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Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane by Kikuchi Yōsai

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).


  • Biography 1
  • Poetry 2
  • See also 3
  • Footnotes 4
    • Explanatory notes 4.1
    • Citations 4.2
  • Bibliography 5
  • Further reading 6


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 [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 [2]

While serving as governor, a political conflict arose between [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 (poetry in Chinese) and waka (poetry in Japanese).

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, "Chinese poetry by Sugawara no Michizane")) and dedicated it to the emperor in 900. After his exile he continued to work on kanshi and compiled them into the Kanke Kōshū (菅家後集, "later anthology of Sugawara no Michizane").[6] The work contained 46 kanshi, was completed sometime before his death in 903.[7] He sent it to Ki no Haseo (紀長谷雄) right before his death.[7]

One of his poems was included as #24 in Fujiwara no Teika's Ogura Hyakunin Isshu:

Japanese text[8] Romanized Japanese[9] English translation[10]
Kono tabi wa
nusa mo tori-aezu
momiji no nishiki
kami no mani-mani
On this journey
I have no streamers
made of silk to offer up.
Gods, if it pleases you,
may you take instead
this beautiful brocade
of Mt. Tamuke's
autumn colors

The poem was originally #420 in the Kokin Wakashū.[8]

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.[1])

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 transplanted its seedling to Dazaifu.

Michizane is traditionally credited with the Shinsen Man'yōshū, but the attribution has been challenged.[11]

See also


Explanatory notes

  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.  
  2. ^ a b Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 158–181.  
  3. ^ Borgen, Robert (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 201–216.  
  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.
  6. ^ Keene 1999 : 197.
  7. ^ a b Digital Daijisen entry "Kanke Kōshū". Shogakukan.
  8. ^ a b Suzuki et al. 2009 : 36.
  9. ^ McMillan 2010 : 160.
  10. ^ McMillan 2010 : 26.
  11. ^ Keene 1999 : 239, note 15.


  • McMillan, Peter 2010 (1st ed. 2008). One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Suzuki Hideo, Yamaguchi Shin'ichi, Yoda Yasushi 2009 (1st ed. 1997). Genshoku: Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Tokyo: Bun'eidō.

Further reading

  • Morris, Ivan (1975). The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. London: Secker & Warburg. ISBN 978-0-436-28809-8.
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