Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真)

SUGAWARA no Michizane (his name can also be read as Michimasa and Doshin) (August 5, 845 - March 31, 903) was a scholar, composer of Chinese poems, and a politician who lived in the Heian period. He is especially known for his exceptional Chinese poems. At the age of 33, he was named Monjo Hakase (Professor of Literature). He was given important posts by Emperor Uda and was promoted as high as Udaijin (Minister of the Right). However, after being falsely charged by the Sadaijin (Minister of the Left), FUJIWARA no Tokihira, he was demoted to Governor of Dazaifu (the imperial office governing Kyushu) and, before dying there, he cursed the Imperial Court for this series of events and later was enshrined as a god. These days he is venerated as a god of literature.

Family History

His father was SUGAWARA no Koreyoshi and his mother an unknown member of the Tomo Clan. The family name was originally Haji but it was changed to Sugawara during his grandfather, SUGAWARA no Kiyotomo's time. The Sugawara clan was a scholarly family, with his grandfather and father both serving as Monjo Hakase, and, at the time, its members were mid-ranking court nobles. The Tomo clan that his mother was from produced famous poets such as OTOMO no Tabito and OTOMO no Yakamochi (the family name was originally Otomo but was changed in order to avoid using the personal name of Emperor Junna, who was called Prince Otomo before ascending the throne).

His wife was SHIMADA no Nobukiko (a daughter of SHIMADA no Tadaomi). He had many sons and daughters, including SUGAWARA no Takami, his first son, and SUGAWARA no Atsushige, his fifth son (who became Monjo Hakase after his father's death). Through his descendents, the clan continued as a scholarly family for a long time. The great-grandchild of Takami, and fifth generation descendant of Michizane, was SUGAWARA no Takasue and his daughter, SUGAWARA no Takasue no musume, the author of "Sarashina Nikki" (The Sarashina Diary), was the sixth generation descendant of Michizane.

Michizane was gifted both academically and in the military arts, and there is a tale that when he was young, he never missed the bullseye while shooting arrows at the house of fellow poet, MIYAKO no Yoshika. This story, however, is considered questionable in many parts.

Shoo-cho, Okayama Prefecture is typical of the areas that Michizane's descendants lived in, and Takami and the seventh generation descendant, Tomoyori, were appointed Governor of Bitchu and Mimasaka Provinces (both in prresent-day Okayama). After becoming the Kanke no kumi (Kan Family) his child, Masakane, became the Oryoshi (government's law-enforcement officer) of Mimasaka. The third generation descendants of Masakane, known as the origins of the seven Kanke branches, used the family names, Arimoto, Hiroto, Fukumitsu, Uetsuki, Harada, Takatori, and Emi that are still in use today. According to the historical epic, Taiheiki (The Record of the Great Peace), these descendants of Masakane fought for the Akamatsu against the Yamana clan and then, as the Kanke-to party together with Emperor Godaigo, who had escaped from exile on Okinoshima Island, they fought against Rokuhara army of the Kamakura bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) including the Takeda clan and others in the Battle of Inokuma in Kyoto on April 29, 1330. In November 1919, Tanesuke TAKATORI, who died in this battle, was given the Shogoi (Senior Fifth Rank) for faithfully serving the Emperor in November 1919. The Kan family occasionally appears in other literary works too. The Kan family then established strongholds as lords in the areas they lived. It is said that examples of famous descendents of the family are Muneyoshi YAGYU, Toshiie MAEDA, Shigenobu OKUMA, Naoto KAN, and Sadatomo MATSUDAIRA, but it should be noted that information of this type about famous individuals is quite often false.


According to the history of Kiko-ji Temple (Nara City), Michizane was born in the area currently known as Sugawara-cho, Nara City. However, this information is not too certain since other theories claim that he was born at Kandaijin-jinja Shrine (Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto City), Sugawarain Tenmangu Shrine (Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto City), or Kisshoin Tenmangu Shrine (Minami Ward, Kyoto City).

