Women held few positions of power in ancient Japan, but one of the notable positions I’ve come across is the Saio (or the Saiin that I recently discover whom I think served a different shrine). The Saio was the unmarried, young female relative of a Japanese Emperor. 

She was also known as Itsuki no Miko and was sent to serve at the Ise Grand Shrine from the late 7th century to the 14th century. The Saio lived in a small village named Saiku, which the remains are found in Meiwa, Mie, Japan. 

By Miyuki Meinaka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50217128

The Ise Grand Shrine is the head shine dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, whom the Japanese Imperial Family claimed to be descended from until the end of the early 1940s. 

The shrine of Ise was founded during the reign of the 11th Emperor, Suinin, sent his imperial princess, Yamatohime-no-mikoto, to find a permanent place to worship the sun goddess. After searching for a long time, she eventually settled on Ise. 

(To quote Wikipedia atm until I get my hands on copies of these) 

“According to the Man’yōshū (The Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves), the first Saiō to serve at Ise was Princess Ōku, daughter of Emperor Tenmu, during the Asuka period of Japanese history. Mention of the Saiō is also made in the Aoi, Sakaki and Yugao chapters of The Tale of Genji, as well as in the 69th chapter of The Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari).

In the 13th century, Jien recorded in the Gukanshō that during the reign of Emperor Suinin, the first High Priestess (saigū) was appointed for Ise Shrine.[4] Hayashi Gahō‘s 17th century Nihon Ōdai Ichiran is somewhat more expansive, explaining that since Suinin’s time, a daughter of the emperor was almost always appointed as high priestess, but across the centuries, there have been times when the emperor himself had no daughter; and in such circumstances, the daughter of a close relative of the emperor would have been appointed to fill the untimely vacancy.[5]

When the Saio wasn’t traveling to the Shrine to preform rituals, she would spend her time in Saiku composing poetry, collecting shells, or hang out in boats.

Usually the Saio was young when she was sent to Saiku and Ise Shrine and usually in her mid-teens or early twenties when she would return back to Kyoto. When an Emperor died or abdicated the throne (which happened quite frequently with the system of cloistered emperors, or Daijo Tenno; who would retire early into their reigns and still rule from the backgrounds. More on that later), a new Saio would be selected from one of the new Emperor’s unmarried female relatives by divination.

The new Saio would under go a period of purification before setting out for Saiku. The old Saio would be called back from her post to Kyoto where she would continue her life as an honored member of court. Having served as the Saio would give her more respect in court and she would received many marriage offers. 

Traveling to Saiku was an event of in itself. After staying in the Nonomiya Shrine for a year to purify themselves, the new Saio would begin her journey on a specific route. It would start in the west side of Kyoto with up to 500 people traveling with as her retinue. It took them six days and five nights, passing through the Suzuka Pas, stop at the Kushida River for a final purifying ritual and then she would arrive at Saiku. When returning to Kyoto, they would take a different route through Nara and Osaka Bay. 

By D. Kerr - self-made, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15040609
By D. Kerr – self-made, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15040609

Unforunately, the Saio system eventually ended, although it’s not known exactly when. And Saiku turned into just a rural rice village. It was unclear until 1970 where Saiku was exactly located. But thanks to archelogy, it has been discovered. A museum now sits on the site, and more archaelogoical excavations are held every year. A reconstruction of the village also sites no more than 200 meters from the original site. 

Today the Aoi Matsuri (matsuri means “festival”) is one of the main festivals held in Kyoto. It re-enacts the march of the Saio to the Shinigamo Shrine in Sakyo Ward. It’s held on May 15 and consists of 500 people dressed in traditional Heian clothing complete with appropriate animals. Then, the town of Meiwa in Mie Prefecture holds the Saio Matsuri every June. It re-enacts the Saio traveling from her residence to the Ise Shrine. More than 100 people in traditional Heian clothing participate. 

Saio Dai leaving Kyoto Emperor’s palace By Hahifuheho – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48786694

In the past 50 years or so, the Emperors of Japan still have their female relatives serving as the high priestess of the Ise Shrine. Currently, Emperor Akihito’s daughter, Sayako Kuroda is the high priestess as of 2017. 

I think that a female relative of the Emperor served (serves) in this role is interesting. Although there is no rule against female priests in Shinto (except a brief ban from the late 1800s to the 1940s), it is uncommon to find a female Shinto priest. Women generally appear to serve as miko, or shrine attendants. I’ll be making another post soon about the miko. 


Discover Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri

JNTO: Japan The Offical Guide: Aoi Matsuri

Japan Guide: Aoi Matsuri

Wikipedia: Saiku

Wikipedia: Saio

Japan Heritage: Saiku: The Palace of the Saio

Google Books: Shinto – The Ancient Religion of Japan

Google Books: Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan

By John K. Nelson, John Kenneth Nelson

Trip Advisor- Saiku Historical Museum

Trip Advisor- Saiku Heian no Mori

Ise Shrine Website About

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