Emperor Saga (786-842) was the 52nd emperor of Japan, at least according to the traditional chronology, reigning from 809 to 823.
Saga was the second son of Emperor Kammu and the younger brother of Emperor Heizei. Whereas Heizei was a retiring, amiable man with little interest in politics, Saga was a hedonistic spendthrift who coveted the throne in order to better support his lavish lifestyle. But Saga was not without talent; he was a renowned scholar of the Chinese classics, and accounted as the finest calligrapher of his day. He also was a generous patron of Buddhism, most notably helping Kukai establish the Shingon sect, and is held to have been the first emperor to have tasted tea, when he accepted a cup from a Buddhist monk in 815.
When Emperor Kammu died, Heizei was the heir to the throne, but the greedy Saga contested his claim. Heizei was liked by all, however, and his claim was fairly ironclad so he assumed the throne with little trouble. However, his distaste for politics soon led him to abdicate the throne to Saga after a reign of only three years.
This move greatly angered Heizei's ambitious principal consort, Fujiwara no Kusuko, who had been hoping to have herself formally named Empress, and could not accept the sudden dissolution of her lifelong dream. She therefore took advantage of Saga's falling ill soon after ascending to the throne to foment an armed rebellion in Heizei's name.
Saga thereupon had the title of shogun granted to Sakanoue No Tamuramaro, who put down the rebellion. The disgraced Kusuko committed suicide, and Heizei withdrew from public life completely and became a monk, living in peaceful seclusion for fourteen more years.
Saga's reign as emperor was dogged by financial difficulties, owing to his opulent lifestyle. He often resorted to raising money by selling off tax free shoen estates, but this drastically expanded the lands that were removed from the imperial tax rolls and would eventually lead to severe financial difficulties for his successors.
Another problem Saga faced is that by fathering almost 50 children, he was unable to support them all in the appropriate imperial style dictated by tradition for children of an emperor. This led the clever Saga to devise the stratagem, which would later be copied by several other emperors, of disinheriting his later offspring and officially removing them from the Imperial Family. He bestowed upon these erstwhile sons the family name "Minamoto," and this clan would in later years become one of the most powerful warrior clans in Japan.
Saga eventually tired of the daily rituals required of the emperor, however, and designating a younger brother to be his successor, retired after 14 years on the throne, living out the remainder of his life in a western suburb of Kyoto which is still called "Saga" to this day in his memory. The magnificent palace he built there would in later years become the headquarters of the senior line of the Imperial Family, and eventually, after years of modifications, the Daikakuji Buddhist temple, in which form it survives to the present day.
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