Sugawara no Michizane: from scholar to god

Photo of my two Thundercloud plum trees currently in bloom

Shinto religion in Japan is a loose network of local deities (kami) and traditions of diverse origins, and one of those most unusual and yet popular is a kami named Tenjin, the god of learning. Tenjin is unusual because he is a deified version of an actual historical figure named Sugawara no Michizane who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries. Sugawara no Michizane (and his deification as Tenjin) are considered an archetypal scholar, poet and Confucian.

Sugawara no Michizane was a scholar from a middle-ranked noble family in the Heian Period (9th-12th c.), but under Emperor Uda, he unexpectedly rose to a high rank as a close advisor. This drew of the wrath of the rival, powerful Fujiwara family, who engineered Michizane’s downfall and exile to the remote town of Dazaifu. It was on parting his home, that Michizane reputedly wrote this poem (his most famous):

東風吹かば Kochi fukaba
匂ひおこせよ Nioi okoseyo
梅の花 Ume no hana
主なしとて Aruji nashi tote
春を忘るな Haru wo wasuruna

When the east wind blows, let it send your fragrance, oh plum blossoms. Although your master is gone, do not forget the spring.

Translation by Robert Borgen in “Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court”

For this reason, plum blossoms are closely associated with Michizane and Tenjin. Another story relates how after Michizane died in Dazaifu, the ox pulling his funeral cart stopped at one point, and that became the site of his burial and later the Dazaifu Tenman-gū shrine. For this reason, oxen are also associated with Michizane.

But how did Michizane go from a talented (though perhaps not necessarily a genius) scholar and poet into a deity? The answer lies in Sugawara no Michizane’s exile. Soon after Michizane’s death in exile a series of natural disasters befell the capitol, and people began to attribute these to Michizane’s wrathful spirit.1 To placate this vengeful spirit, the Imperial Court reinstated his original rank, promoted him, and instituted elaborate rituals and offerings. But this took on a life of its own and over time, worship “Tenjin” became popular across all of Japan.

These days, Tenmangū (天満宮) shrines devoted to Tenjin are particular popular around entrance-exam season. People will pile on supplications to Tenjin in hopes of success.

Votive tablets or ema (絵馬) taken by author at Yushima Tenmangu shrine in 2010.

I have visited Yushima Tenmangu shrine in Tokyo some years back when I was studying for the JLPT N3 exam (spoiler alert: I passed), and it was one of my favorite Shinto shrines.

Inner-sanctum of Yushima Tenmangu shrine, taken by author in 2010.

As a nerd and amateur scholar, I’ve always felt a special connection to Michizane and the concept of a “scholar god”, so coming there was a fun experience.

Sugawara no Michizane / Tenjin is a curious but fascinating figure in Japanese cultural history. In Robert Borgen’s excellent book Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court, he points out that in the end Sugawara no Michizane wasn’t that extraordinary a poet, scholar or teacher, but through a somewhat lucky (or unlucky) events, he rose to become the archetypal deity of learning and education. In the Muromachi Period of Japanese history, he was the archetypal Zen scholar-monk, in the Edo Period, he was the archetypal Confucian scholar, while in the early-modern Meiji Period, which reasserted the primacy of Shinto religion, his worship as a full-fledged Shinto deity matured. Sugawara no Michizane, the historical figure, was an interesting man, faults and all. But as Tenjin, the god of learning, he came to embody all the ideals of Japanese culture, suitable for each time and period, which persist today.

1 This was not entirely unusual at the time (cf. Prince Sawara a couple centuries earlier). Also, the Shinto kami, Susano-o, is another example of a deity that required placation, but is now seen more as a benevolent deity these days. Time heals all wounds, I guess. ;p

Published by Doug

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