This week’s Shinto Traditions lecture at Kokugakuin University was on Tenjin. Tenjin is, these days, best known as the kami of passing entrance exams, but originally he was Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and politician of the late ninth and early tenth century.
The Sugawara family were mid-ranking aristocrats in Heian Japan, with hereditary jobs in the university, and in preparing drafts of official documents. Michizane was recognised as being exceptionally talented early on, and was promoted quite quickly. At the age of 42 he was appointed governor of Sanuki, part of Shikoku, and unlike many such governors he actually went to his region, where he was reputedly responsible for many improvements to irrigation and other agricultural systems. (Obviously, at the distance of a thousand years and with the legends that have grown up around him, it’s hard to be sure.) He returned to the capital when his term as a governor expired, and continued his rise through the ranks. When he was 53 his eldest daughter entered the imperial court, and became the wife of one of the sons of the emperor. Soon after that emperor abdicated, in favour of another of his sons, Michizane was, at the age of 55, appointed Minister of the Right, the second-highest actual post in the government. (In theory, the third highest under the emperor, but the nominal highest post, the Prime Minister, was vacant at this point.)
Alongside his political career, he was a significant scholar. He edited a volume of the official history of Japan, and produced several collections of poetry, in both Chinese and Japanese, along with other writings. He was also famed for the quality of his calligraphy.
Two years after that, early in 901, a rumour spread that he was plotting to put his son-in-law on the throne. He was appointed assistant head of Dazaifu, the main governmental centre in Kyushu, and sent from the capital. This was, effectively, the end of his political career; it was a way of punishing him without having to formally decide that he had done anything wrong. These days, the consensus seems to be that the charges were made up by the Fujiwara, the highest aristocrat family, who had almost succeeded in taking control of the government by ensuring that all the emperors were married to Fujiwara daughters. Michizane’s rise was a threat to their dominance, which was not yet secure. With his defeat, it became secure, so that for the next 150 years or so the Fujiwara effectively ruled Japan, with the emperors as little more than figureheads. (Figurehead emperors are the normal state in Japanese history; the actual authority that the emperors had from the Meiji Emperor to the end of the Second World War was unusual. The power behind the throne has changed quite a lot, however.)
Michizane died in Kyushu in 903, and when his body was taken for burial, the ox drawing the cart stopped at one point, and refused to move any further. This was taken as a sign that he should be buried on that spot, and so he was, directly under what is now the sanctum of Dazaifu Tenmangu, the big Tenjin shrine in Kyushu.
A couple of years later the Fujiwara responsible for Michizane’s exile, Fujiwara no Tokihira, died, and this was attributed to Michizane’s curse. Lightning struck the palace, and in the mid 920s two crown princes died in quick succession, which was also attributed to Michizane’s curse. He was restored to Minister of the Right, and his court rank was increased. In the end, he was appointed Prime Minister (after his death), and raised to the First Rank. Buddhist rites were also performed to calm his spirit. This sort of thing was fairly normal at the time; it’s called Onryo Belief. However, Michizane was different in an important way.
Most dead people suspected of cursing the living were calmed with Buddhist rites. Michizane, however, came to be worshipped with Shinto rites, as Tenjin, or Jizaitenjin, a title originally used for the version of the Hindu god Shiva that made it to Japan. According to Professor Okada, he was the first human to be worshipped as a kami. (There is a possible exception, in that Hachiman was said to be Emperor Ojin, but since Emperor Ojin was mythical in the first place, and the association with Hachiman came after the Hachiman tradition was established, it isn’t the same sort of thing.) The question is why. In Kyushu, a Buddhist temple, Anrakuji, was established around his grave to pray for his soul, which was normal. However, in Kyoto a shrine was established, which wasn’t.
The details are difficult to put together at this distance, but several key points can be noted. In 939 Taira no Masakado, a rebel in the region around Tokyo, received an oracle purportedly from Hachiman and Michizane saying that he should be the emperor. This rebellion really frightened the central government, so oracles associated with it were well known. A few years later, in 942, a girl living in Kyoto received an oracle that she should worship Michizane, and set up a small shrine. In 945, a mikoshi carrying Michizane, as Jizaitenjin, was among a group that came from Kyushu to the capital (I think; the details of this got skipped over a bit). In 947, the son of a priest near Kyoto received an oracle telling him to build a shrine on Kitano, a plain to the northwest of the capital which was used for many Shinto-related ceremonies, and in 959 the Fujiwara started contributing to building the shrine there. Fairly soon it became a major target of Fujiwara patronage, and also of imperial patronage, becoming one of the 22 shrines that received special imperial attention.
The popular spread of the Tenjin tradition was probably partly due to the fact that Tenjin was a thunder kami, and thus associated with rain and agriculture. To become popular in that period, an association with agriculture was basically essential, as that was what most people did. However, due to his scholarship in life, he became associated with scholarship by the late Heian period, the late twelfth century, at the latest. In the Edo period, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, Tenjin was closely associated with the local schools for townsmen, the terakoya, and this cemented his association with scholarship, and particularly with school studies. When entrance exams became important, particularly after the Second World War, he became known as a kami of entrance exams, and the major Tenjin shrines in Tokyo are very, very busy around exam season (December/January).
I’d like to mention three other points of interest. First, the dates of Michizane’s birth, exile, and death were all the 25th of the month, although in different months. Thus, the 25th is Tenjin’s “day”, and the shrines are particularly busy on that day. December 25th and January 25th, falling in exam season, are the busiest. So, if you want a Shinto substitute for Christmas, you can study for exams. I can’t really see this catching on.
The second point is that, although the historical records are quite clear that Michizane’s father was Sugawara no Koreyoshi, the legends that had grown up around him by the thirteenth century were clear that this was not the case. In one collection, preserved in an important Tenjin shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture, in western Japan, it is stated that Koreyoshi found a young boy playing in his garden, and the boy claimed to have no mother or father, so he was adopted by Koreyoshi. This is thought to be because it was still not easy for people to think that an ordinary person could become a kami, so Michizane needed some sort of supernatural origin.
Finally, there is a Japanese poem said to be by Michizane that goes roughly as follows:
If you follow the true path, the kami will protect you even though you never pray.
The first record of this poem dates from 1377, so its attribution to Michizane is rather shaky, but Professor Okada has found late medieval references to it from Mt Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, and from court nobles, indicating that it had some spread. It is interesting that even within Shinto, which places such importance on ritual practice, also includes traditions that say ritual does not matter.