Sugawara Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane

Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真 845 - March 26, 903), also known as Kan Shōjō (菅丞相), a grandson of Sugawara no Kiyotomo (770-842) (known as Owari no Suke and Daigaku no Kami), was a scholar, poet, and politician of the Heian Period of Japan. He is regarded as an excellent poet, particularly in Chinese poetry.

He was born into a family of letters. Beginning with his grandfather, his family served the court, teaching history in the national school for future bureaucrats. His father began a private school in his mansion and taught students who prepared for the entrance examination to the national school or who had ambitions to be officers of the court.

Sugawara passed the examination, and entered Daigaku, as the national academy was called in those days. After graduation he began his career in the court as a scholar. He was also appointed to a position as a government official. Sometimes, as a result of his Chinese language skill he was appointed to diplomatic offices, to host foreign embassies. Besides his offices at the court he ran the school his father founded. He was also appointed Monjo Hakushi, the highest professorial office at Daigaku. This office was considered to be the highest honor a historian could achieve.

At one point, Sugawara lost the favor of the court and was appointed to be governor of a province. Before that, he had been appointed to such offices but it had been only nominally. He lost his office as professor and must have moved to the local province he was appointed to. But when a political conflict arose between Emperor Uda and Fujiwara no Mototsune, he sent his opinion to Mototsune, and gained his favor. Though his term as governor was not over, he was called back to Kyoto.

He was appointed ambassador to China in the 890s, but instead came out in support of abolition of the imperial embassies to China in 894, theoretically in consideration for the decline of the Tang Dynasty. A potential ulterior motive may have lain in Michizane's almost complete ignorance of spoken Chinese; most Japanese at the time only read Chinese, and knew little to nothing about the spoken language. Michizane, as the nominated ambassador to China, would have been presented with a potential loss of face had he been forced to depend on an interpreter.

Sugawara rose to high positions of the imperial court under the grace of Emperor Uda, but in 901 he fell into a trap of his rival Fujiwara no Tokihira and was demoted to a minor official of Dazaifu, in Kyūshū's Chikuzen Province. After his lonely death, plague and drought spread and sons of Emperor Daigo died in succession. The Imperial Palace's Great Audience Hall (shishinden) was struck repeatedly by lightning, and the city experienced weeks of rainstorms and floods. Attributing this to the angry spirit of the exiled Sugawara, the imperial court built a Shinto shrine called Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto, and dedicated it to him. They posthumously restored his title and office, and struck from the record any mention of his exile. Sugawara was deified as Tenjin-sama, or kami of scholarship. Today many Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to him.

Emperor Uda stopped the practice of sending ambassadors to China. The emperor's decision-making was informed by what he understood as persuasive counsel from Sugawara Michizane.



  • Kitagawa, Hiroshi and Bruce T. Tsuchida. (1975). The Tale of the Heike. Tokyo. ISBN 0-86008-188-5

Further reading

  • Borgen, Robert. (1994). Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0824815905
  • Morris, Ivan. (1975). The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan. London: Secker & Warburg. ISBN 978-0436288098

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