Albert Saijo

Name Albert Saijo
Born February 4 1926
Died June 2 2011
Birth Location Los Angeles, CA

Albert Fairchild Saijo (1926-2011) was the author of numerous books and was equally skilled as a designer and woodworker as he was a philosopher and poet. He was the inspiration for Beat writer Jack Kerouac's character "George Baso" in his novel Big Sur , and is frequently associated with San Francisco Beat generation poets such as Lew Welch, Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder.

Family Background and Wartime Incarceration

Saijo was born in Los Angeles on February 4, 1926, the second child of Satoru and Asano Miyata Saijo, who were important members of an early Japanese Christian community based in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. His father was born in 1878 in Kumamoto prefecture and attended a Christian missionary school where he was taught basic English. Satoru immigrated to the United States in 1900. By 1909, he was working as a domestic for the Albert Fairchild Holden family in Cleveland, who later sponsored him as a university student before he continued his education at a theological school. In remembrance, Satoru's second-born son was named Albert Fairchild Saijo. Albert's mother Asano was a Japanese language schoolteacher, an avid haiku poet, and a regular columnist for the [ | Kashu Mainichi ] and Rafu Shimpo Japanese newspapers, both based in Los Angeles. She was born in 1891 in Tokushima, Japan, and arrived as a picture bride in Los Angeles in 1919, where her husband-to-be now led a congregation of Japanese farming families in rural Montebello in the San Gabriel Valley, although after the market crash in 1929, Satoru gave up the ministry entirely and set about a new vocation as a farmer. The Saijo family included three children: Gompers (born 1922); Albert (born 1926); and Hisayo (born 1928).

Albert was fifteen years old when he and his family were forced from their home and detained at the Pomona Assembly Center, soon after Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan on December 7, 1941. They were then transferred to Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, where Albert graduated from high school. His literary persona was already emerging by this age, and during his years at camp, he served as the editor of "Echo," the Heart Mountain high school newspaper. Saijo's older brother, Gompers, was also active at Heart Mountain, teaming up with fellow Issei and Nisei artists such as Benji Okubo and Hideo Date to form an art school and the Art Students League Heart Mountain, an extension of a well-known artist organization based in Los Angeles that they had belonged to before the war.

When the "Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry" form was distributed to all inmates held in American concentration camps in 1943, eighteen-year-old Albert decided to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team , 100th Battalion Company B, but his brother Gompers did not. Instead, Gompers refused to complete it, considering himself a conscientious objector and claiming the right to refuse military service on the grounds of freedom of his beliefs. After Albert left for basic training and eventually to Italy to serve as an infantryman, his parents and younger sister Hisayo resettled in Cleveland, leaving Gompers alone at Heart Mountain. By the war's end, the entire Saijo family had reunited and resettled in Los Angeles.

During his incarceration at Heart Mountain, Albert first learned of Rinzai monk Nyogen Senzaki, who held lectures and sittings in a barrack located in Block 2. Back in Los Angeles after the war, he discovered that Senzaki held zazen sessions twice a week in his tiny apartment on the sixth floor of the Miyako Hotel on the corner of East 1st and San Pedro Streets, which Saijo regularly attended and recalled, "Senzaki was seated in a Roman camp chair in front of the altar—before him was a folding card table & on it was the text of his lecture for that nite...his dentures creaked as he spoke." [1] Albert and Gompers both joined a theatrical club known as Nisei Experimental Group, which included young writers such as Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Mary Oyama Mittwer (a passionate supporter, but not a member of the troupe). Although by the 1950s Albert was writing regularly and was enrolled at the University of Southern California to study international relations, midway through his studies, he dropped out and moved to San Francisco.

