Court scholar, poet, and prominent Heian figure
Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真, 845-903) was a leading court scholar, poet, and political figure of the Heian Period (794-1185) who challenged the powerful Fujiwara family and was sent into exile where he died in disgrace.
The Sugawara descended from the ancient Haji family, hereditary makers of ceramic funerary objects (haniwa). During the eighth century the family abandoned this tradition, and in 781 Michizane’s great-grandfather changed his name to Sugawara. After that, members of the family established a new tradition as scholars, poets, and diplomats. In particular, Michizane’s grandfather (Sugawara no Kiyotomo) and father (Sugawara no Koreyoshi) were actively involved in Japan’s enthusiastic adoption of Chinese culture during the ninth century. They helped edit Japan’s imperially sponsored anthologies of poetry in Chinese, served as presidents and professors of literature at the Confucian-oriented court university (大学寮 Daigaku-ryō), and participated in early Japan’s last two official missions to China. Following in their footsteps, Michizane had a career which resembled that of a typical Chinese scholar-official.
Michizane began his studies of Chinese classics and literature under his father’s supervision and at the age of eleven wrote his first poem in Chinese. In 862, he entered the university as a student of literature and eight years later completed his studies, passing the rigorous civil-service examination to gain admission to the court bureaucracy. After holding a variety of minor posts that called upon his ability to draft documents in elegant Chinese, in 877 he was appointed a professor of literature, an office he held for ten years. During those years he greeted two embassies from the Manchurian kingdom of Bohai (chin. 渤海 Po-hai), offered scholarly opinions on current political issues, and regularly composed poetry in Chinese both at court functions and for his enlightenment. In 886, he was named to a four-year term as governor of Sanuki Province (讃岐国 Sanuki-no kuni, modern-day Kagawa Prefecture). This was his first extended period away from the capital and, although he lamented his separation from friends and family, he wrote some of his best poetry in Sanuki, much of it reflecting a concern for the common man rare in the literature of his day.
After his return to the capital, he was rapidly promoted to high court office by Emperor Uda (宇多天皇 Uda-tennō, 867-931), who sought to rule without interference by the powerful Fujiwara family. Uda selected Michizane as a counterbalance to the Fujiwara in accord with the Confucian theory that men of ability, particularly scholarly ability, ought to run the government. Michizane reached the peak of his power in 899 when he was appointed a minister of the right (右大臣 udaijin), the second-highest regular office at court. By this time, however, his patron Uda had abdicated in favour of his young son Emperor Daigo (醍醐天皇 Daigo-tennō, 884-930), who had close ties with the Fujiwara. In 901, Fujiwara leaders falsely accused Michizane of plotting against the throne, and he was transferred to Dazaifu (太宰府), the government headquarters in Kyūshū, an appointment tantamount to exile. He died there in 903 after writing a series of famous poems bemoaning his fate and protesting his innocence.
During his years in high office, Michizane’s most important contribution was his proposal that Japan abandons its official missions to China because of the unstable political conditions there. The plan was accepted in 894, and thus Michizane helped bring to an end the period when early Japan was most strongly influenced by Chinese culture. Michizane’s poetry in Chinese survives in two anthologies that he compiled. He is considered old Japan’s greatest master of poetry in Chinese and his poetry in Japanese is also highly regarded. Also, he helped write the Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku (日本三代実録, “The True History of Three Reigns of Japan”), last of Japan’s six official histories (六国史 rikkokushi), and compiled a version of all of them arranged topically rather than chronologically (the Ruijū Kokushi 類聚国史). Michizane’s poetry continues to be read, and his histories are of great value to modem scholars.
Sugawara no Michizane as Shinto deity
After Michizane’s death, some misfortunes at court were ascribed to his angry spirit. To placate the ghost, Michizane was posthumously pardoned and promoted to the highest of court ranks. His descendants were reinstated and became hereditary court scholars.
Shrines dedicated to him were established in Kyōto (Kitano Tenman-gū 北野天満宮), Dazaifu (Dazaifu Tenman-gū 太宰府天満宮), and Tōkyō (Yushima Tenman-gū 湯島天満宮). Deified as Tenjin (天神, the Shinto kami of scholarship), Michizane came to be venerated as the patron saint of learning. Even today students buy amulets at the many shrines dedicated to him before taking their school entrance examinations, in Tōkyō for instance at Yushima Tenman-gū and Kameido Tenjin (亀戸天神) in Kōtō-ku famous for the ume or plum blossoms Michizane cherished so much.
- Adolphson, Mikael; Heian Japan, Centers And Peripheries, University of Hawaii Press 2007
- Borgen, Robert; Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court, University of Hawaii Press 1994
- Morris, Ivan; The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Kodansha 1994
- Seidensticker, Conrad D.; The Gossamer Years: The Diary of a Noblewoman of Heian Japan, Tuttle 1989
- Kitano Tenman-gū (in Japanese and English)
- Dazaifu Tenman-gū (in Japanese and English)
- Yushima Tenman-gū (in Japanese and English)
- Kameido Tenjin (in Japanese and English)
- Kameido Tenjinsha (Japan Reference)
Five-yen banknote displaying Sugawara no Michizane, created by Edoardo Chiossone in 1888.