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Death and the Samurai


Fairly or unfairly, death has always been linked to the samurai. It is in fact the samurai's presumed affinity for death that seems to set him aside from other warriors and captures the imagination. Of course, there can be little doubt that the manner in which he viewed his own death was considered most important. But was he as obsessed by it as we have been led to believe, ready to toss his life away at a moment's notice?

Perhaps we, both Japanese and foreign, owe much of our 'death-intensive' view of the samurai to the Hagakure, a book composed in the 18th Century. Written long after the last samurai army had marched into battle, the Hagakure - and books like it - sought to stiffen the flagging martial spirit among a samurai class nearly destitute and directionless. Needless to say, a good deal of idealism found its way into the pages of these 'how-to' books, but at the same time, the wisdom contained within was (and is) often distorted or misconstrued. Perhaps the most famous example is provided in the opening chapter of the Hagakure itself…

"The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to death, there is only the quick choice of death."1

These oft-quoted lines find their way into many 'populist' books and magazines on the samurai and/or Japanese martial culture. Yet, if we read a bit further, we encounter this passage…

"We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim IS a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling."2

In these words we find a depth and thoughtfulness lacking to some degree from our image of the samurai and death. Another Edo samurai, Daidoji Yuzan, wrote…

"One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die. If he is always mindful of this, he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of loyalty and filial duty, will avoid myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free of disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life. He will also be a fine personality with many admirable qualities. For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening, and the hoarfrost of morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior…"3

Yet, how much can be drawn from the writings of peacetime samurai? Granted, any Edo samurai faced the prospect of suicide should he greatly displease his lord, or commit some notable transgression (the penalty for striking another with a sword in anger was often suicide). Additionally, even life in Edo Japan was fraught with all manner of hardships, including fires, earthquakes, and disease. In this respect life differed little from the days when Kamo no Chomei had written, "Where to find a place to rest? And how bring even short-lived peace to our hearts?"4
      The samurai view and idea of death was shaped not so much, perhaps, from the ways of war as the realities of life. Every aspect of Japanese life was tailored to suit an existence in a land that could be shockingly and suddenly cruel. Earthquakes could topple castles, and plagues ravage the countryside. Raging fires often swept towns, leading Chomei to write, "all of man's doings are senseless / but spending his wealth / and tormenting himself / to build a house in this hazardous city / is especially foolish."5
      Famine was an ever-present danger, and Chomei witnessed the especially cruel one that tormented the land from 1181-82. "There was little trade, but grain was worth more than gold / Beggars were many in the streets, clamor of suffering, sorrow filled the air / Even as you watched, stricken people walking by, would suddenly fall / so many bodies of the starved lay in the streets hard by the walls of houses / Since these were not removed there rose a dreadful stench. It was more then one could bear to look upon these rotting corpses."6 This same famine brought the Gempei war to a grinding halt, and claimed both high and low.
      Over the centuries, many famous men would die not in battle but from illness, including the two great rivals Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen.7 Promising young lords such as Mori Takamoto and Taira Shigemori died young and in their beds. All of this contributed to the sentiment behind the words of Daidôji Yuzan and the Japanese appreciation for fleeting beauty.

With this in mind, then, we'll take a brief look at two of the two ways a samurai might prefer to die, and how they were intertwined.

Battlefield Death

"Those who cling to life die, and those who defy death live."8 The sengoku daimyô Uesugi Kenshin left these words for his retainers just prior to his own death. The Hagakure provides a somewhat similar bit of wisdom. "A person who does not want to be struck by the enemy's arrows will have no divine protection. For a man who does not wish to be hit by the arrows of a common soldier, but rather those of a warrior of fame, there will be the protection for which he asked."9 In other words, while a peacetime samurai was free - and encouraged - to contemplate death, a fighting samurai was probably better off not thinking about it.
      No samurai was ever safe from the shadow of death when at war, and many famous names fell on the battlefield. Uesugi Kenshin's own father had been killed in battle, and more then a few of his notable contemporaries would fall to an enemy's sword. Imagawa Yoshimoto, Ryûzôji Takanobu, Saitô Dosan, Uesugi Tomosada… great warlords all slain in daring enemy rushes. Many others commited suicide after their causes had been lost, from Minamoto Yorimasa of the 12th Century to Sue Harukata of the 16th. Naturally, the samurai took a somewhat philosophical approach to death, as we have already seen. Beauty, or at least an enduring pathos, could be found in the passing of a samurai. Rather then dwell on the dreary details of battlefield slaughter, let us read the closing lines to the Nô drama 'Atsumori', which recounted the death of the young Taira warrior Atsumori at the Battle of Ichi no Tani in 1184 and the later meeting of his ghost with the man who had killed him…

