Sugawara no Michizane

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Sugawara no Michizane by Kikuchi Yōsai
In this Japanese name, the family name is "Sugawara".

Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真?, August 1, 845 – March 26, 903), also known as Kan Shōjō (菅丞相?) or Kanke (菅家?), was a scholar, poet, and politician of the Heian Period of Japan. He is regarded as an excellent poet, particularly in Chinese poetry, and is today revered as the god of learning, Tenman-Tenjin (天満天神?, often shortened to Tenjin).


Tenjin (Michizane) Crossing to China, late 15th century by Sesshin, Muromachi period, Ink on paper, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

He was born into a family of scholars, who bore the hereditary title of Ason (朝臣?) which predated the Ritsuryō System and its ranking of members of the Court. His grandfather, Sugawara no Kiyotomo, served the court, teaching history in the national school for future bureaucrats and even attained the third rank. His father, Sugawara no Koreyoshi, began a private school in his mansion and taught students who prepared for the entrance examination to the national school or who had ambitions to be officers of the court, including his own son Michizane.

Michizane passed the entrance examination, and entered Daigaku, as the national academy was called at the time. After graduation he began his career in the court as a scholar as a relatively prestigious senior sixth rank upper in 870.[1] His rank coincided with his role initially as a minor official in the Court bureaucracy under the Ministry of Civil Affairs. By 874 Michizane had reached the fifth rank (his father the fourth rank), and served briefly under the Ministry of War before being transferred to a more desirable role in the Ministry of Popular Affairs.[1] His training and skill with Classical Chinese language and literature afforded him many opportunities to draft edicts and correspondences for officials in the Court in addition to his menial duties. Records show at this time he composed three petitions for Fujiwara no Yoshifusa as well as the Emperor.[1] Michizane also took part in receiving delegations from the Kingdom of Parhae, where Michizane's skill with Chinese again proved useful in diplomatic exchanges and poetry exchange. In 877, he was assigned to the Ministry of the Ceremonial, which allowed him to manage educational and intellectual matters more than before.

In addition to his offices at the court he ran the school his father founded, the Kanke Rōka (菅家 廊下?, lit. "Sugawara Family Hall"). In 877, he was also promoted to professor of literature at the academy, Later, he was also appointed Doctorate of Literature (文章博士 monjō hakushi?) the highest professorial office at Daigaku. This office was considered to be the highest honor a historian could achieve.

In 886, Sugawara was appointed to be governor of Sanuki Province. Modern research shows that many bureaucrats in the Court, if they lacked sufficient clout, were assigned at least one term in a remote province, and Michizane was no exception. During his four-year tenure in the province, Michizane's informal poetry increased, and up to 26% of his poetry still extant was composed in this narrow time.[2] Among his duties, based on limited records, was to tour the province, recommend outstanding individuals to the Court, and to punish as needed. In 887, Michizane had to petition the Buddhas and the Shinto kami to help relieve a drought at the time. Records of the time imply that Michizane's time as governor had met with only middling success.[2]

While serving as governor, a political conflict arose between Emperor Uda and Fujiwara no Mototsune called the Akō Incident (阿衡事件 akō jiken?) in 888 over Mototsune's unclear role in the Court after Emperor Uda's ascension. Michizane, defending the court scholars sent a letter of censure to Mototsune, and gained the favor of Emperor Uda. With his term as governor completed in 890, Michizane returned to the Court in Kyoto. In Emperor Uda's struggles to restore power to the Imperial Family, away from the Fujiwara, a number of officials from non-Fujiwara families were promoted to key positions, including Imperial off-shoots in the Minamoto family and Sugawara no Michizane. In a rapid series of promotions beginning in 891, Michizane rose to the senior third rank in 897. According to one document signed by Michizane in 894, he already held the following posts in the Court:[3]

  • Ambassador to the Tang Dynasty.
  • Consultant
  • Assistant Investigator of the Records of Outgoing Officials
  • Junior Fourth Rank Lower
  • Major Controller of the Left
  • Supernumerary Senior Assistant Minister of Ceremonial
  • Assistant Master of the Crown Prince's Household (later Emperor Daigo)

He was appointed ambassador to China in the 890s, but instead came out in support of abolition of the imperial embassies to China in 894, theoretically in consideration for the decline of the Tang Dynasty. A potential ulterior motive may have lain in Michizane's almost complete ignorance of spoken Chinese; most Japanese at the time only read Chinese, and knew little to nothing about the spoken language. Michizane, as the nominated ambassador to China, would have been presented with a potential loss of face had he been forced to depend on an interpreter.[4]

