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in one artful stroke
she demonstrated
to all the loutish
and barren old men
that she had more guts
and honor than all
their empty boasts
combined cutting
through first
her muscles and then
into baby fat …


Here in the West it is easy to romanticize other cultures, especially ones separated by distance and time that we believe had higher moral codes than we do today. It’s the ignorant belief that “things were better in the good old days.” Take 14th century France’s so-called Chivalric Code, in theory a set of principles we generally associated with the iron-clad medieval knight. Except that history has shown to us that there was very little that was noble about that warrior class, most of whom were butchers and mercenaries who were considered by European peasants they exploited worse than the Black Plague that had just struck. As Barbara Tuchman pointed out in her excellent A Distant Mirror (1978): “Barbarism, however, no matter how much medieval Christianity insisted it was a sin, is a motor of mankind, no more eradicable from France’s knightly Order of the Garter than sex.”

Japan’s warriors, the samurai, were no different. They had their own code, Bushido, which is typically thought to have stressed blind loyalty to one’s lord and honor unto death. What samurai movie doesn’t have the scene where at least one grim warrior, sitting crossed legged on the floor, his kimono open, sword in hand as he prepares to plunge the blade into his stomach, in order to keep his honor? I might not know a lot about history but the idea of seppuku remained with me for a very long time.

The image I present here is of an Onna-bugeisha, a female samurai (there is debate whether or not this class of warrior women actually existed or functioned in the way today’s stories present them, for a person like me who loves the romanticized ideal I will say yes and yes to both questions). The whole concept that someone would willfully cut open their own belly and pull their own intestines out with their hands as a way of “saving face” is so alien a concept that it horrifies me to the point of fascination. I will say right now: I do not romanticize suicide, but I seem unable to turn my eyes away, either. One of my favorite authors,Yukio Mishima, killed himself in this manner a few months after I was born. It is a very long shadow to live in and at times I can hear it calling.