'Then, in time, His Majesty's ship sailed,
with the whole clan behind him in their own.
Anxious to be aboard, I sought the shore,
but all the warships and the imperial barge
stood already far, far out to sea.
I was stranded. Reining in my horse,
I halted, at a loss for what to do.
There came then, galloping behind me,
Kumagai no Jirô Naozane,
shouting, "You will not escape my arm!"
At this Atsumori wheeled his mount
and swiftly, all undaunted, drew his sword.
We first exchanged a few rapid blows,
then, still on horseback, closed to grapple, fell,
and wrestled on, upon the wave-washed strand.
But you bested me, and I was slain.
Now karma brings us face to face again.
"You are my foe!" Atsumori shouts,
lifting his sword to strike; but Kumagai,
with kindness has repaid old enmity,
calling the Name to give the spirit peace.
They at last shall be reborn together
upon one lotus throne in paradise.
Rensho (Kumagai), you were no enemy of mine.
Pray for me, O pray for my release!
Pray for me, O pray for my release! 10

It may be of some interest to note that the play 'Atsumori' was reputed to be a favorite of the often-ruthless 16th century warlord Oda Nobunaga.
      The line between suicide and death in battle was often thin, especially since a certain measure of glorification was attached to the notion of perishing on the battlefield. Here we find the 'nobility of failure' Ivan Morris once wrote about, the gallant death of the losing warrior. The Battle of Nagashino in 1575 provides us with a moving example. The Takeda army had been crushed by the combined forces of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu and now faced complete annihilation, with no less then ten thousand men already dead. The venerable Takeda general Baba Nobufusa had somehow survived the morning's slaughter and now led the remains of his command in a doomed rear guard action.

      Nobufusa rushed a man to [Takeda] Katsuyori to say, "Sir, leave this place at once. I beg you. I will stay here and die." He stayed on with eighty horsemen and lost all of them. He climbed a hill and, seeing that Katsuyori was now far away, shouted loudly to the enemy, "I am Baba, Governor of Mino. Kill me if you can and win a big reward!" Enemies gave him multiple stabs, and he died.11

      The death of Nobufusa is given added poignancy by the knowledge that he and the other old Takeda generals had urged Katsuyori not to attack the allied army the night before. When Katsuyori ignored their advice, Baba and his colleagues dutifully led their men from the front and were killed almost to a man.
      Another doomed warrior whose advice had been ignored prior to the start of his last battle was Taira Tomomori, perhaps the greatest of the Taira generals. With the final confrontation of the Gempei War imminent, Tomomori had urged his lord, Munemori, to dispose of a certain general whose loyalty he questioned. Munemori rejected his suggestion, and during the course of the Battle of Dan no Ura (1185) that very general betrayed the Taira cause. With all hope lost, Tomomori resolved to end his own life.

      "I have seen enough," said the New Middle Counselor Tomomori. "It is time to take my life." He summoned his foster brother, Iga no Heinaizaemon Ienaga. "What do you say? You will stand by your promise, won't you?"
       "Of course." Ienaga said.
      Ienaga assisted the New Middle Counselor into a second suit of armor and donned another himself, and the two leaped into the sea with clasped hands. More then twenty samurai took one another by the hand and sank in the same place, determined not to stay behind after their master was gone. 12

      Note that Tomomori's retainers were quick to follow him in death, an impulsive reaction not at all uncommon, especially under such devestating conditions.
      In a marked contrast to the resignation of Tomomori is the head of the Taira, Munemori, and his son…

       …Munemori and his son Kiyomune lingered at the side of their boat, looking around in bewilderment, with no apparent thought of jumping. Some of the Taira samurai, shamed by the minister's conduct, pushed him overboard under pretense of brushing past him. Kiyomune promptly leaped after him.
      All the others had entered the water wearing heavy armor, with weighty objects borne on their backs or held in their hands to make sure of sinking. This father and son had done nothing of the kind; moreover, they were excellent swimmers with no stomach for drowning. Thus it was that they stayed afloat…As the two swam around, watching each other, Ise no Saburo Yoshimori suddenly rowed up in a small craft and dragged Kiyomune out with a rake. Munemori looked on without attempting to drown himself, and Yoshimori dragged him out too.13

