[FOUNTAIN]Old and grisly traditionHara-kiri is a method of killing oneself originating in Japan; it is also called seppuku. In Japan, it is called a sophisticated method of suicide which requires utmost composure and calmness. The Japanese from early days have considered the abdomen the seat of the soul, adding another dimension to this self-disembowelment.
But the first one to disembowel himself was not a warrior. In 988, the Heian era in Japan, a famous thief, Haka Madare, killed himself by cutting open his abdomen when he was chased by an informer. That was the origin of seppuku.
In the age of civil wars, soldiers captured in battle disemboweled themselves, claiming that they should keep their faith. In the Tokagawa shogunate of the Edo era, the practice and style of hara-kiri was fixed.
Japanese killed themselves this way for several reasons. One was as a punishment; others were to take responsibility for something or to prove one’s innocence. A variant, called oibara, which means following one's master into death, was a way for retainers to show their loyalty to their dead lord.
As time went by, self-disembowelment was used more widely. When a warrior disgraced himself, he had to recover his honor by self-disembowelment.
If a stone was found in the master's food, the person in charge of the meals was forced to disembowel himself. It was required if someone showed up late at night or if he did not dismount from his horse when he should have. Risking one's life for trivial causes was common.
Although it was suicide, it was usually ordered, and the Japanese have a word for that too ― sumebara. In some cases, warriors would not willingly accept the order to kill themselves, so if a warrior was likely to resist, the master would have the warrior murdered by other men. The master held the power of life or death. Some interpret the practice as a way of maintaining the social order of the Edo era.
Koreans have used the practice as a protest gesture much more than Japanese have. Perhaps that is because Koreans had many more occasions in which they wanted to express their wrath by killing themselves. This was the case of the Korean farmer who killed himself in Cancun, Mexico.
Whatever the reason, ending a valuable life is horrifying. There is a saying, “A man's life is heavier than the earth.”
by Nahm Yoon-ho
The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.