Saigyo, shukke, Japanese poetry, homosocial, monk, Buddhist poetry


Among the many theories that attempt to explain Saigyo’s (1118-1190) sudden and dramatic transformation from samurai to Buddhist monk at the age of twenty three, the most controversial is what I am terming “the homosexuality theory.” At the time Saigyo, or Sato Norikiyo, as he was known before his tonsuring, left his family and career to become a monk, he was in the employ of Retired Emperor Toba (1103-1165) as a member of the Northern Guard (hokumen no bushi), an elite group of bodyguards and personal companions. According to the homosexuality theory, Saigyo became a monk in order to avoid the male-male sexuality of Toba’s court circle. Because of the dearth of information surrounding Saigyo’s tonsuring, it would be just as easy to argue that he took the tonsure after the failure of a sexual affair with a male member of Toba’s clique, or even with Toba himself. Regardless of whether Saigyo left court in order to evade the unwanted attention from other males, to escape the sorrow of a failed love affair, or to elude the bitterness of a triangulated relationship, any hypothesis based upon male-male sexuality remains controversial, highlighting the rigid and contentious homosexual vs. homophobic dichotomy that has informed the development of the homosexuality theory in Japanese scholarship. This article will offer a more nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of desires that led men into the Buddhist priesthood by examining part of the poetic record of Saigyo’s tonsuring. We will find that the multivalence of Japanese poetic language became in the hands of monk/poets of the late Heian period (twelfth century) an apt analogue for the conflicted, emotionally charged transition from layman to priest, and that a spectrum of desires—sexual, social, and spiritual—comingled in poetic expressions of longing.

Original Publication Citation

Japanese Language and Literature, 43.2

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


American Association of Teachers of Japanese






Asian and Near Eastern Languages

University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor