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Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane菅原道真

APPEARANCE: Sugawara no Michizane was a scholar, poet, and politician who fell out of favor with the emperor and died in exile. He lived from 845 to 903 CE, and is considered one of the greatest scholars and poets in all of Japanese history. After his death, he returned from the grave as a wrathful onryō to wreak his vengeance upon those who had wronged him in life. This earned him a position among the Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.

ORIGIN: Sugawara no Michizane was born the eldest son of a high-ranking family of scholars. From a very early age, he showed his brilliance, composing elegant poems by the age of five. He was well-educated and lived a privileged life, gradually climbing the ranks of the bureaucracy and increasing his public standing.

Sugawara no Michizane was an excellent student and scholar. Passing the highest level of government exams at age 26, he received the equivalent of a PhD at age 33. Michizane was selected to be governor of Sanuki Province in 886. During his time as governor he composed a great deal of poetry. In 888, during the Akō Incident, he supported Emperor Uda in his rivalry with Fujiwara no Mototsune. This action earned him a great deal of political clout. When the Emperor consolidated his power, he demoted officials from the Fujiwara clan and promoted officials from the Minamoto clan. Michizane was not a noble, but he too was rewarded. Hs rank rose even further, and he picked up many important court titles, including Ambassador to the Tang Dynasty. This caused unrest among the nobles—particularly the Fujiwaras. They felt indignant that a non-noble scholar should be elevated to such elite ranks.

When Emperor Uda abdicated to Emperor Daigo, Sugawara no Michizane’s fortunes declined rapidly. Both Michizane and Fujiwara no Tokihira—the son of Fujiwara no Mototsune, whom Michizane had censured years ago—were the emperor’s primary advisors. Tokihira advised the emperor that he should pacify the indignant Fujiwara nobility by sending Michizane away. The emperor listened. Michizane lost his rank and titles, and was demoted from his high position to very minor regional government post at Dazaifu, Chikuzen Province. There, he experienced a thankless life of hard work under much stricter and more severe conditions than in Kyōto.

Despite his humiliation and exile to Kyūshū, Sugawara no Michizane continued to work hard and earnestly for the sake of the country. All the while he prayed for the well-being of the imperial family and the safety of Japan. His hard work was never acknowledged, and he never regained his prestige. He regretted his demotion, and longed for his beloved Kyōto for the rest of his life. Late in the second month of 903, as the plums were blossoming, Michizane died. His heart was filled with loneliness and resentment.

LEGENDS: After Sugawara no Michizane’s death, a series of disasters struck Kyōto. Plague and drought spread over the city. His rival Fujiwara no Tokihira died at the age of 39. The sons of Emperor Daigo became sick and died one after another. A lightning bolt struck the Seiryōden palace, causing a fire which killed a number of the officials who had participated in Michizane’s demotion and exile. A few months later, Emperor Daigo himself became sick and died. Everyone in the capital had become convinced that Michizane’s ghost had become a thunder god and was punishing those who had wronged him.

Sugawara no Michizane’s onryō continued to curse the capital with disaster upon disaster. Eventually, the emperor built a shrine to his spirit and posthumously restored his rank and office. He removed any mention of Michizane’s exile from the official records. However, it did not appease his spirit, and the disasters kept coming. Finally, in 987, during the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Sugawara no Michizane was promoted and deified as the highest rank of state kami. A special shrine was built for him in northern Kyōto, and a festival was established in his honor. Michizane became known as Tenman Tenjin, the god of scholarship. The curse was finally appeased.

Tenjin remains a popular god to this day. Paintings of him are hung in homes across the country, and students from all over Japan visit his shrines to pray for luck on their school examinations. Tenjin shrines commonly hold festivals in late February, when plum trees start to bloom, and when school examination results are posted. The plum tree is commonly associated with Tenjin, as it was his favorite tree. Shrines dedicated to him commonly have plum trees on their grounds. Legend has it that while in exile in Dazaifu, he longed so deeply for his favorite plum tree that one night it flew from Kyōto to Kyūshū to be with him. That tree still stands today at the Dazaifu Tenman-gu in Fukuoka.



