Saigyo, shukke, Buddhist poetry, Japanese poetry, Medieval Japan, reclusion, monk


Though it is still impossible to know the exact reasons why the samurai and poet Saigyō西行 (1118-1190) became a Buddhist monk in the winter of 1140, there is value in asking the question one more time--not in an effort to find a definitive answer, but to see what answers have been offered and what those answers tell us about the reception of his poetry and persona. His decision to become a monk remains the great mystery of his life, and a central focus of both popular imagination and scholarly inquiry over the last eight centuries. In the process of attempting to explain this mystery, writers have in fact contributed to the creation of the Saigyō persona that has become an enduring feature of the cultural landscape of Japan. This essay will explore eight theories of Saigyō’s entry into religious life, or shukke, from a variety of premodern and modern sources in order to better understand the ways in which individuals, cultural groups, and scholarly communities have constructed the Saigyō we know today. Two important processes in Saigyō reception will be revealed. The first process illustrates how the perceived intersection of biography and poetry was a powerful catalyst for the development of legend as Saigyō’s remarkable careers as a samurai and a monk and a poet became of utmost importance to readers and storytellers as they interpreted his often introspective and autobiographical poems. The second process illustrates the tendency to transform popular cultural icons to suit the values and interests of ever-changing audiences as images of Saigyō and his poems became vehicles for the diverse expectations and identities of readers from the twelfth century to the present.

Original Publication Citation

Japanese Language and Literature, 44.2

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



American Association of Teachers of Japanese






Asian and Near Eastern Languages

University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor