Hara-kiri, which literally means "stomach cutting" is a particularly painful method of self-destruction, and prior to the emergence of the samurai as a professional warrior class, was totally foreign to the Japanese.
The early history of Japan reveals quite clearly that the Japanese were far more interested in living the good life than in dying a painful death. It was not until well after the introduction of Buddhism, with its theme of the transitory nature of life and the glory of death, that such a development became possible.
To the samurai, seppuku--whether ordered as punishment or chosen in preference to a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy--was unquestionable demonstration of their honor, courage, loyalty, and moral character.
When samurai were on the battlefield, they often carried out acts of hara-kiri rapidly and with very little formal preparation. But on the other occasions, particularly when it was ordered by a feudal lord, or the shogun (as was directed of Lord Asano in the Tale of the 47 Ronin. ) , seppuku or hara-kiri was a very formal ceremony, requiring certain etiquette, witnesses and considerable preparation.
Not all Japanese samurai or lords believed in, even though many of them followed the custom. The great Ieyasu Tokugawa, who founded Japan's last great Shogunate dynasty in 1603, eventually issued an edict forbidding hara-kiri to both secondary and primary retainers.
The custom was so deeply entrenched, however, that it continued, and in 1663, at the urging of Lord Nobutsuna Matsudaira of Izu, the shogunate government issued another, stronger edict, prohibiting ritual suicide. This was followed up by very stern punishment for any lord who allowed any of his followers to commit harakiri or seppuku. Still the practice continued throughout the long Tokugawa reign, but it declined considerably as time went by.
Honor for the samurai was dearer than life and in many cases, self destruction was regarded not simply as right, but as the only right course. Disgrace and defeat were atoned by committing hara-kiri or seppuku. Upon the death of a daimyo loyal followers might show their grief and affection for their master by it. Other reasons a samurai committed seppuku were: to show contempt for an enemy; to protest against injustice, as a means to get their lord to reconsider an unwise or unworthy action and as a means to save others.
The ritual for disenbowlment was to be performed
calmly and without flinching. If condemned to death, it was held to be
a privilege to execute the sentence on one's own body rather than to be
a disgrace and die at the hands of the public headsman.
The location of an officially ordered seppuku ceremony was very important. Often the ritual was performed at temple
(but not Shinto shrines), in the garden or villas, and inside homes. The size of the area available was also important, as it was prescribed precisely for samurai of high rank.
All the matters relating to the act was carefully prescribed and carried out in the most meticulous manner. The most conspicuous participant, other than the victim, was the kaishaku (kie-shah-kuu), or assistant, who was responsible for cutting off the victim's head after he had sliced his abdomen open. The was generally a close friend or associate of the condemned.
Although suicide is deplored in Japan today,
it does not have the sinful overtones that are common in the west. People
still kill themselves for failed businesses, involvement in love triangles,
or even failing school examinations, death is still consider by many as
better than dishonor.