Saigyo (西行)

Saigyo (1118 - March 23, 1190) was a monk and poet during the period between the cloister government and the Kamakura period. His father was Saemon no jo (third-ranked officer of the Left Division of Outer Palace Guards) Yasukiyo SATO and his mother was a daughter of MINAMOTO no Kiyotsune. His common name was Norikiyo SATO and his posthumous Buddhist name was Eni.

Chosen as the first poem in Shika Wakashu (Waka Collection of Verbal Flowers) of the anthology of waka poems (collected) by Imperial command. A total of 265 poems written by Saigyo were accepted in Nijuichidai-shu (the Collections of Twenty-one reigns) including 18 poems in Senzai Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems of a Thousand Years) and 94 poems (the largest number of accepted poems) in Shinkokin Wakashu (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry). Kashu (personal collection of poetry) includes "Sankashu" (The first volume of the six Kashu), "Sankashinchushu" (selected by Saigyo) and "Kikigakishu," whereas, the narrative collections compiling his anecdotes and legends includes "Senjusho" and "The Tales of Saigyo" and the author of "Senjusho" is assumed to be Saigyo himself.


It is recorded that in 1135, Saigyo was assigned to the position of Hyoe no jo (Lieutenant of the Middle Palace Guards) at age 18 and, in 1137, was serving at a Hokumen no Bushi (the security police) for Emperor Toba. In 1140, he entered the priesthood adopting the Buddhist name of Eni at age 23, and also later called himself Saigyo. There is some discussion over the reason for his entering the priesthood; however, it is difficult to say which one is correct but one of the theories in which Saigyo was in love with FUJIWARA no Shoshi who was a mistress of Emperor Shirakawa and Chugu (the term for a woman at the highest position as a mistress of an emperor) of Tobain (the Retired Emperor Toba). This is the subject matter of "Saigyo Kaden," written by Kunio TSUJI.
Additionally, there are two copies of 'Saigyo Monogatari Emaki' (The story of the Saigyo Picture Scrolls) (Author unknown, an extant valuable book to retrace Saigyo's life. The Tokugawa Art Museum Collection. Of the two copies, one was handed down from generation to generation in the Hachisuka family and was in the collection of the Manno Museum which closed in 2004.)
The Tokugawa Art Museum Collection
Of the two copies, one was handed down from generation to generation in the Hachisuka family and was in the collection of the Manno Museum which closed in 2004. It is recorded that Saigyo resigned from Hokumen no Bushi due to the death of his close friend.

After entering the priesthood, Saigyo lived in a simple hut in various locations as his fancy dictated, traveling to different parts of the country and wrote many poems. A legend has it that Saigyo visited the mausoleum of his former master, Emperor Sutoku, to console the soul of the latter in the Sanuki Province; and, it was subsequently made into Hakuho, one of the chapters in "The Tale of Ugetsu" written by Akinari UEDA. It seems that he combined this trip with his making a pilgrimage to the monuments of Kobo Daishi. Additionally, his trip to the Mutsu Province to ask for a financial contribution to the reconstruction of Todai-ji Temple to the Oshu-Fujiwara clan in later life is well known and his meeting with MINAMOTO no Yoritomo along the way in Kamakura is documented in "Azuma Kagami" (The Mirror of the East).

Chronologically, Saigyo was living in seclusion in the base of the mountains in northern Kyoto, in places such as Kurama, immediately after being a priest and traveled to the Ou region for the first time around 1144. Around 1149, Saigyo went to Koya and traveled in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions in 1168. During this period, it seems that he lived at Zentsu-ji Temple for a while. He returned to Mt. Koya later on but moved to Ise Futami Fleet in 1177. In 1186, Saigyo traveled to the Oshu region for the second time to ask for a financial contribution to Todai-ji Temple and, after subsequently staying in Ise, he lived quietly at Hirokawa-dera Temple in Kawachi Province (Kanan-cho, Osaka Prefecture). He died there in 1190. Saigyo once wrote a poem that read, 'Hopefully, I will die in the spring time when cherry blossoms are in full bloom and around the anniversary of Buddha's death in the time of a full moon in February,' and the way he lived his life was true to his wish reflected in that poem whereby winning fame by touching the hearts of as well as striking a chord with FUJIWARA no Teika and Monk Jien in those days.


According to "Gotobain Gokuden," the Retired Emperor Gotoba said, 'I always thought that Saigyo was a true standout who one may meet only once in a lifetime; his poems were so artistic yet profoundly moving, but now that I have met him in person, as if our paths were destined to cross, I believe with admiration that he is a natural poet, I believe with admiration that he is a natural poet. People who are taking poetry lessons with no aspirations or purpose should not study Saigyo's poems.
His mastery of poetry is beyond description.'
Saigyo, along with FUJIWARA no Toshinari, was a poet who had a major impact on the development of a new style of poetry which is reflected in Shinkokin Wakashu. Saigyo's style of poems was direct in expressing strong emotions while being straightforward and simple, showing a particular talent with poems about love and general matters in addition to the various seasons. He perfected poems reflecting the tendency to favor a quiet life away from the maddening crowd that became the vogue in early period of the cloister government. He laid the foundation for the Middle Age lyrical poems by introducing the strained quiet loneliness and beauty of silence period making a significant contribution to the art of Japanese poetry. The other characteristics of Saigyo's poems is an unrestrained use of slang and other expressions not considered to be part of poetry vocabulary; and, some argue that he may have been influenced by folk songs and a traditional popular song accompanied on the samisen that were popular in those days. The reason why Gotobain (the Retired Emperor Gotoba) particularly favored Saigyo may have been the fact that there was a commonality between Saigyo's poems, which have an air of being common, yet elegant, while being quiet, yet sensual and unique.

