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I need to add a body to submit my question, so I'll just say the Mortal Kombat seemed to believe that the term 腹切り (はらきり harakiri) was more appropriate for self slaughter (i.e., throwing a boomerang hat that cuts one's own head off); however, I found 切腹 (せっぷく seppuku) used in many novels about Japanese samurai considering suicide due to some circumstance involving their master falling from grace. Is the difference between the two whether it is over personal loss of face or clan-wide loss of face?

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Congrats for taking the 1000th question spot! :D –  Lukman Oct 23 '11 at 2:33
    
With a question like this, isn't it a little depressing? –  Wolfpack'08 Oct 23 '11 at 2:36
    
Not really. I just realized that both words simply have the kanji swapped yet their pronunciations don't look anywhere similar even though they refer to same thing. But do they mean exactly the same? I'm interested in knowing the answer too. –  Lukman Oct 23 '11 at 3:15
    
I have no idea what “Mortal Kombat” means. Are you referring to the video game? If so, what does it mean for a video game to believe something? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 23 '11 at 22:27
    
@Lukman: According to my counting, this is the 1001st question. But the 1000th question may change because questions can be deleted (or undeleted) at any time. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Oct 23 '11 at 22:36
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1 Answer

They have essentially the same literal meaning: suicide by gut-cutting (even if the actual killing blow was decapitation by someone else). 切腹 /seppuku/ has Sino-Japanese pronunciation and word order (not sure if it was actually used in Chinese at the time, or if it was invented in Japanese), 腹切り /hara.kiri/ has native Japanese pronunciation and word order (and okurigana).

Because seppuku is Sino-Japanese, that is the word that was used in context where Sino-Japanese was preferred, notably written documents, and particularly "official" writing. So when you arrive at Edo times and this act is codified as part of the justice system (the least worst death sentence), it was officially called seppuku, not harakiri. This doesn't mean that no-one ever used the word "harakiri" to refer to it in this context, but official documents, court records etc. would use "seppuku". There is also the fact that, all other things being equal, Sino-Japanese vocabulary tends to connote a higher "register" than native Japanese vocabulary, like Latinate vocabulary vs native English vocabulary ("acquire"/"obtain" vs "get", "utilize" vs "use", etc.)

Imagine if we had the death sentence "decapitation" (Latinate vocabulary) in the modern English-speaking world: people might still say "he got his head cut off" (native English vocabulary), but judges would not say "I sentence you to have your head cut off", and newspapers would not report that "X was sentenced to having his head cut off." (Some tabloids might say "Off with his head!", but you get the idea.)

So it makes sense for a samurai in a novel, considering grave samurai matters, to use the word "seppuku" to refer to the act. And, I suppose if you extend the logic and look at it the other way, it makes less sense to apply this highly serious word to a chaotic, hat-related death.

Something else might also be going on, though: harakiri might be more easily extensible, via metaphor, to general "death by self-inflicted violence," "disregard for self-preservation leading to death" (certainly the English word-family derived from harakiri, e.g. hari-kari etc., has this metaphorical extension) -- while seppuku might be more closely tied to its specific formal meaning, in which case razor hats would be right out. I have a feeling that this might be the case, but I have no good evidence to offer, sorry.

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