One of the Ise traditions that we learned about this week is the practice of interning a young female relative of the tennō (Japanese emperor) in Ise. Unlike the tradition of rebuilding the main shrines every 20 years, this tradition is no longer perpetuated. The young girls were known as saiō 斎王. They would pray at Ise Jingū on behalf of the tennō, officiate a few ceremonies a year, and otherwise live a life of calm and relative leisure until they were summoned back to capitol. The tradition started with Ōku no Himemiko大来皇女 (661-702), who was the first young girl to be appointed saiō in 674. She was appointed by her father Tenmu tennō 天武天皇 (631-686).
Ōku no Himemiko is said to have spent her time writing poetry while she was living in the saigū 斎宮 (the saiō‘s residence). A few of her poems appear in the Manyōshū 万葉集–Japan’s oldest existing poetry anthology compiled in the late 8th century. One of the poems appears in the text that I use in my Introduction to Japanese Culture course. I distinctly remember this poem being a discussion topic this past semester. The is poem in question is number 105 in Book II (Nishi Honganji-bon 西本願寺本):
わがせこを / やまとへやると / さよふけて / あかときつゆに / われたちぬれし
To speed my brother / parting for Yamato, / in the deep of night I stood / ’til wet with the dew of dawn.
This translation is the one that appears in the book Anthology of Japanese Literature (compiled and edited by Donald Keene). The introduction to this poem says that Ōku wrote this poem after her brother Ōtsu 大津皇子 (663-686) secretly came to visit her at Ise, and then left.
In class a student asked me why her brother needed to visit her in secret. At the time I did not understand the saiō system, nor could I answer him why Ōtsu had to visit in secret–couldn’t he just travel freely? I read the footnotes that accompany this poem in the Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系 and was able to answer his question in the following class. The footnotes said that because the Tenmu tennō (Ōku & Ōtsu’s father) had just died, Ōtsu risked polluting or defiling Ise, which was considered such a sacred place. However, Ōtsu really wanted to see his sister so he secretly went to see her at the saigū.
At this time (7th century) Ise Jingū was not open for just anybody to make a pilgrimage–in fact it was only for the tennō to visit. Commoners, lower ranking officials, and the casual tourist were forbidden from going to Ise. Therefore Ōtsu had broken this rule. According to what I further researched online, Ōtsu believed that he would be the next tennō, so I can imagine that he just took the liberty and went to Ise. However, another one of Tenmu’s consorts wanted her son to be the tennō, so she convinced the authorities to punish Ōtsu with death for polluting Ise (that is, even the death of a family member could cause one to be polluted until after the appropriate amount of time had passed and the appropriate rituals were completed.)
Learning about the saiō tradition and actually visiting the site where the saigū once stood has really been valuable to me. I look forward to passing on this information in my classes!