top of page

Sugawara Michizane was born in 845 and died in exile in Kyūshū in 903. As is Yamato TakeruMichizane is featured in Ivan Morris' "The Nobility of Failure" and the chapter covering him is titled "The Deity of Failures." By the mid-9th century the Fujiwara clan were very influential at the court and were close to becoming the effective government of the country and it was Michizane's fate to become embroiled in ultimately futile resistance to them. Although both his father and grandfather were teachers in court circles his family was of relatively humble origin. The original family name was Haji (土師), which is the name for a type of unglazed brown pottery, and the Haji family were in fact in charge of making pottery for the Yamato court. The name Sugawara was only adopted in 781, when Michizane's great-grandfather successfully petitioned Emperor Kammu to allow the family to change its name from Haji to Sugawara for political reasons. Michizane inherited his father's academic ability and after passing the necessary exams he entered the court as a scholar in 870. His first years at court went well and in 877, when he was just 37, he was awarded the highest academic degree Japan had to offer at the time, Doctor of Literature (monjo hakushi), a title which could only be held by two people at any one time.  He held this title for ten years, during which he, among other things, wrote the introduction to the fifth of Japan's Six National Histories, "Veritable Record of Emperor Montoku of Japan," to which his father Koreyoshi had contributed. Michizane was Koreyoshi's third son.

The seeds of his failure were sown in 887 when the Emperor Uda acceded to the throne. He was determined to seize the reins of power back from the Fujiwaras and they were just as determined to retain them. The ensuing struggle, which eventually ended with Michizane's divine vindication, was long and convoluted.  Michizane soon became a close advisor to Uda and in 1893 the emperor, acting on Michizane's advice, named his nine-year old son as Crown Prince, something viewed by the Fujiwaras as a threat to their authority. In the same year Michizane's daughter became the Emperor's consort. In 897 Uda played what he thought was his trump card, to abdicate, have his thirteen-year-old son succeed him as emperor, and rule from behind the scenes as Retired Emperor. His son duly became the Emperor Daigo. Prior to this, retired emperors had tended to favour the noun over adjective of their title and again the Fujiwara felt threatened. Michizane remained in high government office and was Uda's closest confidant, constantly visiting him and doubtless advising him on how to strengthen imperial authority. Uda used his influence to raise Michizane to one of the seven highest positions in the administration, that of Minister of the Right (udaijin): one of the six other positions, Minister of the Left (sadaijin) which outranked that of the Right, was held by Fujiwara Tokihira), and another one, Major Counsellor (Dainagon), was held by Minamoto no Hikaru, the son of an imperial prince and far from well disposed towards Michizane. This was in 899 but in the following year

Sugawara no Michizane
Tenjin crossing to China

Uda became a Buddhist monk, an act which greatly diminished his political authority, and left Michizane vulnerable to Fujiwara machinations.  These soon came, and the then 17-year old Emperor Daigo was persuaded by Tokihira that his father, Uda, and Michizane were plotting to depose him and replace him with the latter's son-in-law. Alarmed, Daigo accepted Tokihira's recommendation that Michizane be relieved of his post as Minister of the Right and appointed as Governor General of the then remote island of Kyūshū, in effect exiled. By this time Michizane had 23 children: only his two youngest were allowed to accompany him, all the others, along with his wife, had to stay in Heian-kyō and his sons were deprived of what government posts they held. His youngest son died shortly after their arrival in Dazaifu, the administrative centre of Kyūshū, and Michizane himself died almost two years to the day since his troubles had started on March 26, 903.


Why was Michizane deified? He was one of the leading scholars and poets of his day but this could be said about many other people who have not been deified. Neither did he perform any spectacularly heroic acts. The reason is found in events after his death, beginning with the unexpected deaths of his persecutors. Tokihira, who was an able administrator, died at the height of his powers when he was just 38 years old (Michizane was 58 at this death), Hikaru then died in a hunting accident, and this was followed by the deaths of two of Tokihira's grandsons, both of whom were Crown Princes. It was soon decided that these deaths had been caused by Michizane's vengeful spirit and in an attempt at appeasement Emperor Daigo decreed in 923 that Michizane be posthumously reinstated as Minister of the Right and that all documents relating to the plot against him be burnt. An "attempt" at appeasement, because natural disasters,  including severe thunderstorms and earthquakes, followed one after another, and it was then decided that a shrine should be built to venerate Michizane. This was done, and in 947 the Kitano Tenman-gū was built. Forty years later a Fujiwara Regent suggested that the title of Heavenly Deity, "Tenjin", be bestowed on Michizane. This too was done, making him the first human to be deified (Jinbutsukami), the emperors are kami by definition. Even so there was still more to come, when almost a century after his death he was appointed as Minister of the Left and then Prime Minister, the highest administrative position at the time. This would seem to make him politically more successful in terms of attainment of office in death than in life, an interesting achievement.


Sugawara Michizane 



bottom of page