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.