Michizane started to show his talent in poem reading when he was small, and became a monjo-sho (student of literature) at the age of 18 in 862. In 867, Michizane was selected to be one of the two Monjo Tokugosho (honor student among the monjo-sho), was appointed to the Shorokuinoge (Senior Sixth Rank, Lower Grade), and became the Gonnoshojo (Deputy Junior Secretary) of Shimotsuke Province. In 870, he passed the government official examination and was appointed to the Shorokuinojo (Senior Sixth Rank, Upper Grade), became the Genbanosuke (Assistant Director of the Bureau of Buddhism and Diplomacy) the following year, and later was transferred to be the Shonaiki (a position at the Ministry of Central Affairs that required excellent writing skills). In 874, he was appointed to the Jugoinoge (Junior Fifth Rank, Lower Grade), becoming Hyobu-shoyu (Junior Deputy Minister, Ministry of War) and then Minbu-shoyu (Junior Assisitant Minister, Ministry of People's Affairs). In 877, he was appointed to Shikibu-shoyu (Junior Assisitant Minister, Ministry of Ceremonies). In the same year, he was concurrently appointed to Monjo Hakase, which was his family profession. In 879, he was appointed to the Jugoinojo (Junior Fifth Rank, Upper Grade). In 886, he was appointed Governor of Sanuki Province, and therefore resigned from his positions of Shikibu-shoyu and Monjo Hakase, and moved to Sanuki. In 888, he resolved the Ako Incident by sending a written opinion to FUJIWARA no Mototsune, remonstrating against his actions. In 890, he returned to Kyoto from Sanuki Province.

Having so far had jobs that were in accordance with his family's social position, Michizane gained Emperor Uda's confidence and was given important positions. Taking advantage of the fact that the Fujiwara clan, who were starting to dominate politics as maternal relatives of the imperial court, did not have any influential members at that time, Emperor Uda used Michizane to restrain the Fujiwara clan. In 891, he was appointed Kurodonoto (Chief curator of the palace). He was then concurrently appointed Shikibu-shoyu (Junior Assisitant Minister, Ministry of Ceremonies) and Sachuben (Assisitant Controller of the Left). The following year, he was appointed to the Jushiinoge (Junior Fourth Rank, Lower Grade) and also made Sakyodaibu (Chief Administrator of the eastern half of the capital). Furthermore, he was appointed Sangi (Councillor) and also Shikibu-taifu (Senior Assistant Minister, Ministry of Ceremonies) the following year. He was also concurrently appointed Sadaiben (Major Controller of the Left), Kageyu no kami (Head of the Investigators of the Records of Outgoing Officials), and Togu no suke (Assistant Master, Crown Prince's Quarters). In 894, he was appointed to be the Japanese envoy to the Tang Court in China, but the trip was cancelled at Michizane's suggestion (and, since the Tang dynasty fell in 907, the history of the envoy system ended here). In 895, he was appointed to the Jusanmi (Junior Third Rank) and made Gon Chunagon (a provisional vice-councilor of state). He also served as Togu Gonnodaibu (Deputy Master, Crown Prince's Quarters). He made his first daughter Hiroko serve as Nyogo (a court lady) of Emperor Uda. In the following year, he was also appointed Minbu-kyo (Minister, Ministry of People's Affairs) concurrently. In 897, he married one of his daughters off to Emperor Uda's son, Cloistered Imperial Prince Shinjaku. In the same year, the throne was handed over from Emperor Uda to Emperor Daigo, with Emperor Uda strongly urging Emperor Daigo to continue keeping Michizane in important positions, and Emperor Daigo then gave the privilege of reporting on documents from the Grand Council of State to the throne (a position known as Nairan) only to FUJIWARA no Tokihira and Michizane. He was appointed to Shosanmi (Senior Third Rank) and made Gon Dainagon (a provisional chief councilor of state) and at the same time he served as both Ukone no daisho (Major Captain of the Right Division of Inner Palace Guards) and Chugudaibu (Master, Office of the Consort's Household). In the same year, Udaijin MINAMOTO no Yoshiari (a son of Emperor Montoku and also a cousin of Emperor Uda), who had led the Daijokan (Grand Council of State) under Emperor Uda's control and also had a close relationship with Michizane, died.

Although Michizane continued to be promoted during the reign of Emperor Daigo, powerful aristocrats, such as the Fujiwara clan, who disliked the idea of centralization of power in the Imperial Court, resisted the idea of centralized financial administration that Michizane insisted on. Some middle and low ranking aristocrats, who wished to maintain a certain level of comfortable life in accordance with their family status, agreed with this resistance due to uncertainty over the political reforms that Michizane was carrying out. In 899, Michizane was promoted to Udaijin and also served as Udaisho (short for Ukone no daisho) concurrently. In the following year, Kiyoyuki MIYOSHI advised him that he should know when it was time to stop, retire, and enjoy life, but Michizane did not accept the idea. In 901, he was appointed to the Junii (Junior Second Rank), but was later falsely accused of plotting to have Imperial Prince Tokiyo ascend the throne and take away political power from Emperor Daigo, and after he was found guilty, he was demoted to Dazai Gon no sochi (Provisional Governor-General of the Dazaifu offices). Hearing of that event, retired Emperor Uda attempted to meet Emperor Daigo to mediate the situation, but Emperor Daigo refused to see him. Four children of Michizane, including his eldest son, SUGAWARA no Takami, were exiled in what is known as the Shotai Incident.

