A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Legacy of the SAKIMORI (防人)-Japan`s Ancient Frontier Guard Conscripts- is their timeless poetry of LONGING- and the colorful SAITOH-SAI Festival ( 祭頭祭 ) at Kashima Grand Shrine on March 9th

The colorful SAITO-SAI Festival on March 9th in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture



By Avi Landau


One of the good things about living in the Tsukuba Science City, is that in addition to all the local folk ( JIMOTO NO HITO ), you get to meet the SHINJU-MIN (新住民), the  people who have come from ALL OVER JAPAN ( as well as from all over the world)  to work at or study at the various research facilities and institutions of higher learning located here. Because of this diversity in geographical background , whenever I  make new acquaintance, I always make  sure to ask: SHUSHIN CHI WA DOKO DESU KA? (Where are you originally from?), and since I have been to all of Japan`s 47 prefectures, after hearing the answer, I mention that I have been to THEIRS and usually make some comments ( positive, of course!) about their home towns. I have found that this always makes for good conversation and sometimes helps lay the  foundation for a future friendship.

The Saitoh-Sai

School children in colorful costume join the procession at the Saitoh-Sai at the Kashima Grand Shrine

If someone now living in Tsukuba tells me that they are originally from Fukuoka Prefecture, in Kyushu, Japan`s southernmost MAJOR island, (and there are many such people in Tsukuba), I like to playfully say that they must surely know of the ANCIENT CONNECTION between their native region and Ibaraki Prefecture ( in which Tsukuba is located).

As Fukuoka is about 1,300 kilometers south-west of Ibaraki, and is in fact on ANOTHER ISLAND, these people always give me a puzzled ( and slightly embarrassed) look, and ask me just what I exactly it is that am referring to.

I answer with one word- SAKIMORI ( the frontier guards).

In most cases, they still do NOT get what I mean. Obviously, the SAKIMORI have not become the important part of the regional (and prefectural) identity in Fukuoka, that they have become here in Ibaraki.

I then set about to briefly explain what I mean.

The sakimori, the 7th and 8th century frontier guards were conscripts, mostly of humble origin, who were for a certain period  drafted exclusively from this part of Japan ( its eastern provinces, including Hitachi, the old name for Ibaraki). They were sent to live for 3 years in Kyushu, mostly in TSUKUSHI, what is now Fukuoka Prefecture, and to the Islands of Oki and Tsushima, where they did their military service while growing their own food.

Thats the connection I`m referring to!!

The Saito-Sai

The Saito-Sai – every year on March 9th at the Kashima Jingu Grand Shrine in Kashima

In this article, I would like to  discuss not just how the SAKIMORI connect Ibaraki and Fukuoka, but I would also like to give tsukublog readers some more details regarding their history, their important legacy  (in the form of some of the most moving poems in the Manyoshu anthology of poetry), and how they are remembered today .

The reason that I choose to write about this particular topic at this time, is that it is now March,  and it is every year on the 9th of this month, that the SAITO-SAI festival is held, in and  around the precincts of KASHIMA JINGU ( Kashima Grand Shrine), Ibaraki Prefecture`s most important shrine ( ICHI NO MIYA).

Since the early Showa Period ( the late 1920`s) this ancient spring festival has turned into a celebration of the SAKIMORI. Whenever I have the chance to actually observe this colorful and passion-filled event, it gets me thinking  about the sakimori and their relationship ( in reality or in legend) to this shrine.

The excitement builds as the participants move into the Shrine`s precincts


Who were the SAKIMORI?

In the year 633, the Yamato ( Japanese) Court sent a naval fleet carrying an army of 27,000 men to assist the Korean Kingdom of Paekche ( Kudara, in Japanese) in fighting off the invading forces of Tang China. The Japanese and their allies were soundly defeated in what is known in Japanese as the Battle of Hakusuno-e (白村江の戦)

After this fiasco, the Japanese government feared that in retaliation to Japan`s participation in the battle, there would be an attack by continental ( Chinese or Silla Korean) forces upon Japan itself.

