Continuing with the ox theme that coincides with this year’s Zodiac sign, I will introduce some interesting tales that relate to it through the famous Tenmangū (天満宮), which is the name of numerous Shinto shrines built around Japan. These shrines practice the Tenjin faith (天神信仰, Tenjin shinkō), a form of Shinto belief, which involves the worship of the Tenjin (天神). A significant point worth mentioning is that the Tenjin is Sugawara no Michizane, who was as an actual scholar and aristocratic that lived during the Heian period (794 ~ 1185). He was later viewed as a patron deified due to the many good things he did while he was alive, as well as the incidents that would later take place after his death that were then told as legends.
Today’s article will be the 1st of a 2-part series about Tenmangū’s fabled tales surrounding Sugawara no Michizane, and the persisting imagery of the ox. Before getting into those, part 1 will cover this individual’s actual history in order to better understand the roots of his legendary status.
LIFE STORY OF SUGAWARA NO MICHIZANE
Sugawara no Michizane was born in 845, which was the year of the Ox. The Sugawara was an elite family during the Heian period, at a time when noble families lived in or close to Heian Kyō, (present day Kyōto) the Capital where the Imperial Palace was built, and the golden age when foreign import contributed immensely to cultural development before Japan was turned into a military state by warring feudal lords. Michizane was privileged to receiving education in many topics, including Chinese classics, writing, archery, and poetry. It is said that he was very gifted in learning, as he demonstrated natural talent in both literature and military studies¹. As an example, Michizane would not only understand Chinese poetry thoroughly at the age of 11, but he also wrote his 1st poem at that age². Earning high honors, he would became a professor of literature at the age of 33.
Outside of education, Michizane was also talented in political matters, as well as a devotee of the Shinto belief. Eventually his career would involve working for the Imperial court. He not only proved to be a loyal subject of the court, he was also very close to 59th Emperor Uda, where he was heavily depended on as an advisor. He handled different tasks that helped Japanese society as a whole, including improving living conditions for the poor and maintaining Japan’s unique image while adapting foreign influences. Michizane also proposed many reasonable ways and solutions to handling foreign relations, which Emperor Uda truly valued. With his hard-working ethics and knowledgeable insight, he rose through the ranks, and inevitably achieved the title udaijin (右大臣), or Minister of the Right. This was one of the highest ranks achievable at the time, which was a great honor to him and his family. This title was matched equally by sadaijin (左大臣), or Minister of the Left, which was held by another aristocrat named Fujiwara Tokihira (藤原時平).
Speaking of which, at the time the Fujiwara were major players in the Imperial court, where they imposed their influence in many aspects politically. Although the Sugawara had a history of good relations with the Fujiwara, Michizane and Tokihira did not get along, where the latter would not treat the former well. In fact, there were other opposing noble families who were in favor of the Fujiwara, and were also jealous of Michizane’s seemingly unfaltering favor from Emperor Uda. Secretly, Tokihira and others conspired a plan that would expose him of abusing his power in an effort to rid his presence from the Imperial palace, and help elevate their family and peers.
When Emperor Uda retired and was succeeded by the 60th Emperor Daigo, Tokihira and others took a chance to put their scheme into action. They were successful in defaming Michizane, who would then be unfortunate of being stripped of his rank, and exiled from Heian Kyō by the new Emperor. Separated from his family, he was forced to reside in Dazaifu located in the south (present day Dazaifu City, Fukuoka).
Deprived of the wealth and loved ones, Michizane’s life in Dazaifu was hard, yet he maintained his dignity and continued to present himself as a good example by continuing with scholarly studies, and devoting his time in worship for the sake of the safety of the Imperial family and the nation of Japan. He spent the remainder of his years there, and would pass away in 903. Shortly after, his remains were buried at Ankakuji, not too far away from his residence. Years later, as Michizane’s former detractors started to die due to diseases and freakish accidents, the Imperial court would exonerate him from all crimes he was judged to have committed, bestowed upon him his former ranks, and ordered for Tenmangū to be built at Ankakuji to enshrine his remains, which would in turn make him a deity — all as a means to appease what was believed to be his vengeful soul.
Today, many go to the Tenmangū to pray for academic success, since Sugawara no Michizane is viewed as a god of learning. Despite facing slander and hardship towards the later part of his life, his life story, which includes his achievements, were recorded and preserved, which in turn makes him a revered individual, and one that inspires all that visit these Tenmangū shrines. Visitors can also see large bronze statues of an ox at some of these shrines, which is also plays a significant role in several tales related to Michizane’s story.
This is how Sugawara no Michizane’s history closes, as well as concludes part 1. In the following article, we will review different tales and legends that paint vivid pictures of Sugawara no Michizane, as the Tenjin, being an auspicious, as well as the ox being like a divine creature.
1) Essentially the standard structure for learning during the Heian period, which is called bunbu ryōdō (文武両道).
2) Below is the poem he wrote:
「月夜見梅花 月輝如晴雪 梅花似照星 可憐金鏡転 庭上玉房馨」
In his poem, Michizane describes how the sweet-smelling flower garden made up of plum blossoms (ume [梅] in Japanese) looks radiant in the bright moonlight like stars, similar to how snow sparkles in the sun rays.