The Ethics of Seppuku

"Sakura", the General said to himself in a soft, almost imperceptible voice, as he looked out the small window on the room facing West. "How truly blessed I am", he continued, this time only in his most private thoughts while the small pink cherry petals that seemed to be dancing with the wind, playing with the light, as they fell from a fully bloomed tree just a couple of hours away from sunset. He remained there for a moment more, searching deep within his soul for the reason of mortality, being mindful of the importance of living in the present, understanding what it meant to be human as he approached an honorable death.

The General untied his long dark hair and took off his clothes, he was lean, strong and his body showed not the slightest trace of a scar, one more proof of his mighty swordsmanship. Immersed in the cold water, he could not avoid but to recall that time when he was only eight years old and held his father's Katana for the first time, he could not deprive himself of the voice of remembering every moment of his life, every decision made that brought him to that day. After his bath was done, with pause and precision he put on his shini-shōzoku, fixed his hair and took his Katana. The beautiful heirloom which had its first taste of battle during the Siege of Kamakura, had a sandalwood saya, a dark green tsukaito and a golden tsuba and kashira with the motive of cherry blossoms.

Unsuccessfully, the war veteran tried to hide his eyes from lighting up when he saw tempura shrimps on a plate, a frying technique most probably brought by the Portuguese or the Dutch East India Company bachelors, as he prepared himself to indulge in kaiseki-ryori.

The General looked taller, more beautiful, graceful and elegant than ever as we walked to the tatami below the tree in a pure completely white kimono worn for death. He was granted the courtesy of performing seppuku in front of spectators and a place of his choosing. Initially, and true to his character, he had decided to endure jūmonji giri, a more painful form of seppuku in which there is no kaishakunin to put a quick end to the samurai's suffering. But he remembered that he and his Captain, brother in arms, and most beloved best friend, after the heat of the Battle of Sekigahara and having seen death to the face so many times, had promised to grant each other the honor of acting as kaishaku, if there was ever the need for such a distant idea.
The tantō, wrapped in a white cloth reflected the orange light of the sunset that tainted everything with a windy softness, was placed on a sanbo and handed to the General, who already had his katana placed in from of him. He took a brush and wrote: "The sun at night it is fragile and beautiful, how insignificant is a drop of water before the enormity of life. This world, unsurprisingly, will always follow its flow of natural ways, and the scent of jasmine reminds us of it constantly.”

Photo 1 courtesy: Wiki commons, General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit Seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. He had just written his death poem, which is also visible in the upper right corner.

With his sight set long into the horizon, The General took a deep breath and centered himself, then opened his robe and with a firm and determined grip he plunged the tantō into his abdomen, the steel felt ice-cold as it pierced the flesh but as he sliced his gut horizontally with a left-to-right cut an unexpected warmth overwhelmed him in a peaceful calmness. The Captain, as agreed, waited for The General's face to show no trace of human emotion and slowly close his eyes, to strike the final blow that would partially decapitate his friend in the manners of dakikubi.

Seppuku is "the honorable method of taking one’s own life practiced by men of the samurai class in feudal Japan. It was favored under Bushidō as an effective way to demonstrate the courage, self-control, and strong resolve of the samurai and to prove sincerity of purpose." Yet, is Seppukku just a ritualistic way of committing suicide, or is it more than that? Is it any different from a soldier jumping on top of a grenade to save his fellow men? Or Socrates drinking hemlock after been sentenced to die by the Athenian government? Probably, this topic raises more questions than it can answer, but let's center the discussion on the ethics around this topic.

To do so, I will attempt to respond the four key questions about suicide presented by John Danaher (Ph.D. from University College Cork and current lecturer in law at NUI Galway in Ireland) presented in his dissertation "The Ethics of Suicide: A Framework" published on May 17, 2014.

1. Competency: Was the person mentally competent and sufficiently rational and self-governing to be responsible for the act of self-killing?

There were indeed two types of Seppuku: voluntary and obligatory, the latter mentioned enforced as a way of capital punishment. Nevertheless, in both cases, it can be said that the samurai would perform the act to the full extent and clarity of their mental capacities and rationality. Arguing anything different would be utterly disrespectful, and would question the entire social structure and morals which are deeply rooted in the Japanese culture, even today. Questioning Seppuku and its motifs would be questioning a fundamental part of the samurai psyche, it would simply be unfair to think that these entire warrior class had a mental deficiency, what they did do have was a very particular way of understating the world.

2. Deontology: Is suicide ever permissible, forbidden, or obligatory?

Granted that you are a competent person, would you obstruct someone from committing Seppuku? Before you answer, think about this, is it possible that you would be doing more harm than good to that person by impeding it? Even if completely opposed to the concept, one should be respectful of it for one very simple reason, for that culture and especially for the person performing the deed, it is not only justified and regarded as proper, it's also considered a matter of transcendence. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, "each person is morally responsible in his or her own way." If a Samurai decides to end his life, it is his right to do so.

Photo 2 courtesy: Wiki commons, "Tousei buyuuden: Takasaki Saichirou." Ukiyo-e woodblock print of warrior about to perform seppuku.

3. Axiology: If suicide is permissible, does it fall short of the moral ideal?

The short answer is, no it does not fall short. "Systems of morals and manners are inherently sensible perspectives of what constitutes prudent behavior in a dangerous and sometimes unpredictable world.” Therefore, I believe that the best way to answer this question fairly from the perspective of a samurai would be by approaching it from the Kantian categorical imperative. "Everybody may pursue his happiness in the manner that seems best to him, provided he does not infringe on other people's freedom to pursue similar ends, i.e., on another's right to do whatever can coexist with every man's freedom under a possible universal law.”

4. Assisted Suicide: Is it ever permissible to help another to end their own lives?

Acting as kaishakunin, was The Captain right in striking that final blow? Indeed, it was permissible under their context, one could even argue that he was doing an act of benevolent service to The General, as dishonor amongst the samurai was seen as worse than a terminal illness.

Now let's take this question into a more actual environment. If capital punishment is a legal penalty in 56 countries, including the United States, which uses it regularly in 29 of its states, why would euthanasia not be permissible? Indeed a difficult question, but let's add more gray shades into this, what about hospice care? What can one do when a loved one decides they need to finally put down the sword and transcend? Impeding that from happening could even be seen as a selfish act that prolongs that person's pain.

Photo 3 courtesy: Wiki commons, p.85 of The Gist of Japan - The Islands, Their People, And Missions, Rev. R. B. Peery, A.M., Ph.D. © 1897 Fleming H. Revell Company.

 In all honesty, it’s very difficult to determine whether an act is moral and/or ethical because even beyond natural law everything depends on the character of the individual, their customs, and life experiences. The only definitive argument one could make is that Seppuku is ethical for those who have decided follow Bushidō, and even so, one could decide that rather than performing this act it would be better for the world if instead, to regain honor, one would commit to a life of doing acts of good and service to others.

Read it in Spanish at Mundo Karate.

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