In preparation for this onslaught ( which never did come), the Yamato Court, which had just been reorganizing under the TAIKA REFORM into a system resembling that of TANG China ( the Ritsuryo System), the government ordered, that men between the ages of 21 and 60 be conscripted and sent to Kyushu ( the part of Japan nearest the Korean Peninsula) to protect the frontier.

The Saito-Sai

The Saito-Sai – each year a young boy is selected to be a “living deity” and is carried at the head of the procession born on someone`s shoulders

Though at first  these conscripts came from all over Japan ( except for the Tohoku Region, which at that time was still not fully under Yamato control), it eventually came to pass that ONLY men from Japan`s eastern provinces ( and Ibaraki, then called Hitachi, was at its eastern limit) were used.

There are many possible reasons for this. First, the Easterners, especially the residents of Hitachi, had long been active in the fighting against the non-Yamato tribes to the north ( the Emishi or Ezo). Thus, they were considered experienced (as well as brave and fierce) fighters AND many had their own weapons ( which the conscripts themselves had to supply!).

Most probably, however, being far from the centers of Yamato culture, it was easier to put them and their families through hardship ( since they had few political connections or little power, compared with those who lived nearer the capital, and thus could make less trouble at that time). The conscription system might also have been seen as a way to assimilate the Easterners more deeply into Yamato culture by having them travel through and live in other parts of the empire.

The term SAKIMORI first appeared in 645, and it is interesting to look at its etymology. Though the Japanese characters used to write it are now 防人, which is a compound difficult even for Japanese to read and literally means DEFENDING PEOPLE, the origin of the word as it is PRONOUNCED comes from the characters 崎守 SAKI MORI, which means defenders of the capes, the fringes of the country, or 境守, SAKAIMORI, literally border protecters. Another way of writing the word sakimori 先守, sheds further light on the intended purpose of this conscripted force as it means the pre- defenders, or the first line of defense, which is in fact the role they would have played had there actually been an invasion- holding off the enemy  long enough for a large army made up of soldiers from Western Japan to show up.

The Saito-Sai

The Sakimori`s Living conditions

The Sakimori system, which actually remained in operation  for a period of 163 years ( until 826), imposed great hardships on the conscripted men and on their families ( which was why the system was eventually abolished- along with the fact that the fear of invasion eventually faded away). Amazingly, the law required all conscripts to pay their own way to the port of Naniwa ( now Osaka). In other words, none of the food or lodging expenses for the long journey ( at least two months on foot) was paid for by the government. As I mentioned earlier, the men also had to bring their own swords, bows and armour.

Once the conscripts reached Naniwa, they would board ships and sail through the inland sea to Kyushu. At Dazaifu, in Tsukushi ( the old name for Fukuoka), they would undergo the necessary training, but were still required to GROW THEIR OWN FOOD, even when sent off to their even more remote postings. The term of service was 3 years.

Obviously, having the men of the family away for at least 3 years was a tremendous burden on the poor farming families left behind.

Exotic colors at the Saito-Sai

The Songs of The Sakimori

Though all this sounds truly tragic, you still might be wondering about the historical significance of these conscripted frontier guards, especially in light of the fact that they never did any real fighting in Kyushu. Why are the Sakimori remembered, and why have they become an important part of the regional identity of Eastern Japan and especially Ibaraki?

Surprisingly, the great legacy of frontier guards is their POETRY, and the poetic genre they inspired! It happened to be that in the year 755, in the sakimori system`s heyday,  Otomo no Yakamochi, a great poet and one of the compilers of Japan`s first and what many believe greatest anthology of poems, the Manyoshu ( about 759), was living in Naniwa as an official of the Office of Military affairs! As I mentioned before, the conscripts from Eastern Japan`s first destination was Naniwa. Before they got on their ships to Kyushu, many wrote poems, possibly under the encouragement of Yakamochi.

Anyway, about one hundred poems designated as SAKIMORI NO UTA ( poems of the frontier guards) made their way into the Manyoshu.

The Saito-Sai

The Saito-Sai

These poems, for which  the names and the hometowns of the poets are givwn ( with several from what is now Ibaraki), reflect a wide range emotions related to a theme which has been worked over in almost every corner of the globe- leaving family and loved ones behind in order to go and fight for flag and country. There is excitement, pride and enthusiasm in going off to fight for the Emperor ( in a few poems), but more often there is concern for family left behind and a great sadness brought about by separation from hometown and loved ones.