      Munemori's impulse towards self-preservation is altogether human, but occasionally death was actively avoided for the greater good of the cause. This is nowhere better illustrated then by the actions of Kusunoki Masashige, the famous Imperial loyalist of the early 14th Century. He is particularly well remembered for engineering two classic defensive stands, at Akasaka and Chihaya, where he tenaciously resisted much larger enemy armies. The Taiheki records the events surrounding the fall of Akasaka…

      Kusunoki had built this castle in great haste, with no time to prepare adequate provisions. In a mere twenty days after the battle had started and the castle was surrounded, there were only four or five days' worth of provisions left in the castle. So Masashige faced his men and said:
      "We've won several battles and destroyed countless enemies. But their number is so great they don't think anything of it. Meanwhile we're running out of food and there isn't any rescue force. Since I was the first among the soldiers of this country to rise with a decision to help his Majesty unify the land, I wouldn't hesitate to give up my life if the time were right and the act was just. Still, a courageous warrior is someone who takes precautions on an important occasion and chooses to plot things out. For this reason I, Masashige, would like to let this castle be taken and make the enemy assume I have committed suicide. Let me explain why.
      "If they find out that I have commited suicide, the men from the Eastern provinces will be overjoyed and return to their lands. When they have, I'll come out and fight; if they come back here I'll withdraw into deep mountains. If I annoy the forces from the East in this fashion four or five times, they're bound to become exhausted. This is how by preserving myself I plan to destroy the enemy."14

      Masashige's decision allowed him to embarrass the Eastern forces at Chihaya, but in the end he was ordered to a battle he knew he could not win. Dutifully accepting the wishes of the Emperor, who desired a decisive battle to end the war in one stroke, Masashige prepared to depart for Minatogawa, first visiting with his eleven-year-old son…

       "…If you retain a single word of mine in your ear, please do not go against what I now have to say. I think the coming battle will decide the fate of our land, and this will be the last time for me to see your face in this life.
      "When people learn that Masashige has been killed in battle, assume that our land is to be run by lord [Ashikaga] Takauji. But even if that happens, do not destroy our loyalty of many years and surrender to save your own life. As long as a young man remains alive in our clan, hide yourself near Mt. Kongo and fight the enemy…that will be your first filial duty…" 15

Masashige then departed for the battle where, as he had predicted, his side was defeated. Surrounded by the enemy, Masashige commited suicide. His son, Masatsura, took his father's parting words to heart, and carried on his fight on behalf of the 'Southern Court'. Sadly, Masatsura himself fell in battle, but not before leaving the names of his kinsmen and these lines etched on a temple door that remain to this day…

      I could not return, I presume,
      So I will keep my name
      Among those who are dead with bows. 16

      As we have seen, a meaningful or dramatic suicide (or de facto suicide) was one of the ways in which a samurai could achieve posthumous fame. Here are some other men noted for the manner in which they died…

Taira Noritsune (d.1185). At the same Battle of Dan no Ura where Tomomori would drown himself, Noritsune was determined to take the head of his clan's great foil, Minamoto Yoshitsune. He jumped from boat to boat, seeking out his quarry, until he finally shouted a challenge in frustration. Three Minamoto warriors came forward, seeking to subdue him, but straightaway suffered the loss of one of their number kicked into the sea. Noritsune then grappled with his other two assailants. '…he clamped the second man, Sanemitsu, under his left arm, and the younger brother, Jiro, under his right, gave them both a mighty squeeze, and sprang into the waves, saying, "All right, come on! Be my companions in the Shide Mountains."17 He was twenty-six years old.'

Shiaku Saburozaemon (d.1333). Saburozaemon was the son of a low ranking member of the Hojo Bakufu. In 1333 the Hojo were defeated by the supporters of the Emperor Go-Daigo and Kamakura was attacked. Saburozaemon's father decided to commit suicide along with his masters, but advised his young son to escape and assume the life of a Buddhist monk. Saburozaemon refused. "Even though I have not been actively and personally connected with our master, as your son I have been brought up under the benevolent protection of his grace. If I already followed the life of monkhood it would be a different matter. Having been born into the family of a samurai, how can I leave you and our master and save myself to become a monk? No shame is greater then this. If you are to share the destiny of our master, let me be your guide into the next world."18 Before he had even finished speaking, he slit his own belly open. He was followed by his father, who first wrote the lines… "Holding forth this sword, I cut vacuity in twain; In the midst of the great fire, A stream of refreshing breeze!'19

Makara Naotaka (d.1570) This great warrior, better known by his title of Jûrôzaemon, rode out to cover the retreat of the Asakura after they had given way to the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga at Anegawa in 1570. He killed a certain Ogasawara Nagatada in single combat, then, aided by his son and a long sword, bought his clan as much time as possible . Finally surrounded in the shallow waters of the Anegawa, Makara and his son Naomoto were cut down - but not before the Asakura had made good their escape.