TRANSLATION: water tiger
ALTERNATE NAMES: sometimes mistakenly referred to as kappa
HABITAT: rivers, lakes, ponds and waterways; found throughout Japan
DIET: omnivorous; prefers human blood and souls

APPEARANCE: Suiko are found in both China and Japan and are often confused with kappa, which they closely resemble. However, suiko are far more dangerous, violent, and hot-tempered than their kappa cousins. Suiko have the body of a small child and are covered in extremely tough scales like a pangolin’s. They have sharp, hook-like growths on their kneecaps which resemble a tiger’s claws. They live near riverbanks and in large bodies of water.

BEHAVIOR: Suiko rank above kappa in the hierarchy of water goblins, and as such are sometimes placed in charge of them, with one suiko placed in charge of 48 kappa. (They are sometimes called the oyabun, or yakuza bosses, of kappa.) In turn, suiko report to the Ryū-ō, the dragon king, who lives in his palace, Ryū-gū, at the bottom of the sea. The reason suiko kill humans is to look tougher among the other suiko and increase their standing with the dragon king. (Likewise, when kappa attack humans, it is to make them look tougher and increase their standing with their suiko boss.)

INTERACTIONS: Suiko who live in inhabited areas like to sneak out of the water at night to play pranks oh humans, knocking on doors and running away, or possessing people and making them do strange things. Like kappa and other water spirits, suiko enjoy using their superior strength to pull humans into water and drown them, although unlike kappa they have no concern for the shirikodama. Instead, suiko drain their victims of blood like vampires, then eat their souls (reikon) and return the dead, drained body to the surface.

It is possible to keep suiko at bay by leaning a sickle against the side of a house and sprinkling flax seeds or black-eyed peas on the ground outside. Suiko are afraid of these and will keep away.

There is one known method to kill a suiko. It involves the corpse of a person who has had their blood drained by a suiko. First, a small hut made of grass and straw is built in a field. Then the body, instead of being buried, it is laid on a wooden plank and placed in the hut. The suiko who sucked that person’s blood will be drawn to the hut, where it will start running around and around in circles. (Suiko have to ability to become invisible, so it is likely that it will only be heard rather than seen; or else only its footprints will be visible.) As the dead body gradually decays, so will the suiko. By the time the body has rotted completely, the suiko will have died, its magic will have ceased, and the decayed corpse of the suiko will be visible on the ground near the body.



HABITAT: hackberry trees
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Sagari is a strange apparition from West Japan and Kyushu, particularly Okayama and Kumamoto prefectures. It takes the form of a grotesque horse’s head, which drops down from hackberry trees to startle travelers on the road.

BEHAVIOR: Sagari don’t do very much other than dropping down right in front of someone’s face and screaming their unholy cry. However, those who hear a sagari’s whinnying and screaming may be stricken with a terrible fever.

ORIGIN: Sagari come from the spirits of horses which die on the road and are discarded and left to rot where they fall. The horses’ souls sometimes get caught in the trees as they rise from the bodies. The ones that stick in the trees cannot pass on to the next word and transform into these yokai.



TRANSLATION: painted wall
HABITAT: coastal areas; encountered on dark streets and alleys
DIET: unknown

APPEARANCE: Little is known about the true appearance of nurikabe because these yokai are usually said to be invisible. During the Edo period, however, artists began to illustrate this creature, giving it an appearance somewhere between a grotesque, fantastic beast and a flat, white wall. Modern representations of the nurikabe depict it as a plain, gray, bipedal wall with vague face-like features.

BEHAVIOR: Nurikabe appear mysteriously on roads late at night. As a traveler is walking, right before his or her eyes, an enormous, invisible wall materializes and blocks the way. There is no way to slip around this yokai; it extends itself as far as to the left and right as one might try to go. There is no way over it either, nor can it be knocked down. However, it is said that if one taps it near the ground with a stick, it will vanish, allowing the traveler to continue on his or her way.

ORIGIN: The true nature of the nurikabe is surrounded in mystery. Based on its name, it seems to be related to other household spirits known as tsukimogami. It has also been suggested that the nurikabe is simply another manifestation of a shape-shifting itachi or tanuki. Mischievous tanuki are said to enlarge their magical scrotums into an invisible wall in order to play pranks on unsuspecting humans.