It is evident from some of the poems that the themes taken up by the sakimori were also taken up by poet aristocrats who contributed their own SAKIMORI NO UTA, though they themselves had never shared in the experience of conscription.

This is why the Sakimori are so significant, they left their deep mark on one of Japan`s greatest cultural achievements ( the Manyoshu) and contributed to world`s rich literature on the theme of going off to war.

It is natural that Ibaraki is proud of its ancient poets, and the story of the Sakimori and their poems are featured in just about every book and textbook on local history. There are also numerous stone monuments inscribed with various poems that can be found scattered across the prefecture.

For some pictures of these inscribed stones in Tsukuba and the rest of Ibaraki see:


Let me give a few examples of these poems.

Sakimori ni tatamu sawaki ni ie no imu ga naru beki koto o iwazu kinu kamo (防人に立たむ騒きに家の妹がなるべき事を言はず来ぬかも). I will try to convey the content of this poem in this way:

I was so caught up in preparing to go off as a sakimori, there was no time to say to my wife all the things I have to say……


Hitachi sashi ikamu kari mo ga aga koi wo shirushi shite tsukute imo ni shirasemu ( 常陸さし 行かむ雁もが 我が恋を 記して付けて 妹に知らせむ) , which I again poorly paraphrase as:

Good! The geese headed north to Hitachi! Let me attach a sign of my love to them, which they can carry to my wife.


Aga mote no wasure mo shida wa Tsukubane wo furisake mitsutsu imo wa shinu wa ne (我が面の忘れも時は 筑波嶺を ふり放け見つつ 妹は偲はね)

If the memory of my face starts to become a blur in wife`s mind, lets her look to the misty peaks of Mt Tsukuba in the hope that my image will come back to her ( my paraphrase)


Wa ga tsuma wa itaku koirashi nomu mizu ni kago sae miete yo ni wasurarezu (わが妻は いたく恋いらし 飲む水に 影さへ見えて 世に忘られず)

Surely my wife is yearning for me terribly. I see her in the very water I drink. For all the world I just cant  forget her.

On March 9th- the Saito-Sai Festival at the Kashima Grand Shrine in Kashima, Ibaraki

Now it is probably true that more than a few of the men who had been conscripted as sakimori made a pilgrimage to Kashima Jingu before they set off towards Kyushu. The expression Kashima Dachi ( 鹿島立ち) , which literally means SETTING OFF FROM KASHIMA, is commonly applied to the Sakimori`s departure, and this has led to the popular misconception that all the conscripts from this area would gather at Kashima for a grand ceremony and a last prayer and salutation to the shrine (which is in fact  dedicated to TAKEMIKAZUCHI NO KAMI, a God of War, and to the integrity and protection of Japanese territory, and to subduing its enemies).

Many also imagine, incorrectly, that the sakimori conscripts sailed off from Kashima. This is only natural, as kashima IS a port city.

This makes for a perfect story. There are, in fact a few sakimori poems which mention conscripts praying at the shrine before setting off with pride to defend the Emperor. These of course are remembered today at the shrine. Here is an example of a poem set in stone within its precincts:


which can be paraphrased as : I have come, as a warrior for The Emperor, to pray before the God of Kashima

Not one of the more memorable of the frontier-guards extant works ( though certainly SIMPLE and easy to remember).

The fact IS , that MOST of the sakimoris walked to Naniwa, after first assembling in what is now Ishioka ( which at that time was the seat of the government office in the Province Hitachi) and did NOT set out from or even pay a visit to Kashima.

The existence of the expression Kashima Dachi, which has been used connect  the sakimori in the minds of many to the Kashima Grand Shrine, does NOT necessarilly imply that someone who is about to make a journey has actually visited the shrine. The term Kashima Dachi can be used by ANYONE who sets off on a journey. By those who have prayed for travel-safety at ANY shrine ( or someone who has not visited a shrine at all!). The expression itself was believed to bring good luck.

