Cultures of Death: Warrior Suicide in Medieval Europe and Japan
By Stephen Morillo
Medieval History Journal, Vol.4:2 (2001)
Abstract: In the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the warrior elites of Japan and northwestern Europe, despite many similarities in ethos and lifestyle, developed very different cultures of death. Japanese warriors sought battle, killed each other in battle, and killed themselves in ritual suicides. European warriors avoided battle, captured each other, and avoided suicide. This paper examines the origins of these different ‘cultures of death’. While differences in religion played some role, they are found not to be deterministic. Rather, differences in symbolic political cultures, locations of political power, family structures, and relationships of the warrior classes, locations of political power, family structures, and relationships of the warrior classes to peasant production are shown to have created contexts in which suicide made sense for warriors in Japan, but was counter-productive in Europe.
With the enemy approaching and his horse weakening, Shigehara rode into the sea, but it was a shoaling strand, too shallow to drown in. He dismounted, slashed his belt, unfastened his shoulder cord, took of his armour and helmet, and prepared to cut open his belly.
In short, a classic example of the Japanese warrior practice of suppuku, ritual suicide. Death-seeking behaviour among Japanese warrior could also take a less ritualised form. Kaneyasu, another losing commander, has a chance to escape but would have to abandon his incapacitated son to do so. His response?: ‘Then Kaneyasu drew his sword, decapitated Muneyasu (his son), entered the enemy ranks, and killed many warriors in a furious onslaught before he finally died in battle.’