hara-kiri (härˈə-kērˈē, hărˈə–) [key] [Jap., = belly-cutting], the traditional Japanese form of honorable suicide, also known by its Chinese equivalent, seppuku. It was practiced by the Japanese feudal warrior class in order to avoid falling into enemy hands. Around 1500, it became a privileged alternative to execution, granted to daimyo and samurai guilty of disloyalty to the emperor. The condemned man received a jeweled dagger from the emperor. He selected as his second a faithful friend, received official witnesses, and plunged the dagger into the left side of his abdomen, drew it across to the right, and made a slight cut upward; his second then beheaded him with one stroke of a sword, and the dagger was returned to the emperor. Around 1700, it became permissible to go through a semblance of disembowelment prior to beheading. Voluntary hara-kiri was resorted to after a private misfortune, out of loyalty to a dead master, or to protest the conduct of a living superior.
Obligatory hara-kiri was abolished in 1868, but its voluntary form has persisted. It was performed by 40 military men in 1895 as a protest against the return of conquered territory, the Liaotung peninsula, to China; by General Nogi on the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912; and by numerous soldiers as an alternative to surrender in World War II. Hara-kiri was much discussed in recent years in connection with the death, in 1970, of Mishima, the well-known novelist and rightist political leader.
For detailed accounts of hara-kiri, see A. B. F. Redesdale, Tales of Old Japan (1919).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.