How many Samurai killed themselves compared to the actual number of Samurai and how many Samurai were dishonored but did not kill themselves?

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    "but how often would they do it?" well, once at most. It's not something you can do twice <rimshot>
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 19:00
  • Sorry, I tried to avoid that wording but it inevitably slipped back in.
    – mol_lusk
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 19:15
  • I guess it all depends on if the Japanese government kept records on that, and if you can get them translated.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 19:42
  • 1
    That's a wonderful question. Not sure you'll get answers, though. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 14:50
  • Isn't there any Japanese to solve our problem here or they are not as verbose and long-winded as the Persian version whom you have here? :")) Commented Apr 18, 2013 at 9:51

4 Answers 4


Well, there is something on the internet.

I found an article which deals with the classification of samurai suicides by their motivations (along the lines of the discussion I had with Anixx in the comments). The authors have also compiled some statistics from a survey of Japanese literary sources (chronicles etc., I presume). They rightly call this methodology "impressionistic" but it's a start. I don't know if the archives of the Tokugawa shogunate have survived; if yes, they might hold more answers.

  • 6
    As it stands, this isn't an answer, but a pointer to an answer. Try folding in some of the relevant information from the article you linked to, and you'll probably get some upvotes.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 19:31
  • @Joe: On the one hand, you are right. On the other, there is no one single conclusion, as far as I can tell. Given that, I am not sure that there'd any benefit it my paraphrasing the tables given in that article. Google Books is one click away. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 23:44

I do not have numbers but I am quite sure that in most cases the samurais killed themselves either when ordered to do so by the superiors or expected the superiors to order so.

In fact the samurais in Japan enjoyed one privilege that the lower classes did not: they had the right to "honorably" commit suicide instead of being dishonorably executed. So instead of just execute a samurai, his superior would order him to kill himself.

If he refused to do so, then the soldiers of the superior would come, capture the samurai and execute him.

The family of a samurai who was executed forcefully would be stripped of privileges and possessions. So often the superior just sent a letter to the samurai from which it was clear that he wanted him to commit suicide. The letter could be kept secret. The samurai then committed suicide as if it was voluntary. But he knew that if he did not do so, he would be killed anyway and his family suffer.

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    Shuld I down vote this because the OP asked for numbers, and you expressly skipped that part of an answer? Commented Nov 1, 2012 at 2:26
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    @NewAlexandria No, in fact, because there were no records of this, we will never know the exact number. We're talking about a period of hundreds of years. It's an informative answer, but no answer would be useful. For example, history.stackexchange.com/q/2329/961 can be objectively ansered because records were kept. This question cannot. IMO, this answer does not deserve the downvote.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Nov 7, 2012 at 14:24
  • 2
    Sorry, I downvote too. The answer rephrased the question, adding some standard information. The question tries to beyond the usual notion of seppuku by posing a quantitative (perhaps even prosopographical) angle to it - the answer, while true in itself and well-written, doesn't cope with the point of the question. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 14:45
  • @Felix Goldberg my answer was to point out that in many cases when samurai seemingly killed themselves due to dishonor, actually they were forced to do so. Sometimes they were self-executing following orders rather than suiciding. Sometimes the orders to kill themselves could be secret so that the self-killing appeared to be due to shame. This impacts on the numbers.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:02
  • @Anixx: I'm removing the downvote as I now understand the point you were trying to make, and it's a valid one. Perhaps the difference between suicide out of shame and suicide because of social expectations is not that large, as shame is partly a social emotion. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 15:16

I think (in my research) that there were numerous suicides and yes it was for honor and dishonor, but I think there were at least 2,000 suicides or more.

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    Where did get this number? Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 18:02
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    Citations please - thank you for doing the research, but citations allow the rest of us to learn.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 18:32

Why Samurai Killed Themselves

Suicide is not a great survival tactic. Successful suicide is invariably fatal. Animals, including humans, have a strong instinct for survival, and will avoid death under almost all circumstances. Why then, was suicide amongst Japanese samurai so popular and considered so noble?

It is true of course that people who are profoundly depressed to the point of insanity will sometimes kill themselves to escape the misery of their existence. History does not tell us that samurai were all morbidly depressed, however. Sometimes it even records that they died smiling. It also records that the mothers of samurai, who learned that their sons had killed themselves, smiled with joy at the news, hearing of how their sons had met such an honourable death. History is the official version. One might well imagine that these smiling mothers were heart-broken inside, and cried a lot when no one was looking.

Society rewards sacrifice. It does this for its own good. Society at large applauds people who help the poor, or pull people from burning buildings, because it saves the rest of us having to do these things. We all benefit from the sacrifices of others, so we all encourage each other to be self-sacrificing for the sake of society at large. Was this the force at work, making samurai commit suicide?

In feudal Japan, families were important. Honour was important too, as was status. Shame and dishonour affected the whole family. Families share genes. If one noble samurai lord became widely known to have done something shameful, this would affect the prospects of his whole family. His daughters would not marry so well. His brothers would have to work much harder to achieve any position of influence and power. Genes drive women to put a great deal of effort into finding the best mates, and men to seek to be as high status as possible, because high status men have more children (at least, before contraception they did). It seems logical, then, that genes might also drive us to police the behaviour of anyone whose behaviour might affect the chances of our finding good mates and reaching high status.

