Elsewhere in the world, the heart lies pretty much in its correct anatomical place. But in Japan, it has traditionally been located mid-torso, or more precisely in the hara(腹, belly). For the Japanese, the belly has always been the vessel of emotions. It’s where rage festers, love burns or fades away; it is where we keep the best and worst of ourselves — the innermost secrets of the soul. You might have noticed that in times of severe stress, Westerners put their hands over their hearts in a protective gesture; well, most Japanese find themselves clutching their stomachs.

Coincidentally, in this country more people die from igan (胃癌, stomach cancer) than any other illness. Stomach-related medications are far bigger sellers than any other pharmaceutical drug. The Japanese know, with gut-level conviction, that if one takes care of the stomach, life takes care of itself.

On the other hand, no discussion of the Japanese belly can avoid the issue of seppuku (切腹, ritual suicide by slitting the stomach) — viewed as the most honorable form of death for the bushi (武士, samurai warrior) as recently as six decades ago.

The logic of seppuku went like this: Since a man kept the core of his being inside his belly, he should first spill the contents and return them to heaven and earth before officially terminating his life. Until the late 19th century, samurai quite often engaged in this ritual — whether by choice or by being ordered to do so — for what now seem the most ludicrous reasons (such as breaking a tea bowl belonging to the second uncle of the undersecretary of the daimyo [大名, lord; nothing but ceremonial death could redeem such a crime).

Often, one seppuku would trigger other seppuku incidents among kazoku (家族, family) and doushi (同士, comrades); these were called oibara (追い腹, chasing the stomach) and were an indication of how trusted and popular the first seppuku-committing samurai had been. Oibara suicides were done hastily and without much ceremony, because they were, after all, unofficial, and they often went unacknowledged by the ruling lord. But whether the seppuku was a tsumebara (詰め腹, seppuku ordered from above) or a mere oibara, if the samurai in question had an upset stomach, he was allowed to wait until recovering before taking up his blade. “Hiebara wa kiranai” (冷え腹は切るな — do not commit seppuku on a chilled or sickened stomach) was a wisdom of ritual passed on from lord to master and father to son, the reason being that a sick stomach would spoil or taint the sacred tradition.

Some samurai were deemed unworthy to be granted the privilege of an honorable death, and they were executed by zanshu (斬首, beheading) and then had their heads stuck on poles and prominently displayed at a busy crossroad, or, in the case of Edo (old Tokyo), on Nihonbashi Bridge.

Women of the bushi kaikyu (武士階級, samurai class), on the other hand, were encouraged to slit their throats or drown themselves when called upon to defend their honor or atone for their sins. Seppuku for females was gohatto (御法度, strictly banned by the powers that be), partly for anatomical reasons of wombs and babies, but mostly because society believed women carried nothing as substantial as thoughts or emotions in their bellies.

The ritual has died, but the language of the stomach remains. “Haraguroi” (腹黒い, black bellied) is a phrase that describes a sneak and a schemer, and it has been part of the national vocabulary for 900 years. Its opposite, “Harashiro“(腹白, white bellied), went out at the beginning of the 20th century, and nowadays some people will say, “Hara no naka ga kirei” (腹の中がきれい — a person of clean stomach contents) when referring to someone who is honest and reliable.

For many Japanese, the word “hara” is too harsh a description for the most important part of the body, and they prefer instead to say “onaka” (おなか, reverent middle). Women, especially, are taught from birth that caring for the reverent middle is a big part of what constitutes Japanese femininity. Most of us at least once will have worn keito no pantsu (毛糸のパンツ, woollen underpants) underneath school skirts to keep our middles toasty warm, and we have wool blankets about the office to ward off the chills of air conditioning in summertime.

For both men and women, “onaka wo kowasu” (お腹を壊す, breaking the reverent middle, or upsetting the stomach) is a dreaded phenomenon — for the Japanese strongly sense that life will take care of itself if one takes care of the stomach. They feel it in their guts.

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