing squad and sent one of his captains, Bergasse du Petit-Thouars, to witness the execution. What du Petit-Thouars saw instead was samurai marching out and performing the old Japanese suicide ritual of seppuku one by one, followed by a particularly poor assist from their peers at beheading. The event was enough for him to stop the execution of the ordered 20 men at 11 suicides.

The incident drove the point home to Western diplomats in Japan that, for samurai, seppuku was not a deterrent against killing foreigners. An imperial decree was eventually handed down, declaring that samurai who killed foreigners would be stripped of their rank and punished accordingly. This meant that they would not be permitted the honor of ending their life with seppuku.

However, seppuku would see somewhat of a resurgence during World War II when Japanese officers would opt to kill themselves with their swords rather than surrender to Allied forces. But with the Allied forces taking control of Japan and forcing the country to adopt the Constitution of Japan over the Meiji Constitution, Japan went through another cultural upheaval.

The Emperor became only a figurehead and a parliamentary government was put in place, rendering seppuku a tradition that had no place in the Japan that emerged in the second half of the 20th century.

After learning about seppuku, check out more of Japan's Imperial era and be sure and dive deeper into the lost ways of the last samurai.

Joel Stice
Joel Stice holds a Bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with more than 10 years of experience in writing and editing, during which time his work has appeared on Heavy, Uproxx, and Buzzworthy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Stice, Joel. "Seppuku: Inside The Ancient Samurai Suicide Ritual.", June 21, 2017, Accessed May 23, 2024.