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Art in Exile: Exploring Japan's Sado Island


When the poet Basho made the passage from mainland Japan to Sado Island, he was moved to compose this haiku:

What a rough sea it is!
Over the isle of Sado
Lies the Milky Way

This churning sea, in which Basho saw the entire cosmos reflected, is precisely what makes Sado Island such a lonely place. The largest island in the Sea of Japan, Sado lies 13.67 miles off the shores of Niigata. Crowned by two mountain ranges, it is coated in lush green valleys and expansive plains once populated by flocks of Crested Ibis. In the winter, the snow comes thick and fast, obliterating everything in a blanket of white. Come spring, dashing ravines carrying melted ice make their way down to the ocean’s edge, where, for centuries, individuals who had displeased Japan’s Emperors would make their first tentative steps onto this unfamiliar land, a land of exile.

The earliest reference to Sado Island comes from Japan’s second oldest chronicle, the Nihongi, which dates from around A.D.697. It declares that the island emerged from the watery depths following the cosmic union between Izanagi and Izanami, the two creator gods. Even in this, one of Japan’s earliest surviving texts, Sado is described as a land distinct from the civilized world – populated by devils. In W.G. Aston’s translation of the Nihongi, he writes: “At Cape Minabe, on the northern side of the Island of Sado, there arrived men of Su-shēn in a boat. During the spring and summer, they caught fish, which they used for food. The men of that island said they were not human beings. They also called them devils, and did not dare go near them.”

Given, Sado’s association with gods and devils, it’s no wonder that it became a land of exile. Political enemies, artists, intellectuals: everyone who was exiled to Sado, depending on who they displeased, was punished either because they transgressed societal parameters or because they threatened to shatter them entirely. What better place for these untouchables than an island that had once been home to devils.

More than 70 people were exiled to Sado, the first of whom was the poet Asomioyu Hozumi in A.D. 722, who criticised the emperor and paid for it dearly. Then, in 1220, after a failed coup against the Kamakura shogunate, Emperor Juntoku was sent to the island, where he died in 1242, having dedicated his solitary life to Buddhism. Jontuku was followed by the monk Nichiren in 1271, whose radical form of Buddhism – typified by his Rissho Ankokuron – made him one of the most controversial figures in Japan’s religious history. After a failed execution attempt, in which a brilliant white orb darting across the sky momentarily blinded his executioners, he was exiled to Sado, where he garnered an immense following. Haunted by the thought that he might be beheaded at any moment, Nichiren wasted no time on Sado – using his years in exile to write one of the most important works, the Kaimoku shō or The Opening of the Eyes, which many regards as his last will and testament; a call for his followers not to abandon their faith. Today, Nichiren’s influence lives on in the many temples and pagodas that speckle Sado Island.

Sado is also home to more than 30 Nō stages, serving as reminders that it was once home to one of Japan’s greatest playwrights. Exiled to Sado in 1434 after falling out of favour with Emperor Ashikaga Yoshimochi, Zeami wrote over 30 plays and is responsible for perfecting Nō theatre, a form of theatrical dance based on slow, precise movements that carry immense symbolic weight. At the age of 72, Sado made the long journey north to Wakasa, from where he travelled across the sea to the southern coast of Sado. Like Nichiren, Zeami continued to write during his time on Sado – composing an in-depth account of his experience on the island, paying particular attention to its astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

Today, Sado island is regarded as one of the most culturally significant and beautiful locations in the whole of Japan – home to a complex web of historical associations as infinite as the glimmering galaxy Basho saw reflected in its deep, cyanic waters. With a rich culture influenced by the many thinkers, royals, and artists who were exiled here, it is said to be a microcosm of Japan, while its associations with Nō art have also cemented it – in the minds of tourists at least – as ‘the island of the performing arts.’ To find out more about Sado, visit its official tourism website.

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