TRANSLATION: Emperor Sutoku
APPEARANCE: Sutoku Tennō is one of the three most famous yōkai to ever haunt Japan. After he died, he transformed—some say into a terrible onryō, some say into a great tengu—and inflicted his wrath upon the imperial court at Kyōto. Along with Sugawara no Michizane and Taira no Masakado, he is one of the legendary Nihon San Dai Onryō—the Three Great Onryō of Japan.
ORIGIN: Prince Akihito was born in 1119 CE, the first son of Emperor Toba. At least that was on the official registry. It was an open secret, known by everyone in the court, that Akihito was actually sired by the retired former Emperor Shirakawa. Akihito was not well liked by his “father,” who constantly referred to him as a bastard. His true father Shirakawa may have been the former emperor, but he still wielded considerable power in his retirement. When Prince Akihito was 5 and Emperor Toba was 21, Shirakawa forced Toba into retirement. Akihito became Emperor Sutoku.
After Shirakawa died in 1129, retired Emperor Toba began orchestrating his trap against Emperor Sutoku. He convinced him that the cloistered life of retired emperor was much better than being the actual emperor. He suggested that Sutoku adopt Toba’s son Prince Narihito, and retire. In 1142, Sutoku finally did so. Toba oversaw the process, and made sure to record that the emperor was retiring and passing the throne on to Narihito instead of his own progeny. This ensured that Sutoku would wield no power over the young emperor, nor would any future son ever become emperor. The 3-year old Narihito became Emperor Konoe, and the retired Emperor Toba wielded all of the power behind the throne. Toba sent Sutoku’s allies to distant provinces, and filled the capital with his own allies. There was nothing Sutoku could do.
Emperor Konoe remained sickly and childless his whole life. He passed away without an heir in 1155 at the age of 17. By this time, Sutoku had his own son. He saw an opportunity to recover his standing. Sutoku and his allies claimed that the throne should pass on to Sutoku’s son. Instead the imperial court declared that Toba’s fourth son would become Emperor Go-Shirakawa. When Toba died the following year, this dispute escalated into a miniature civil war known as the Hōgen Rebellion. The war was decided in a single battle. The forces of Go-Shirakawa were victorious.
After the Hōgen Rebellion, Go-Shirakawa’s forces were merciless. Those who fought against the emperor were executed, along with their entire families. Former Emperor Sutoku was banished from Kyōto and forced to spend the rest of his days exiled to Sanuki Province. He shaved his head and became a monk, devoting himself copying holy manuscripts to send back to Kyōto. The court feared that the deposed Sutoku would attempt to curse them. It was rumored that he had bitten off his own tongue and wrote the manuscripts in his own blood, imbuing them with his hatred for the merciless imperial court. The court added insult to injury by refusing to accept any of his manuscripts.
In 1164, Sutoku passed away, defeated, deposed, and humiliated—and most importantly full of rage for the imperial court. When news of his death reached Emperor Go-Shirakawa, the emperor ignored it. He ordered that nobody should go into mourning, and that no state funeral would be held for such a criminal.
LEGENDS: After his death, strange things began to happen. Sutoku’s body was set aside while its caretakers awaited funeral instructions from the emperor. After 20 days, his body was still as fresh as it had been on the day he died. While his coffin was taken to be cremated, a terrible storm rolled in. The caretakers placed the casket on the ground to take shelter. After the storm passed, the stones around the casket were soaked with fresh blood. When his body was finally cremated, the ashes descended upon Kyōto in a dark cloud.
Afterwards, for many years, disaster upon disaster struck the capital. Go-Shirakawa’s successor, Emperor Nijo, died suddenly at age 23. Storms, plagues, fires, droughts, and earthquakes all pounded the capital. Imperial power weakened. Clan rivalries set into motion by the Hōgen Rebellion escalated. Many of Go-Shirakawa’s allies were killed in battles, and the country stepped closer and closer to all-out civil war. In 1180, the Genpei War broke out. In 5 bloody years, the power of the imperial court had vanished, and the Kamakura shogunate took over Japan. All of this was attributed to Emperor Sutoku’s vengeance.
Sutoku finally returned to the capital during the Meiji era. In 1868, he was enshrined as a kami in the Shiramine Shrine in Kyōto. The Takaya Shrine in Kagawa also enshrines one of the stones onto which Sutoku’s blood flowed during the rainstorm before his cremation. Despite this, there are still rumors that his curse might still linger. In 2012, when NHK broadcast the drama Taira no Kiyomori, an earthquake struck the Kanto region right at the moment when Emperor Sutoku transformed into an onryō.