Matsunaga Hisahide (d.1577) Having failed in a rebellion against Oda Nobunaga, Matsunaga was faced with committing suicide even as enemy troops assailed the walls of his castle. It happened that Matsunaga was a tea master of some note, and knew that Nobunaga had always coveted his famous teakettle 'Hiragumo'. Hisahide therefore determined that Nobunaga would be denied the two things he wanted most from him. He ordered that, after he had commited suicide, his head and Hiragumo were to be fastened together and blown apart with gunpowder.
      Nobunaga's reaction to losing both is unknown.

Nishima Morinobu (d.1582) Morinobu was the 5th son of the late warlord Takeda Shingen. His elder brother Katsuyori had lost the aforementioned Battle of Nagashino in 1575, and now Oda Nobunaga's troops were pouring into the Takeda lands. Almost everywhere the long-since disillusioned Takeda men were deserting, but at Takato Castle Morinobu held out. Though they resisted wave after wave, the defenders, which included all of the castle's able-bodied women, were finally worn down, and Morinobu mounted the battlements and shouted down at the attackers. He listed Nobunaga's crimes, and predicted the timely downfall of the Oda, then slit his belly in full view of both besieger and besieged. His head was spirited away in the ensuing confusion, and, in fact, Oda Nobunaga was dead just a few months later.

Sanada Yukimura (d.1615) Few other samurai warriors earned the fame accorded to Sanada, whose greatest glory came in the service of the defenders of Hideyori's Osaka Castle. Thanks in part to Sanada's skill, Osaka Castle held out against Tokugawa Ieyasu's initial assaults, and a peaceful settlement was arranged. Yet this peace was to be undone by treachery on the part of Tokugawa and indecision on the part of Hideyori and his mother. Faced with another siege they stood less chance of winning, Sanada and the other defenders of the castle elected to make a bold attack, which culminated in the Battle of Tennôji. The fighting was savage and often much in doubt, but finally, the Osaka troops began to give way. Sanada's men had borne more then their share of the fighting, and their leader, realizing that their cause was lost, slumped onto his campstool. A Tokugawa warrior burst forth and leveled a spear at him.
      Sanada looked up wearily. "I am Sanada Yukimura, an adversary no doubt worthy of you. But I am too exhausted to fight any more."20 With that he took off his helmet and exposed his neck, allowing the Tokugawa man to take his head. The victor did not gain great fame for his prize, and Sanada was remembered by all as a warrior and man of the first rank.

Worthy of mention are Nitta Yoshisada, whom legend says had enough willpower in his body to stab an enemy warrior to death even after he had slit his own belly and been burned; and Miura Yoshinobu (d.1518), who is reported to have commited suicide by chopping his own head off!


Suicide of Takeda Yoshinobu - Rekishi Gunzo Series #5 - Takeda Shingen

The act of slitting one's own belly is such an unbelievable way in which to commit suicide that it is possibly the most famous element of the samurai mythos. Known in the West as hara-kiri (in fact a 'vulgar' expression probably never commonly used by the samurai themselves), the origin of disembowlment as suicide is impossible to pinpoint but the first notable acts were provided by Minamoto Tametomo and Minamoto Yorimasa in the latter part of the 12th Century. The original motivations for this method of death may well have been purely practical. Miura Yoshinobu's example aside, cutting off one's own head is a bit difficult, and as the spirit was felt to reside in the stomach, slitting the belly open was felt to be the most straightforward (if not quickest) way to die. Over the centuries, the philosophy behind seppuku was refined. One samurai wrote many centuries after the deaths of Minamoto Tametomo and Yorimasa that the spirit of a man was like that of an apple's core, unseen and locked within the skin.


The apple certainly exists, but to the core [soul] this existence as yet seems inadequate; if words cannot endorse it, then the only way to endorse it is with the eyes. Indeed, for the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light-to the same light, that is, as the surface skin. Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.21

      The above was clearly an esoteric point of view. Others have written that the act of belly slitting required an exceptional bravery, and over the years it became a 'privilege' reserved for the samurai. Commoners might hang or drown themselves, whilst samurai women might slit their own throats; only samurai could commit Seppuku. To be simply executed was a mark of particular shame, and generally reserved for notorious traitors.