While Saigyo's track record relating to poems in his youth, it seems certain that he associated with FUJIWARA no Toshinari while belonging to the circle of tanka poets under the Retired Emperor Sutoku. However, he was also inspired by Karinen, organized by Shune. After entering the priesthood, it seems that there was a certain distance between Saigyo and the circle of tanka poets due to his living in the mountains and traveling but, in 1187, he organized a poetry contest called "Mimosusogawa Utaawase" and asked Toshinari to be the judge. Saigyo also organized another poetry contest "Miyagawa Utaawase" and it is significant that he asked FUJIWARA no Teika, who was nothing more than a budding poet in those days, to be the judge of the contest (These two utaawase were dedicated to the Inner Shrine and the Outer Shrine of the Grand Shrine of Ise, respectively). Although it is often considered that Saigyo was a poet who maintained his own individuality by refusing to belong to any of the schools, whereby he stayed an outsider to the world of tanka poets and distanced himself from convention or tradition; however, it must be emphasized that this is clearly a misperception of Saigyo. First and foremost, Saigyo was the central figure in the world of tanka poets who appeared as a new and experimental type of poet in times of the cloistered government and, along with Toshinari, perfected a poetry style which was to become the key note of Senzaishu (Senzai Wakashu) creating a flow to lead into Shinkokin Wakashu.

His influence on the subsequent generations of poets was enormous. That flow was carried on by generations of poets including Gotobain, Sogi and Basho MATSUO. After the Muromachi period, in particular, it is necessary to note that Saigyo was respected and admired not only as a poet but also as a traveler as well as a person who pursued two careers such as writing poems and living in the priesthood. To Sogi and Basho, Saigyo represented first and foremost a holistic being as described in the foregoing instead of just a poet, which was only one of the facets that Saigyo had. This explains the reason for the evolution of narratives and legends that are 'typical of Saigyo' including "Senjusho" and "The Tales of Saigyo." For example, a Noh play "Eguchi," a Nagauta (a long epic song) "Shigure Saigyo," a vulgar painting entitled 'Fujimi Saigyo' and a legend about 'Saigyo no Noguso' (Saigyo has a shit in the woods) in various locations were created based on the life of the multi-dimensional person that was Saigyo.

Entering the Priesthood

There is an anecdote which holds that when Saigyo entered the priesthood, he kicked his child (aged four) who was holding onto his sleeve crying off his verandah and left his house (although whether it was a historical fact is unknown); but some argue that this story was a gross exaggeration used as a Buddhism lecture. The external related links are available.

While on the Road

There are anecdotes known as 'Saigyo Modoshi' around the country. There is a commonality among anecdotes whereby being outargued by a local child, the embarrased Saigyo turned around and went back the way he came.

The Pine Tree of Saigyo Modoshi' in Matsushima
Saigyo Modori-bashi Bridge' in Chichibu
Saigyo Modori-ishi Rock' in Nikko

Encounter with MINAMOTO no Yoritomo

When asked by Yoritomo about the arts of archery and horsemanship, Saigyo played dumb by answering that he had forgotten all about them.

It is said that he gave a cat figurine made of sterling silver given to him by Yoritomo to a child passing by.

Poems in Saigyo's Later Life

Saigyo wrote the following poems in life and it is said that he died on February 16 (by the lunar calendar) which was the day Buddha died as written in his poems. He died at the age of 73.

Hopefully, I will die under the blossoms in the spring time around the time of a full moon in February and on the anniversary of Buddha's death (Sankashu). Hopefully, I will die under the blossoms in the spring time around the time of a full moon in February and on the anniversary of Buddha's death (Shokukokin Wakashu (Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry, Continued)). Whether to read 'hana no shita' (under the blossoms) or 'hana no moto' (beneath the blossoms) varies depending on the source. Additionally, the blossoms in the above poems refers to cherry blossoms.

The images of the original Shokukokin Wakashu can be viewed at the Digital Library of National Institute of Japanese Literature. See the website for more details.

Other Related Items

Shinsaku TAKASUGI wrote a poem that reads, "I go east with admiration for the person going west, may God know what is in mind," and took up a poet name of Togyo. The person going west in the above poem refers to Saigyo. Meanwhile, TAKASUGI who admired Saigyo, aimed at conquering the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) under the shogun in the east.

There are several Saigyo-an Hermitages in which Saigyo supposedly lived but Kainyo-an Hermitage in Kyoto was reconstructed by 宮田小文 who was the master of the hermitage at that time and Tessai TOMIOKA in 1893 and it remains in use as a tourist attraction today. Additionally, the Saigyo-an Hermitage in Mt. Yoshino is well known.

Noh "Eguchi" and "Saigyozakura."

There are Rakugo (comic story) named "Saigyo" and "Saigyo Tsutsumigataki."

There is a Nagauta named "Shigure Saigyo." There is a Gidayubushi (musical narrative of the puppet theatre) named "Gunpei Fujimi Saigyo."

[Original Japanese]