I suggest that the reason samurai went in for suicide so readily, is that their families instilled in them a strong sense of duty. Families, not wishing to be harmed by the actions of one rogue family member, would for the sake of their genes demand that the one erring member should kill himself rather than damage the whole family gene pool. Suicide is proof of a recognition of guilt and shame, and of a strong resolve to do something about that guilt. That it wipes the sins from the family of the dead man means that it is a sacrifice which has some good effect on the world, and thus this makes the suicide honourable.

This death would be, of course, a very high price to pay. The person dying would often be a high status healthy male, and perhaps father to a few children. This is no small loss, and so it would be a cost which could be borne only in special circumstances. These circumstances would include:

A society in which the shame of one man rubs off on his whole family. The society does not want shameful acts in its midst, and so obliges families to police themselves by insisting that shamed members kill themselves. It does this by shunning families which harbour shamed men. The society which behaved this way in feudal Japan was the aristocracy, which wanted aristocrats to behave aristocratically, and not let the side down by appearing ignoble in the eyes of the peasants. An aristocracy which could self-police so impressively would more easily be able to stay in power.

A society which for the sake of order and conservatism, believed that suicide was a sacrifice which wiped the sins of the dead man from his family.

A society full of families which were very fearful of losing status, and where a loss of status would be catastrophic to the chances of genes replicating.

The man killing himself would not be highly valued for his physical labour or his ability to produce food to feed his family.

These circumstances all existed amongst the nobility of feudal Japan. By contrast the attitude to suicide amongst the general peasantry was very different. It was considered a crime. A peasant man was valued for his ability to feed his family. Whereas a noble could be confident that someone would look after his children, and that there was no danger of their starving, a peasant was not in this position. A peasant who killed himself would be significantly harming the chances of his children to grow up properly fed. The nobles relied for their income on the labours of the poor in their area, so they didn’t want their peasants killing themselves off.

A good example reason why a Japanese noble might kill himself, is alleged disloyalty to the Emperor. It is easy to understand that a family tainted with disloyalty to the highest authority in the land might suffer. The particular favoured method of suicide was hara-kiri or “belly cutting” (the word seppuku refers to the formal ritual ceremony of suicide), which involved the man’s slitting himself wide open across the belly. This is a very difficult and painful way to commit suicide, and so all the more proof of the quality of the man doing it, and his genuine intentions.

I am sure that it is no coincidence that the unusual circumstances which would create an environment in which a gene’s chances of replication would be increased by the suicide of the gene’s host body, just happen to be those circumstances in which we find “noble” suicide. In Britain, things are different. Suicide is either the cowards way out, or, more often these days, a sad reflection on our society’s failure to make its members happy.

In World War Two, the British and Japanese had opposite attitudes to suicide. The British saw it as a foolish and cowardly way out of having to suffer imprisonment as a prisoner of war. The Japanese saw it as brave and self-sacrificing. This was the first time that the noble art of suicide had been extended to the masses, and suicide in Japan, though still by world standards popular, has not been so common since. Amazingly enough, the common Japanese soldier believed that his Emperor was a god, and that common soldiers could elevate themselves to higher after-world status by suicide. This is not a long-term stable state of affairs, first because people will eventually work out that they are being manipulated and sacrificed by and for the upper classes, and secondly because it is not a behaviour which is to the benefit of the genes of those exhibiting that behaviour. One could say that the modern Japanese might be less gullible than their grandparent’s generation, because the most gullible men killed themselves more often during the war. In the long long term, this selection process would breed a peasant class who would never be fooled by anything the nobles tried to get them to do.

Here I have used evolutionary theory to explain a bizarre behaviour exhibited by humans. A social anthropologist would have put it all down to “culture”. Genes react to environment. Genes created the social environment to a great extent, and within that particular environment, they favoured certain behaviours. One might argue that for the behaviour of suicide to evolve amongst an aristocracy, that the aristocracy would have to be living in that particular unusual way for a very long time indeed. My belief is that the instincts for self sacrifice were much older than feudal Japan, but that feudal Japan brought them out. Even in the Pleistocene, the chances of a brother’s breeding well would be harmed if his brother were well known to be a bad example of humanity. This would put pressure on people to distance themselves from bad relatives, for their own good. Suicide is just a very extreme result of this behaviour. The suicide may appear at first to be due to the self-sacrificing behaviour of the man killing himself, but actually its roots are in the fact that the family of the sacrificing man are putting pressure on him one way or another to do the deed. We did not evolve to kill ourselves so much as to punish the bad behaviour of relatives.

If I knew more about the Indian practice of suttee (wives throwing themselves on the funeral pyres of husbands), then I’m sure that I could eventually work out an explanation for that too.

  • I'm afraid this doesn't really answer the question. Instead, it's more of an essay on one person's thoughts about suicide.
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 19, 2013 at 4:35
  • 1
    -1. Too long. Didn't Read. Commented Oct 22, 2013 at 0:56
  • Please don't let this answer go to waste just because it's not appropriate here. Find the right question and put it there! Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 16:48

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