Still the kashima Jingu now strongly associates itself with the sakimori . Every year on March 9th, many of Kashima`a male citizens don colorful costumes, purposely designed to conjure up images of the continent, and take up long poles. They then begin a procession in which small groups form circles and chant fervently while clashing their poles together in the center. This is meant to evoke memories of the sakimori`s proud departure and a prayer for their return.

This celebration of conscripted farmers, however, is not, CANNOT, be very old, as the warrior class ( samurai) would never have permitted it. It would have been a terrible afront to their pride.

It was not until the Meiji Period ( starting 1868),  with the abolition of the samurai class and the introduction of GENERAL CONSCRIPTION, that this shrine, deeply connected to Japan`s militarization, would want to glorify the spirit of this area`s ancient farmers-turned-warriors, sent far from home to fight for the Emperor.

What bothers  me about the contemporary Saito-Sai Festival ( which in ancient times was a actually spring festival accompanied by Buddhist rites), is that it ignores the melancholy spirit of MOST OF and the GREATEST of the Sakimori`s songs, and instead emphasizes the glory of going off to war.

It is not mentioned anywhere, not in any guidebooks or on the shrines website, that the celebration of the Sakimori as part of the Saito-Sai  only began in the early Showa Period, a time of growing militarism and nationalism. This reflects the fact that the shrine, a place traditionally used to pray for victory and good fortune in war, used the image of the sakimori to inspire Japan`s 20th century conscripts- boys from Hitachi, who were called up to go fight for their country in far off places.

This was the shrines way of using history as propaganda, telling the farm boys of Ibaraki that they had a proud and ancient tradition of serving the Emperor.

Still, the festival is colorful and exciting ( if you dont think about its content), and well worth a visit.

I have much more to say about the Kashima Jingu, which is one of the most interesting shrines in all of Japan, and for which a familiarity with, is vital for an understanding of this region. That will have to wait for a seperate article.

In the meantime, please give a little thought to the sakimori of old, the hardships and loneliness they endured, and the lasting contribution they made to world culture. They wrote poetry which went beyond jingoism and expressed sensitive, truly HUMAN feelings .

Ibaraki SHOULD be proud of them.


And, if you are interested, I have recorded ( with the Tsukuba based band The Tengooz) one of the great songs dealing with the suffering brought on by war. Its our reggae-punk version of the old Irish anti-war song Johnny I hardly knew ya. We call it Johnny I. Have a listen here:


The Saito-Sai 2015 was not to be stopped by the rain!

The Saito-Sai 2015 was not  stopped by the rain!


The saito-Sai 2015

The saito-Sai 2015





  • Alice says:

    Wow, Avi! You’ve been to all the prefectures which not even all Japanese have!

  • Martin says:

    Avi, there is a small lake on Mt. Tsukuba called Tsukushi-ko, stocked ith blue gill. Could this have a connection to the place in Fukuoka that you mention?

    • Avi Landau says:

      Tsukushi ko is an artificial reservoir, completed in 1992, located at the foot of Mt. Tsukuba in Sakuragawa City, just to the north of Tsukuba City. It contains water pumped up from Lake Kasumigaura that comes up to Kangori- and then under Mt. Tsukuba. The water is used for agriculture and industry and for household use. Since it has all these uses, it not controlled neither by the Ministry of Agriculture (which handles irrigation water) nor by the Ministry of Land (which would handle water industry) but by the MIZU SHIGEN KIKO (The Japan Water Agency) which is actually under the control of several ministries.

      As for the name, it is made by combining the KANJIs for Tsukuba (as in Mt. Tsukuba) and SHI, which means PURPLE – the nickname of Mt. Tsukuba is SHIHO- the Purple Mountain!

      Most interesting is that this nickname – which Japanese sources say is connected to a purple color the moutain takes on at certain times of day – is actually connected to Mt. Zijin in China (The Purple Moutain) which is also twin-peaked, of low altitude and mentioned frequently in classical poetry (as is Mt. Tsukuba). The PRC has even turned the area at the foot of this mountain in a science city! Check the mountain out on Wikipedia – you`ll think it`s Mt. Tsukuba.

  • Avi says:

    Like so many other events in these days of Corona virus fear, this year`s Saito-sai (2020) will be restricted to participants only. It has bee announced that “on-lookers” will not be permitted.