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Seppuku (切腹, 'cutting [the] belly'), also called harakiri (腹切り, lit. 'abdomen/belly cutting', a native Japanese kun reading), is a form of Japanese ritualistic suicide by disembowelment. It was originally reserved for samurai in their code of honour, but was also practiced by other Japanese people during the Shōwa era (particularly officers near the end of World War II) to restore honour for themselves or for their families.
As a samurai practice, seppuku was used voluntarily by samurai to die with honour rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (and likely be tortured), as a form of capital punishment for samurai who had committed serious offences, or performed because they had brought shame to themselves. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, consists of plunging a short blade, traditionally a tantō, into the belly and drawing the blade from left to right, slicing the belly open. If the cut is deep enough, it can sever the abdominal aorta, causing death by rapid exsanguination.
The first recorded act of seppuku was performed by Minamoto no Yorimasa during the Battle of Uji in 1180. Seppuku was used by warriors to avoid falling into enemy hands and to attenuate shame and avoid possible torture. Samurai could also be ordered by their daimyō (feudal lords) to carry out seppuku. Later, disgraced warriors were sometimes allowed to carry out seppuku rather than be executed in the normal manner. The most common form of seppuku for men was composed of cutting open the abdomen, followed by extending the neck for an assistant to sever the spinal cord. It was the assistant's job to decapitate the samurai in one swing; otherwise, it would bring great shame to the assistant and his family. Those who did not belong to the samurai caste were never ordered or expected to carry out seppuku. Samurai could generally only carry out the act with permission.
Sometimes a daimyō was called upon to perform seppuku as the basis of a peace agreement. This weakened the defeated clan so that resistance effectively ceased. Toyotomi Hideyoshi used an enemy's suicide in this way on several occasions, the most dramatic of which effectively ended a dynasty of daimyōs. When the Hōjō Clan were defeated at Odawara in 1590, Hideyoshi insisted on the suicide of the retired daimyō Hōjō Ujimasa and the exile of his son Ujinao; with this act of suicide, the most powerful daimyō family in eastern Japan was completely defeated.
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