Literary Career

Allured by a blossoming literary renaissance in the Bay Area, Albert found a job at the Chinatown YMCA where he met numerous artists and intellectuals interested in alternative culture and philosophy, including writers Jack Kerouac and Lew Welch, who attended workshops at the YMCA led by a man named David Hunter, pioneer in what later became known as the Human Potential Movement. "When I first read about what his class was going to be in the office at the YMCA, it struck me that as very similar to things I had been active in LA. Mostly it was kind of zen-ish, it kind of appealed to me, and that's why I went to the class and that's where I met my initial friends mostly poets and writers and people in the arts and so forth. In the 50s, zen was just beginning to become an interesting subject. In fact, not many people had heard of zen." [2] Also on the scene was a charismatic Englishman named Alan Watts, who taught Zen buddhism at San Francisco's newly formed Academy of Asian Studies and who had amassed a following through a regular program on KPFA, Berkeley's free radio station. Albert quickly bonded with Beat writers who were deeply influenced by East Asian art and poetry, sharing what he had learned from Nyogen Senzaki about zazen and his experiences in American concentration camps. The group of artists eventually formed the East-West House, where the residents expounded all hours on religion, philosophy, sex, and poetry. He joined East-West House and later moved to a similar community home known as Hyphen House.

In 1959, he took a remarkable cross-country trip to visit poet Allen Ginsberg at his apartment on the lower Eastside of New York with fellow writers Lew Welch and Jack Kerouac, penning humorous haiku along the way that were later published in a volume entitled Trip Trap: Haiku On The Road (simultaneously referring to poet Gary Snyder's book, Riprap and Kerouac's On the Road . ) Kerouac later memorialized their trip in his novel, Big Sur , recasting Saijo as George Baso, "the little Japanese Zen master hepcat sitting crosslegged in the back of Dave's [Lew's] jeepster." [3]

By the time he had returned from the jeep trip, Albert decided to abandon city life entirely, and set up residency in Marin County, with what he deemed "the Gary Snyder crowd." When Snyder moved to Kyoto to study Zen Buddhism, Saijo took over his cabin and also cooperated in the maintenance of a "floating zendo" for sitting meditation that Snyder and Whalen had established. He immersed himself in long hiking trips over the Inverness ridge and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and engaged in fasts that lasted up to forty-five days.

By then, his brother Gompers and sister Hisayo had joined him in Mill Valley. The Saijo siblings were remarkably intertwined, with their lives overlapping and their homes often being exchanged with a certain ease; as one sibling would vacate, the next would move in. In 1972, Albert wrote and published The Backpacker , a straightforward guide to treading lightly and experiencing wilderness, with Gompers as illustrator.

After twenty years in Marin and a broken marriage, Albert began the quest for a more solitary wilderness. With his new bride Laura, herself a musician and teacher, Saijo settled on California's Lost Coast, where the couple resided peacefully as homesteaders, clearing land, building a primitive shelter by hand, and gardening their own food for nearly twelve years. Albert and Laura moved to the Big Island in the 90s, claiming a small plot in a upland forest beneath Mt. Kilauea to build a second home of Saijo's own design. Six years later, his stream of conscious response to the world, Outspeaks , was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. On March 2, 2000, Saijo collaborated with poets Gary Snyder and Nanao Sakaki for a historic reading held at the University of Hawai'i, weaving fifty years of ecological thought, friendship, and poetry.

Saijo died in the cottage he and his wife built together in Volcano, Hawai'i, on June 2, 2011.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Kam, Nadine. "Running on Rhapsody". Honolulu Star-Bulletin .

Kerouac, Jack, Albert Saijo, Lew Welch. Trip Trap: Haiku on the Road . Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1973.

Leong, Lavonne. "Albert Saijo (1926– )". In Guiyou Huang. Asian-American Poets: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook . Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. 272–73.

Park, Josephine. Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008: 103.

Saijo, Albert. Outspeaks: A Rhapsody . Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1997.

Saijo, Albert, illustrated by Gompers Saijo. The Backpacker . 101 Publications, 1977.

Schultz, Susan. "I AM SURPRISED WHEN THE SAME SEASON RETURNS": Albert Saijo in Volcano". Tinfish Editions website. . Accessed July 10, 2014.


  1. Carole Tonkinson, ed., Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation . New York: Riverhead Books, 1995, 241.
  2. Carole Tonkinson, ed. Big Sky Mind , 244.
  3. David Wills. 'Who's Who: A Guide to Kerouac's Characters', in Beatdom Vol. 3., Wills, D., editor. Mauling Press: Dundee, 2009. . Accessed July 10, 2014.

Last updated Jan. 22, 2024, 11:12 a.m..