Muro Saisei was a Japanese novelist and poet born in Kanazawa (on the Noto Peninsula of Western Japan). He was born Obata Terumichi in the 22nd year of the Meiji period, or 1889 on a Western calender. At age 21 he moved to Tokyo. Eventually he became known for his role in helping to introduce Western style free verse poetry into mainstream Japanese poetry. In Kanazawa city, effort to preserve Muro Saisei's legacy has been huge. There is a museum built on his birthplace, a literary monument, as well as a literature museum near downtown.

Saisei's early life is rather interesting. He was the adopted son of a Buddhist priest and so grew up in a temple in Kanazawa City, on the banks of the Saigawa River. He quit high-school and began working as an apprentice in a city court, where he first began writing haiku and published his first collection of poems. From there he moved to Tokyo to live as a writer. He died in the 37th year of the Showa period, or 1963.

Uhou-in, the temple where Saisei grew up, is actually part of a larger temple district, where beautiful traditional temples dot the city backstreets, side by side with run down apartments and police stations. I went there on a research project about Saisei was happy to see old temple being preserved even in the midst of a city. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising to see that sort of thing in a place where people still practice the religion, it's just that in the States where cities sprouted without any older traditional structures already intact to preserve, I had never seen this seemingly schizophrenic coexistence.

But I digress. Another interesting fact is that Muro took his pen name "Saisei" from the name of the Saigawa River where he grew up. The character for sai is the character for "rhinocerous" and is a less common way to write that morpheme. On the whole, his name is unusual for Japanese; the reading for the two characters of his family name, Muro, are unique (the characters are usually read as shistu for "room" and sei for "life.")

Some of his works in Japanese are:


You can find some translated versions of Muro's poetry and prose in the following anthologies:

  • An Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry,1957, edited by Kono Fukuda.
  • An Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry, 1972, edited by Shiffert, Edith M., Yuki Sawa, and Charles E. Tuttle.
  • Modern Japanese Stories, 1962, edited by Morris and Tuttle.

Here is a translation of a poem Saisei wrote about his beloved Saigawa in Kanazawa:

City River

Rain is falling down quietly,
On the river it is hushed,
Making a delicate sound.
Occasionally a streetcar passes reflecting shadows on the dull leaden surface.
Several groups of barges are tied up.

Though boats touched by the rain
seem to move
they are fastened.
From the eaves of a roof a streak of smoke rises up.
From a window a child eagerly watches a streetcar on the bridge for as long as it is there.

Figures of people on the street all reflect upon the water and
quietly they disappear.
The smoke still rises up.
A woman who looks like the mother of the child
washes a green bunch of leeks.
In the hushed rainfall everything has turned into a fantasy of the bridge.

translation from the 1972 Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry ed. Shiffert et. al.

I posted this particular poem because I felt that it is a good example, not of Saisei's work in general (because I have not read enough of it to know), but of that aesthetic particular to much of Japanese lyrical poetry, and to some extent, Japanese art. It is a feeling of transience and poignant sadness, the kind of which seems to permeate natural places that have seen so much human history go by. This particular description of this river in Kanazawa, where the weather is so often cloudy and rainy, created images which I felt really represents the strange quietude of much of Japan.

Sources:, (homepage of Ishikawa-ken Museum of Modern Literature), above cited anthologies, and various conversations, interactions, etc.

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