Around this time of year, certain Shinto shrines devoted to a kami named Tenjin (天神) become very popular. Tenjin is the Shinto kami associated with learning and scholarship,1 and with exams in spring, hard-working students will flock to shrines dedicated to Tenjin, called tenmangū (天満宮) to look to divine help to pass. But who is Tenjin?
The origin of Tenjin actually belongs to a historical from the 9th century named Sugawara no Michizane (菅原道真):
Sugawara no Michizane was a highly respected poet and scholar in the Imperial Court. According to the homepage for Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, he composed his first poem in Chinese characters at the age of 11:
“How beautiful the red plum blossom,
I wish to color my cheek with it.”
Through his talents he eventually rose to the rank of the Minister of the Right, or udaijin (右大臣) to the Emperor. The only other person of higher rank was the Minister of the Left, who felt he was a rival. Sadly, intrigues by the Minister of the Left caused Sugawara to be demoted and exiled to the island of Kyushu where he died later. Compared to his successful life in the Court, Sugawara’s demise was tragic. The official website for Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine describes his funeral:
His funeral procession was a melancholy occasion, attended only by his faithful follower Yasuyuki Umasake and a few neighbors. The coffin was carried on a cow carriage led by Yasuyuki, and according to the legend the ox suddenly came to a halt and refused to budge despite threats and entreaties. The burial therefore took place on the spot, and this became the site of the Tenmangu’s main shrine visited today by so many admirers.
Shortly after he died, records show that the capitol of Kyoto was beset with natural disasters and natural disasters. As mentioned in a previous post, the culture at the time strongly believed in vengeful or angry spirits, and their affect on daily life, and so people soon began to believe that Sugawara no Michizane was punishing the Imperial Court for their wrong-doing.
One important element of Shinto as a religion revolves around the kami. On the one hand one pays respect and venerates the benevolent kami who in turn provide aid and protection, and on the other hand angry kami must be pacified and appeased. Today’s angry kami gradually change forms such that they become benevolent kami in later generations as is the case of Susano-o, the kami of storms. Anyway, to avert further disaster, the Imperial Court commissioned the veneration of Sugawara as a kami in Shintoism, and thus he was named Tenjin (sky god, sky kami). Veneration in those days was often intended to keep Sugawara’s vengeful spirit pacified, but over time, his lifetime achievements in Chinese scholarship and poetry took greater precedence than fears of disaster and so he gradually morphed into a kami of scholarship and literature, which is what he is today.
Sugawara had a particular affection for plum blossoms, as shown by his many poems, and so you will often see plum trees on the grounds of Tenmangu shrines. Coincidentally, plum trees blossom around the same time that people visit Tenmangu shrines in February to pray for help in exams and so they’re lovely places to visit. Oxes are often associated with Tenjin as well due to the story of his funeral mentioned above.
As I will be making another trip to Japan this April,2 I think I will stop by one of the many famous Tenmangu shrines in Tokyo, or the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto (we’ll visit Kyoto and Nara too). I need all the help I can get for the JLPT exam this year.
P.S. More on the evolution of Sugawara no Michizane to Tenjin here in a later post.
1 My kind of kami.
2 I finally get to go during a non-winter time of year. Costs more in terms of airfare, but my wife and I are tired of being cold all the time.