Ever heard the Japanese term hara-kiri (腹切り) or seppuku (切腹, the standard term)? is basically a form of elaborate ritual suicide by disembowelment (and beheading), hence the term which means ‘stomach cutting’. At least, it originally was a form of suicide - in time the condemned simply went through the motions - dressing in a white robe and eating his last meal - and was then immediately beheaded. Seppuku was performed by samurai (who originally, were the only ones allowed to do it) in cases where impending shame was inevitable: either they were defeated in battle or lost the lord they serve. A samurai can also be ordered to commit seppuku if he committed a serious crime or did something that brought shame to himself or his lord - in this case, this is more of a (self-performed) execution. In all these cases, you can see a common pattern: death before dishonor. As this page notes:
Why does shame have to be avoided at all costs? In Japan, relationships between people are greatly affected by duty and obligation. In duty-based relationships, what other people believe or think has a more powerful impact on behavior than what the individual believes. Shame occurs through others’ negative feelings towards you or through your feelings of having failed to live up to your obligations. In contrast, the culture of the United States and most of the West is based on guilt (Benedict, 1946), where truth, justice, and the preservation of individual rights are more important components of consciousness.
In western culture, guilt can be relieved through confession, self-righteousness, or the justice system, but in Japanese culture, shame cannot be removed until a person does what society expects, which may include drastic measures such as committing suicide. For example, if you are falsely accused of a crime, your guilt will be removed when you are proven innocent in court, but shame will stay as long as other people are suspicious of your actions or think negatively of you.
In many cultures (such as in Japan), honor and shame are serious business even today. These are what we call ‘shame societies’. An anthropologist named Paul G. Hiebert defines shame thus:
Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.
Now I personally grew up in another ‘shame society’: the Philippines. In the Philippines, hiya (shame, sense of propriety) is also of primary importance (sometimes negatively so), going hand-in-hand with amor proprio (‘love of self’; not in a negative way - self-respect). In fact, to be called walang hiya (“shame-less”) is perhaps one of the greatest insults you can heap into a person. The concept of hiya is much more than mere attainment and enhancement of social acceptance; it involves retaining the acceptance an individual already has. Filipinos value it so much that to hurt someone’s hiya intentionally is to ask for trouble: you know why there are many journalists killed in the Philippines? For the politicians whose misdeeds were publicly outed by the media, their crimes being laid bare is to suffer hiya in the gravest manner possible. Violence often occurs when someone is ‘put to shame’ in the Philippines.
Here’s the key thing to remember: the milieu and the context of the Bible, ancient Mediterranean cultures, are traditionally also ‘shame societies’. Much of life revolved around ensuring you and your family received public honor and avoided public shame. Just like in other honor-shame cultures, your public image or social rating is crucial; if by mishap you had brought shame to yourself or your family, you’re better off dead. A person’s place in society is basically defined by how much honor he’s got. This is why in the Iliad, Achilles - like any other good soldier in the ancient glory - is so bent on gaining eternal glory (kleos) in the battlefield: it’s something that would confer to him more ‘honor’. Not winning the award you think you deserve could be a moment of shame - which is what happened to Ajax the Greater.
We can also see this in the Bible. I’d like to point out two instances from the Old Testament where ‘shame’ plays a big part. King Saul decides to kill himself in the battlefield rather than be captured - he’s basically like the Japanese samurai who chose to take their own lives rather than be shamed by the enemy (1 Samuel 31:4-6). Another good example is Ahitophel (king David’s advisor who betrays him by siding with Absalom): when Absalom rejects Ahitophel’s advice in favor of Hushai’s, guess what he does. He goes home and hangs himself (2 Samuel 17:23), which from the perspective of people from a shame society is the natural thing to do - Ahitophel had just been ‘dishonored’ when Absalom ditched his advice. You might also notice that there are quite a number of psalms which repeatedly ask God: “let me not be put to shame.”