Michizane died in 903 in Dazaifu and was buried where Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine now stands. The poem Michizane created when he was leaving Kyoto, 'When the east wind blows let it send your fragrance, oh plum blossoms; although your master is gone, do not forget the spring,' is widely known. According to the famous Legend of the Flying Plum Tree ('Tobi-Ume Densetsu') the plum tree of the poem flew overnight from Kyoto to Michizane's residence.


*Dates are all based on the lunar calendar

June 21, 862: Michizane became a monjo-sho.


February 19: He became a Monjo Tokugosho.

April 11: He was appointed to the Shorokuinoge rank and became the Gonnoshojo (Deputy Junior Secretary) of Shimotsuke Province.

October 13, 870: He was promoted to the Shorokuinojo rank. Retained his position as the Gonnoshojo of Shimotsuke Province.


February 26: He was reassigned as Genbanosuke.

February 28 He was reassigned as Shonaiki.


February 2: He was promoted to the Jugoinoge rank.

February 10: He was appointed Hyobu-shoyu.

February 29: He was reassigned as Minbu-shoyu.


February 5: He was reassigned as Shikibu-shoyu.

November 30: He was appointed Monjo Hakase as a concurrent post.

February 5, 879: He was promoted to the Jugoinojo rank. Retained his positions as the Shikibu-shoyu and Monjo Hakase.


February 25: He was concurrently appointed to Deputy Governor of Kaga Province.

May: He addtionally became Jibu Gon no taifu (Provisional Senior Assistant Minister, Ministry of Civil Administration).

February 27, 886: He was reassigned as Governor of Sanuki Province.

890: He completed the service term as Governor of Sanuki Province.


April 15: He was appointed Kurodonoto.

April 25: He was additionally appointed Shikibu-shoyu.

May 26: He was additionally appointed Sachuben.


February 13: He was promoted to the Jushiinoge rank. Retained his positions as the Kurodonoto, Shikibu-shoyu, and Sachuben.

December 31: He was additionally appointed Sakyodaibu.


March 11: He was appointed to Sangi. He still served as Shikibu-taifu.

March 17: He was additionally appointed to Sadaiben. He resigned as Shikibu-taifu.

April 9: He was additionally appointed to Kageyu no kami.

April 24: He was also appointed Togu no suke.


September 27: He was appointed to be the Japanese envoy to the Tang Court in China.

November 5: The envoy dispatch was cancelled.

January 18, 895 (December 15, 894 in old lunar calendar): He was additionally appointed to Jiju (Chamberlain).

895: He was additionally appointed Governor of Omi Province.

November 20: He was promoted to the Jusanmi rank and then was reassigned as Gon Chunagon.

December 6: He was additionally appointed Togu Gonnodaibu.

October 12, 896: He was additionally appointed Minbu-kyo.


July 26: He was reassigned as Gon Dainagon and additionally appointed to Ukone no daisho.

August 18: He was promoted to the Shosanmi rank, and at the same time, retained his positions as the Gon Dainagon and Ukone no daisho.

August 31: He was additionally appointed Chugudaibu.

April 2, 899: He was reassigned as Udaijin while retaining his position as the Ukone no daisho.

February 21, 901: He was transferred to be Dazai Gon no sochi.

In the same year, he was promoted to the Junii rank while retaining his positions as the Udaijin and Ukone no daisho.

March 31, 903: He died.

May 24, 922: He was returned to the Udaijin post and granted the posthumous rank of the Shonii (Senior Second Rank).


June 17: He was posthumously promoted to Shoichii (Senior First Rank) and Sadaijin.

November 11: He was granted another posthumous post of the Daijo-daijin (Grand minister of state).

Achievements and Literary Works

His literary works are "Kanke Bunso," a collection of prose poems in a total of 12 volumes (900), "Kanke Koshu," a collection of literary works created while he was at Dazaifu (c. 903), and "Ruiju Kokushi," which Michizane wrote and edited. According to the Nihon Kiryaku (Abstracted Records of Japan), Michizane gave two volumes of "Shinsen Manyoshu" (anthology of Japanese poems) to Emperor Uda, and it is generally believed that Michizane paired waka (Japanese poems) created by Emperor Uda and a version of these waka poems translated into Chinese poems and compiled them into these "Shinsen Manyoshu," which are still in existence, but some do not think Michizane was the editor/compiler.