Within the abdication of Emperor Uda, Michizane's position became increasingly vulnerable. In 901, through the political maneuverings of his rival, Fujiwara no Tokihira, Michizane was demoted from his aristocratic rank of junior second to a minor official post at Dazaifu, in Kyūshū's Chikuzen Province. After his lonely death, plague and drought spread and sons of Emperor Daigo died in succession. The Imperial Palace's Great Audience Hall (shishinden) was struck repeatedly by lightning, and the city experienced weeks of rainstorms and floods. Attributing this to the angry spirit of the exiled Sugawara, the imperial court built a Shinto shrine called Kitano Tenman-gū in Kyoto, and dedicated it to him. They posthumously restored his title and office, and struck from the record any mention of his exile. Even this was not enough, and 70 years later Sugawara was deified as Tenjin-sama, or kami of scholarship. Today many Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to him.

Emperor Uda stopped the practice of sending ambassadors to China. The emperor's decision-making was informed by what he understood as persuasive counsel from Sugawara Michizane.[5]


Michizane had an exceptional talent in poetry both for kanshi (Chinese poetry) and waka (Japanese poetry).

His primary interest was kanshi, because in those days the immersion in the Chinese culture was regarded as a proof of refinement and scholarship. Since his excellence in kanshi was well known throughout the Court, Emperor Daigo suggested him to compile his Chinese poems, and therefore he published Kanke Bunsō (菅家文草?, (lit. "the Chinese poetry by the House of Sugawara")) and dedicated it to the emperor in 900. Even after his demotion to the Vice-Governor of Dazaifu, he eargerly continued to work on kanshi and compiled them into Kanke Kōshū (菅家後集?, (lit. "the later anthology by the House of Sugawara")) in 903, right before his death.

Not only of kanshi, he is also recognized as one of the greatest poets of waka in history, as one of his waka was re-collected in Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a classical anthology of the 100 best waka until the 13th century:

このたびは 幣もとりあへず 手向山
     紅葉の錦 神のまにまに

kono tabi wa / nusa mo toriaezu / tamuke yama / momiji no nishiki / kami no mani mani
loosely: Since I am busy in this travel, this time I could not prepare nusa (offering for gods in shinto) to offer. Instead, I offer these autumn leaves of Mount Tamuke as beautiful as silk. May gods accept my offering. (Note: There are two puns (kakekotoba) in this poem: kono tabi for this travel (この旅?) and this time (この度?), and tamuke for offer (手向ける tamukeru?) and Mount Tamuke (手向山 tamuke yama?))
(Kokin Wakashū 9:420, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu 24.)

tobi-ume or the "flying plum" at Dazaifu Tenman-gū

Another of his famous waka is a poem written in 901 just before he left Kyoto for Daizaifu by demotion. He felt deep sorrow that he would never see his precious plum tree in his residence in Kyoto again, so he talked endearingly to it:

東風吹かば にほひをこせよ 梅花
     主なしとて 春を忘るな

kochi fukaba / nioi okose yo / ume no hana / aruji nashi tote / haru o wasuru na
loosely: When the east wind blows, flourish in full bloom, you, plum blossoms! Even though you lose your master, don't be oblivious to spring. (Note: nioi okose yo can be interpreted as spread your scent rather than flourish in full bloom, although such a usage of the word nioi as scent or smell is relatively modern and rare in the classical period)
(Shūi Wakashū 16:1006.[a])

A romantic legend says the plum tree was so fond of its master that it finally flew to Dazaifu, and that tree became known as tobi-ume (飛梅 'the flying plum'?) at Dazaifu Tenman-gū (a shrine dedicated to its master). A more realistic legend says Michizane or his friend trasplanted its seedling to Dazaifu.

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ although above is the original form of this poem, when re-collected later in Hōbutsushū, the last phrase was modified into haru na wasure so (its meaning remains unchanged), which became its popular variation).


  1. ^ a b c Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 113–127. ISBN 978-0-8248-1590-5. 
  2. ^ a b Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 158–181. ISBN 978-0-8248-1590-5. 
  3. ^ Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 201–216. ISBN 978-0-8248-1590-5. 
  4. ^ Morris, I. (1975). The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. p. 50
  5. ^ Kitagawa, H. (1975). The Tale of the Heike, p. 222.


  • Kitagawa, Hiroshi and Bruce T. Tsuchida (1975). The Tale of the Heike. Tokyo. ISBN 0-86008-188-5.

Further reading[edit]