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Samurai with raised sword, c1860. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Medieval Samurai Criminals Were Subject To A Gruesome Punishment
History - Science
Content Warning
This story contains discussions of suicide.
Japanese samurai are undoubtedly among the most widely romanticized, and widely misunderstood, figures from Japan's medieval Edo era (1603 to 1867). While they are often portrayed as mystical, they were actually an elite class of military officers and civil peacekeepers who helped maintain societal order alongside magistrates.
In the highly-regimented society of the Edo era, the samurai’s role in dispensing civil justice meant that they were held to a much stricter standard of behavior. For example, if a samurai claimed to have murdered a farmer because the farmer insulted him, and it wasn't true, then that samurai was an embarrassment to his lord and family and had to commit ritual suicide.
During this ritual suicide — called “seppuku” — the samurai would use the short tanto daggers they carried at all times to disembowel themselves. They were accompanied by special helpers called kaishakunin, who would cut off the samurai’s heads after their self-disembowelment and make sure to leave a little strip of skin connecting head to throat.