There is also "Kanke Gyoshu," a personal poem collection, but it has been pointed out that it contains many fake poems created in later ages. Including two of his poems that were selected for the "Kokin Wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry) and other poems selected as 'Kitano no Miuta,' a total of 35 poems were selected for the Chokusen wakashu (anthology of Japanese poetry compiled by Imperial command).

Michizane also edited the sixth of the six classical Japanese history texts called "Nihon Sandai Jitsuroku," completing it in September 901, immediately after his demotion. His name as an editor was removed from this work because he was demoted.

As supervisor of Kanke Roka, a government-backed school run from his house that was founded by his grandfather, Michizane trained many talented people. At Kanke Roka pupils of any clans were accepted, and there were times when more than 100 former Kanke Roka pupils were at the Imperial Court. The school was called Kanke Roka (literally Sugawara House Corridors) because Kiyotomo had pupils stay in narrow rooms or corridors (hosodono) that led to a study.

Waka Poems

The moon will shed light on my pure heart, even to the depth of flooding waters that is not the sea (Michizane's poem asserting his innocence). When the east wind blows let it send your fragrance, oh plum blossoms; although your master is gone, do not forget the spring (as first published in "Shui Waka Shu" (Collection of Gleanings of Japanese Poems), though the last part of the poem was sometimes phrased differently in later ages).

After Death

After SUGAWARA no Michizane died, many strange events occurred in Kyoto, and Emperor Daigo's sons died of illness one after another. Furthermore, the Seiryo-den Hall was hit by lightning during the Court Council meeting, killing and injuring many Imperial Court personnel. Afraid that these events were representations of Michizane's curse, the Imperial Court pardoned Michizane's crime and conferred posthumous honors on him. Michizane's children were also released from exile and called back to Kyoto.

On May 20, 922, after being reinstated as Udaijin from the Junii rank Dazai Gon no sochi and posthumously granted the Shonii rank, and was granted additional posthumous posts of the Shoichii rank Sadaijin and then the Daijo-daijin in 993 (it is believed that his honor was restored in this way partly because Tokihira, who had accused Michizane, died young leaving no descendants and therefore, descendents of his younger brother, FUJIWARA no Tadahira, who was an aide to Emperor Uda and friendly to Michizane, became the Fujiwara clan's direct-line descendants).

After the Seiryo-den Hall was hit by the lightning, Onryo (the vengeful spirit) of Michizane was associated with the god of thunder. Therefore, there was an attempt to remove the curse of Michizane by establishing Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kitano, Kyoto Prefecture and dedicating it to Karai Tenjin (the heavenly deity of fire and thunder). For another 100 years or so, any major disasters were feared as the curse of Michizane. As a result, Tenjin worship with Michizane as 'Tenjin-sama' spread across the nation. As time passed and memories of the disasters faded, 'Tenjin-sama,' who was enshrined in various parts of Japan to suppress curses, became worshipped as a god of literature since Michizane was a brilliant scholar as well as a poet.

In the Edo period, plays based on the Shotai Incident, such as "Tenjin-ki," "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami" (Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy), and "Tenmangu Natane no Goku," were performed, with "Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami" in particular performed as Ningyo Joruri (puppet drama) and Kabuki, becoming a big hit and it is regarded as one of the most outstanding Gidayu Kyogen (comic drama). Parts of this play remain popular and are repeatedly performed.

In the modern age, particularly during the prewar period, Michizane was considered to be a loyal subject of the Imperial family and his portrait was used on bills. In 1928, when the magazine 'King,' published by Kodansha Ltd., introduced the poem 'Saying a prayer each day to the lingering scent on the poop the monk left behind' which parodied Michizane's 'Saying a prayer each day to the lingering scent on the garment the teacher left behind,' violent crowds attacked not only the Kodansha office but also the Ikaho-onsen Hot Spring where the company president, Seiji NOMA, was staying.

Other Facts

Michizane is now worshipped as a god of literature but, as was common with aristocrats of the time, had mistresses and visited courtesans. He had a particularly close relationship with ARIWARA no Narihira and they quite often visited Oyamazaki in Kyoto, an area crowded with prostitutes.

Michizane seemed to have a sensitive stomach, and according to written records, he always had a heated stone (called onjaku) on his belly to alleviate stomachaches.

The 'Awaji' and 'Sugawara' areas in Higashi Yodogawa Ward, Osaka City, were named after a historical event in which Michizane, as he was being transferred to Dazaifu, landed on a sandbank downstream of the Yodo-gawa River thinking that it was Awaji-shima Island.

[Original Japanese]