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845 - 903


Last update August 10, 2010

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Sugawara Michizane

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Sugawara Michizane

The Sugawara family is a spinoff from the Haji clan, the inventor of Haniwa (sepulchral earthenware) and dedicated constructor of royal tombs. Furuhito, the great grandfather of Michizane changed his family name to Sugawara, and started serving the Imperial Court using his highly excellent skill of literature. That was the time when the government was actively engaged in nation-level cultural development activities under the slogan of "strengthen the nation through academic activities." This movement reached its peak in the time of Emperor Saga (809 - 823).

Appointed as Doctor of Literature for two generations from Kiyokimi (Michizane's grandfather) to Koreyoshi (his father), the Sugawara had become a highly esteemed family when Michizane was born on June 25, 845, a year of "Small Tree and Ox." His mother was from the Ohtomo Clan, a big power in the early sixth century.

Michizane was an extremely talented child and dubbed as "a child prodigy." At five, he composed a Waka (Japanese verse), and at 11, he created his first Chinese character poem (Kanshi). He received the degree of Bachelor of Chinese History and Literature at 18 (the youngest in history), and at the age of 23, he was assigned as Master of Chinese History and Literature (equivalent to a graduate school student today). He succeeded in the extremely difficult government official certification tests called Hō-ryaku-shi when he was 26.

He married at 30, and at 33, he was appointed as Junior Assistant Minister of the Ministry of Personnel Affairs and Education, and Doctor of Chinese History and Literature. The degree of the Doctor is compared to today's professor of a university faculty, and only two people had the degree in those days. The other doctor degree was obtained by Miyako-no-Yoshika, an eminent scholar and once Michizane's teacher. Yoshika was 11 years older than Michizane.

Though he was once transferred to the county of Sanuki (presently Kagawa prefecture, Shikoku, Japan) as Mayor, he was called back to Kyoto when Uda took the reign as Emperor, to assume the role of Private Secretary of Emperor. When he was 50, he was assigned as Chief Envoy to China (Tang Dynasty). Considering that the dynasty was now in political turmoil and cultural decline, Michizane proposed to discontinue sending envoys to the dynasty. His proposal was soon enacted by the government.

His brilliant career continued to prosper. Promoted to be the Minister of the Right (equivalent to the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary) and endowed with the Junior Second Rank in 901, his life seemed to be on an ever-thriving path.

However, as it says that an envious demon wants to butt in a spell of good luck, he was suddenly deprived of the position and condemned to exile in Dazaifu (presently in Fukuoka Prefecture) far away from the capital. Behind this, there was a conspiracy plot against him by his jealous opponent Fujiwara Tokihira, then Minister of the Left, who is said to have falsely indicted him for treason. With a strong connection with the new emperor Daigo, the enemy succeeded in removing his rival from the political stage.

His life in Dazaifu was sad and lonely. He began ailing, and his illness became even worse when he knew the death of his wife, who had been waiting for his return in Kyoto. Deep in sorrow and despair, he finally passed away on February 25, 903, without ever returning to his home again.

After Michizane's death, a series of tragic events happened in Kyoto. Natural disasters hit the capital, Fujiwara Tokihira, plotter of the conspiracy died a sudden death at the young age of 39, and the Crown Princes consecutively passed away. Also a great thunder hit the Imperial Palace in 930, injuring and killing many people.

Ancient people strongly believed in avenging spirits, and all these terrible incidents were interpreted as materializations of the strong anger of Michizane. To appease his rage and console his spirit, a shrine was built on the land of Kitano, Kyoto in 987.

As Kitano was originally a place where a heavenly deity of fire and thunder was enshrined, the shrine for the deity later merged with that for Michizane, and Michizane began to be referred as a "Divinity of Heaven." As time went by, the shrine was gradually redefined as the sanctuary enshrining a Patron of Academy and began to have many worshippers wishing for success in academic activities. The belief in academic divine power became popular, thus promoting construction of many shrines of its kind throughout Japan.

The following is the famous Waka poem composed by Michizane during the exile in Dazaifu. The poem uses a form of talking to the plum tree in his home garden in Kyoto:

My dear plum blossoms:
Catch east winds
To send your scent.
The master's not there;
But forget not spring.

A legend says after he created this poem, plum blossoms in his garden came flying over to see their master in Dazaifu. This story of "Flying Plum Blossoms" is loved by many Japanese.