Saito Sanemori (斎藤実盛)

Sanemori SAITO (1111 - June 22, 1183) was a military commander in the late Heian period. He was the son of Sanenao SAITO who was descended from FUJIWARA no Toshihito. Based in Nagai no Sho, Hara County, Musashi Province (Kumagaya City, Saitama Prefecture), he was called "Nagai Betto" (Lord Nagai).


Musashi Province was a buffer zone between the two powers: MINAMOTO no Yoshitomo based in Sagami Province and his younger brother MINAMOTO no Yoshikata who advanced into Kozuke Province. Following Yoshitomo at first, Sanemori later served Yoshikata as a retainer for geopolitical reasons. Alarmed by such movements of the Musashi people, MINAMOTO no Yoshihira, son of Yoshitomo raided and killed Yoshitaka in 1155. While Sanemori began to work for Yoshitomo and Yoshihira again, he did not forget what he owed to Yoshitaka. He was left by Shigeyoshi HATAKEYAMA with Yoshitaka's orphan Komaomaru whom he sent to NAKAHARA no Kaneto in Shinano Province. This Komaomaru was later to become MINAMOTO no Yoshinaka the Asahi Shogun.

Sanemori went to Kyoto, fighting the fierce Battles of Hogen and Heiji as Yoshitomo's loyal busho (commanding officer). He fled to Kanto in one piece after Yoshitomo perished. He then served the Taira clan. He was much appreciated as a powerful commander with brilliant war records in the eastern provinces. He therefore stayed with the Taira clan when MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, Yoshitomo's son, raised an army in 1180. As the guardian of TAIRA no Koremori, he joined the punitive force against Yoritomo. The Taira clan's force was crushingly defeated by Yoritomo at the Battle of Fujigawa. Sanemori told his comrades how brave the warriors in the eastern provinces were. Starting with Koremori, his comrades were extremely scared. So they thought they were raided when they heard waterfowls flap their wings.

In 1183 Sanemori took his army to Hokuriku to subdue Yoshinaka KISO, again with Koremori and other comrades. Yet he was defeated at the Battle of Shinohara in Kaga Province. While his colleagues were defeated one after another, he was prepared to die and never flinched from fighting at his old age. Eventually he was killed by Mitsumori TEZUKA, Yoshinaka's busho (commanding officer).

He knew that he was going to die in Shinohara even before he went to the war.
He dyed his grey hair black, thinking 'I want to fight like a young warrior before I die.'
That is why his severed head was not immediately identified when Yoshinaka tried to locate it. After having heard that Sanemori had dyed his hair from Kanemitsu HIGUCHI, Yoshinaka had him wash the head in question in a nearby pond. Then its hair soon turned grey. Sanemori's death was confirmed at last. It is said that Yoshinaka publicly shed tears after it became clear that he felled the man who saved his own life. A chapter entitled 'Sanemori's Death' is devoted to the last moments of Sanemori SAITO at the Battle of Shinohara in volume 7 of "Heike Monogatari" (The Tale of the Heike).

Historic Sites and Tradition

"The Tale of the Heike" mentions in the chapter on 'Sanemori's Death' that 'Just as Shubaishin used to flap his sleeves of golden brocade in the wind at Mt. Huiji, So Betto Sanemori SAITO is renowned in the towns of the northern provinces.
What a pity that his body has turned to dust in Koshiji, leaving only the vainglorious name which will not perish!'

In the early Muromachi period, in March or April, 1414 'betsuji nenbutsu' (Buddhist invocation for special occasions) was said for seven days and nights at Ushiozu Dojo (a place of Buddhist training and meditation) in Enuma-gun, Kaga Province. This happened on the forth day. An old man with grey hair appeared to Taiku, the 14th Yugyo of the Ji sect who stayed in the dojo for missionary work. Receiving Junen, he disappeared among the crowd. There was a rumour that he was the ghost of Betto Sanemori SAITO who perished there in the Genpei War. Taiku did kechien (formed a karmic connection), built a sotoba, and appeased his spirit. In those days this story was spread even to Kyoto.
Mansai, head of Daigo-ji Temple wrote in his diary "Mansai Jugo" that 'this was extraordinary were it true.'
The story was made into the Noh song "Sanemori" by Zeami who probably heard it from some people related to the Ji sect.

Thereafter holding a memorial service for Sanetomo by Yugyo Shonin, high priests of the Ji sect, became a custom. Tada-jinja Shrine, located in Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, owns the warrior helmet Sanemtomo used; and in this Shrine, a memorial service has been held regularly up to now every time a new generation of the high priest was appointed in the Shrine.

Basho MATSUO who published "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" in the Genroku era of the Edo period visited the place and thought of Sanemori.
Looking at Sanemori's warrior helmet which still exists in the shrine, he composed the following haiku: 'Pitifully--a grasshopper singing under the warrior helmet.'

In the Ningyo Joruri piece (later made into a Kabuki play) called "Genpei Nunobiki no Taki" that premiered in 1749, young Sanemori meets Yoshinaka who is still a child.
A scene in which Sanemori has a premonition of their future confrontation is described as a scene of 'The Tale of Sanemori.'

The moment Sanemori was killed, the horse he rode stumbled at stubs of rice plants. There is a saying that Sanemori became a harmful insect (rice planthopper) devouring rice as he was struck down at the rice paddy field. For this reason vermin (especially the rice planthopper) is also called "Sanemori-mushi."

[Original Japanese]