Hara-kiri, or seppuku, was a form of ritual suicide practised by Japanese samurai warriors in Japan from the middle ages onwards. The term 'hara-kiri' means 'stomach cutting', and refers to the method used by these warriors to dispatch themselves, with a sword thrust to the stomach. In samurai culture suicide was considered preferable to a dishonourable death.
Samurais would commit suicide on the battlefield if defeat was inevitable, in order to avoid capture or disgrace. These acts were swift and unceremonious. Alternately, samurais might commit hara-kiri when ordered to by an overlord (as an alternative to dishonourable execution) or in response to another form of disgrace. In these cases, seppuku was a highly ritualised and formal act which involved an assistant, usually a close friend, cutting off the samurai's head after they had stabbed themselves in the stomach.
The concept of suicide being preferable to disgrace has persisted into modern Japanese culture. The country is now struggling to combat high suicide rates caused by the economic downturn, which has caused many to fear financial disgrace.