Harakiri. Need we say that harakiri was for centuries the favourite Japanese method of committing suicide? There were two kinds of harakiri— obligatory and voluntary. The former was a boon granted by government, who graciously permitted criminals of the Samurai class thus to destroy themselves instead of being handed over to the common executioner. Time and place were officially notified to the condemned, and officials were sent to witness the ceremony. This custom is extinct. Voluntary harakiri was practised by men in hopeless trouble, also out of loyalty to a dead superior, and in order to protest when other protests might be unavailing—against the erroneous conduct of a living superior. Examples of this class still take place. That of a young man called Ōhara Takeyoshi, which occurred in 1891, is typical. He was a lieutenant in the Yezo militia, and ripped himself up in front of the graves of his ancestors at the temple of Saitokuji in Tōkyō. Following the routine customary in such cases, Lieutenant Ōhara left a paper setting forth the motives of his act, the only innovation being that this document was directed to be forwarded to the Tōkyō News Agency for publication in all the newspapers. The writer, it seems, had brooded for eleven years over the likelihood of Russian encroachment, and feeling that his living words and efforts were doomed to fruitlessness, resolved to try what his death might effect. In this particular instance no immediate result was obtained. Nevertheless Ōhara's self-sacrifice, its origin in political considerations, and the expectation that an appeal from the grave would move men's hearts more surely than any arguments urged by a living voice,—all this was in complete accord with Japanese ways of thinking. The government had no sooner yielded to the pressure of France, Russia, and Germany in 1895 by giving up the conquered territory of Liao-tung, than forty military men committed suicide in the ancient way. As we sit correcting these proofs in June, 1904, news comes of many officers and men on board a captured transport ripping themselves up rather than surrender to the foe. Even women are found ready to kill themselves for loyalty and duty, but the approved method in their case is cutting the throat. Nowise strange, but admirable according to Japanese ideas, was it that when, in 1895, the tidings of Lieutenant Asada's death on the battle-field, were brought to his young wife, she at once, and with her father's consent, resolved to follow him. Having thoroughly cleansed the house and arrayed herself in her costliest robes, she placed her husband's portrait in the alcove, and prostrating herself before it, cut her throat with a dagger that had been a wedding gift.
The courage to take life—be it one's own or that of others—ranks extraordinarily high in public esteem. It would appear as if political assassination were at once forgiven, when the desperado seals it with his own blood. Nishino Buntarō, the Shintō fanatic who stabbed the Minister of Education, Viscount Mori, on the day of the proclamation of the Constitution in 1889, and who himself perished in the fray, was worshipped almost as a god, his tomb was constantly decked with flowers, incense was burnt before it, verses were hung over it, pilgrimages made to it. The would-be assassin of Count Ōkuma met with scarcely less glorification. At last, in 1891, the government actually felt itself constrained to issue an ordinance prohibiting costly funerals and other posthumous honours to deceased criminals.
Harakiri is not an aboriginal Japanese custom. It was evolved gradually during the Middle Ages. The cause of it is probably to be sought in the desire on the part of vanquished warriors to avoid the humiliation of falling into their enemies hands alive. Thus the custom would come to be characteristic of the military class, in other words, of the feudal nobility and gentry; and from being a custom, it next developed into a privilege about A.D. 1500, as stated above.
Harakiri has sometimes been translated "the happy despatch," but the original Japanese is less euphemistic. It means "bellycutting;" and that is what the operation actually consists in, neither more nor less. Or rather, no: there is more. In modern times, at least, people not having always succeeded in making away with themselves expeditiously by this method, it became usual for a friend—a "best man," as one might say to stand behind the chief actor in the tragedy. When the latter thrust his dirk into himself, the friend at once chopped off his head.
It is an odd fact that the Japanese word harakiri, so well-known all over the world, is but little used by the Japanese themselves. The Japanese almost always prefer to employ the synonym seppuku, which they consider more elegant because it is derived from the Chinese. After all, they are not singular in this matter. Do not we ourselves say "abdomen," when what we mean is plain Saxon—well, we will not shock ears polite by mentioning the word again. Latinisms in English, "Chinesisms" in Japanese, cover a multitude of sins.
Suicide of a more commonplace type than harakiri has always been extremely common, especially what is termed shinjū, that is, suicide for love. Numberless are the tales of men who, being unable to wed the object of their passion,—generally some frail beauty,—have bound themselves tightly to her with a rope, and then precipitated themselves into the water. But Japan is modernised even in this respect: instead of the rope and the watery grave, we hear now of lovers taking doses of chloroform, or throwing themselves under an approaching train. One can hardly take up a newspaper without lighting on some such story.
Books recommended. The whole subject is elaborately described in Appendix A to the Tales of Old Japan, by A. B. Mitford, who himself had the gruesome opportunity of seeing harakiri performed.—Our own Romanised Japanese Reader, Extract No. 63, gives a literal translation of a native account of the harakiri of Asano, Lord of Akō, whose death was so dramatically avenged by the famous "Forty-seven Ronins."