It was not uncommon for samurai to commit ritual suicide called seppuku “belly slitting”. Harakiri is another term, often mispronounced as “Hairy Carry”. It was a death ritual that samurai employedto show their sincere regret for having failed in their obligations. Slitting one’s own throat was another method they sometimes employed.
One of the most compelling accounts in my novel, The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mystery describes the true story of a horrific mass suicide of nineteen teenage samurai. The incident is relatively unknown outside of Japan, but it plays an important part in my novel. It occurred at the end of a short civil war between those who supported the Shogun and the Imperial Army which sought to“restore” the Japanese emperor.
In October,1868, the northern domain of Aizu was besieged by the Imperial Army which surrounded and bombarded Tsuruga Castle which was located in the center of the Aizu’s capital. It was thought to be impregnable, but it was no match for the modern English cannonry employed by the Imperial Army. While the castle was being bombarded, another battle was taking place miles away.
A contingent of teenage samurai, part of the Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Force” was sent to take part in the battle, but they became lost. The leader decided to return to the castle to aid in its defense, and the small group of teenagers stopped on a hillside clearing where, in the distance, they saw the castle town enveloped in smoke and flame. They assumed that they were too late to come to the capital’s defense and they all decided to commit suicide to atone for their perceived failure in defending Aizu.
This tragedy is graphically described in The Shogun’s Gold when the hero of my novel stumbles upon the bodies of nineteen boys whose ages ranged from 16 to 17. Here is a modern woodblock print depicting the incident.
In present day Japan, suicides average 70 per day and teenage suicides are notably high. Failing important exams is one of the main reasons why Japanese youth take their own lives.
Another, more famous case of mass suicide has been immortalized in the play, the Story of the Forty-seven Samurai. However, from my point of view, the tragedy of the Byakkotai is more compelling because those who died by their own hands were so young.
In 1984, NHK, the national TV network broadcast a serial depicting the end of the civil war in Japan. You may find it on YouTube.
When Japan joined Nazi Germany and Italy before the outbreak of WWII, Mussolini sent his foreign minister (his son-in-law) to Japan to donate part of an ancient Roman column to memorialize the Byakkotai sacrifice. Hitler sent a large, stone tablet featuring a large swastika that was chiseled off after the war.