Samurai were permitted the right to cut down any commoners, or those below their rank who had insulted them, their honour or their position in any way, and to leave the body where it lay, without fear of indemnity or punishment.
The rules of this right, known as Kirisute Gomen, demanded that the right be effected immediately upon the offence, and not against past offences. It should also be achieved in a single cut. Should the initial strike fail to instantly kill the opposition, coup de grace was not permitted. It also allowed lesser ranked samurai the right to defend themselves against such an attack from their superiors, but only with their wakizashi, short sword, and not with their main katana or tachi.
The rules for engagement, conditions for its use and follow up actions were strictly enforced.
The nearest government office was to be notified of the act and a full explanation was to be made. The samurai was expected to then spend the following 20 or more days in home detention for the responsibility of having taken a life. The blade used may be temporarily confiscated as evidence for inspection. Witnesses to the act would be required to confirm that the behaviour of the person killed and justification of the act of Kirisute-gome.
If no witnesses to the act could be found, then it was possible that the samurai would be dismissed from his position, in worse cases his home and property confiscated, and his family dispossessed. At worst, a samurai may be ordered to commit seppuku, or even be beheaded for his actions.
Chris Glenn is an Australian born bilingual radio DJ, TV presenter, helicopter pilot, narrator, lecturer, samurai history and culture researcher, and member of the Japan Armor and Weapons Research and Preservation Society. He first visited Japan as an exchange student in 1985, returning in 1992. He lives in Nagoya, Japan.