      By the Edo Period, the act of seppuku had become a fully developed ritual with Shinto undertones.
      First, tatami edged with white would be set out, upon which a large white cushion was placed. Witnesses would arrange themselves discreetly to one side, depending on how important the coming suicide was considered.
      The samurai, often garbed in a white kimono, would kneel on the pillow in formal style on his heels, hopefully in a composed manner. Just over a meter behind and to the left of the samurai knelt his kaishakunin, or 'second'. The second was often a close friend of the deceased, although his duty was not a popular one. His job was to prevent the samurai committing suicide from experiencing undo suffering by cutting the doomed man's head off once he had slit his belly. Botching this duty could be a shameful disgrace, and a steady hand was required.
      In front of the samurai lay a knife on a lacquered tray. When he felt ready, the samurai would loosen the folds of his kimono and expose his belly. He would then lift the knife with one hand and unsheathe it with the other, setting the sheathe to one side. When he had prepared himself, he would drive the knife into the left side of the stomach, then draw it across to the right. The blade would then be turned in the wound and brought upward. Many samurai did not have to endure this last, unbelievable agony, as the second would lop their heads off at the first sign of pain. The cut carried out to its finish was known as the jumonji, or 'crosswise cut', and to perform it in its entirety was considered a particularly impressive seppuku.
      Needless to say, one's frame of mind was of particular importance when approaching this act. The Hagakure and other Edo works relate stories of samurai losing their composure just prior to committing suicide, and in some cases having to be forcibly decapitated. Samurai were, after all, only human, and perhaps only through a lifetime of preparation could seppuku be faced with the prerequisite coolness.
      Why would a samurai be expected or decide to slit open his own belly? The reasons are many, and much is made of them elsewhere. We'll content ourselves here with the briefest of lists of those reasons not involving a direct punishment…

Junshi: this act of suicide involved following one's lord in death. Not entirely uncommon in the days of open samurai warfare, junshi was banned in the Edo Period as wasteful. The last famous example was that of the General Nogi Maresue in 1912 following the death of the Emperor Meiji.

Kanshi: Suicide through remonstration. Not common, this involved killing one's self to make a point to a lord when all other forms of persuasion had failed. Perhaps the best known example of this is provided by Hirate Nakatsukasa Kiyohide (1493-1553), who commited suicide to make a youthful and irreverant Oda Nobunaga change his ways.

Sokotsu-shi: Here, a samurai would kill himself as a way of making amends for some transgression. This is possibly the best-known reason for seppuku, and has perhaps been popularized far out of proportion to its frequency. One well-known instance involves the Takeda general Yamamoto Kansuke Haruyuki (1501-1561), who flung himself into the enemy after his plans had put his lord in grave danger. Badly wounded, he withdrew from the fray and commited suicide.

      Finally, it should be remembered that as ever-present as death may have been to many samurai (of Oda Nobuhide's many sons, for example, eight died untimely deaths-including the famous Nobunaga) most died the old-fashioned way: of old age. There are numerous examples of famous long-lived samurai, including Môri Motonari (74), Môri Terumoto (72), Nabeshima Naoshige (82), Ryûzôji Iekane (92), Sanada Nobuyuki (92), Shimazu Yoshihiro (84), and Ukita Hideie (90).

The noted swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden probably best summed up the philosophy of death as it related to the samurai with the words...

For the samurai to learn
There's only one thing,
One last thing -
To face death unflinchingly.22



1. Hagakure pg. 1

2. Hagakure pg. 1-2

3. Code of the Samurai pg. 15

4. Hojoki pg. 58

5. Hojoki pg.38

6. Hojoki pg. 46-47

7. Both of these men are popularly held to have met much more 'unatural' deaths: Kenshin at the hands of an assasin, and Shingen as the result of a sniper. The scholarly consensus seems to be that illness, much more 'mundane', was the culprit in both cases.

8. Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 78

9. Hagakure pg. 154

10. Japanese No Dramas pg. 48

11. Legends of the Samurai pg. 228

12. Tale of the Heike pg. 381

13. Tale of the Heike pg. 379

14. Legends of the Samurai pg. 164

15. Legends of the Samurai pg. 184

16. Samurai: a Military History pg. 97

17. Tale of the Heike pg. 380

18. Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 83

19. Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 84

20. Maker of Modern Japan pg. 289

21. Way of the Samurai pg. 32

22. Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 73