Sugawara Michizane Explained

Sugawara Michizane Explained

Today I want to tell you about a man of humble origin who became a renowned scholar and poet, kept the imperial court in fear long after his death, turned into a wrathful spirit, a deity and a bodhisattva (all at once), got thousands of shrines dedicated to him all around the country and is respected by Zen monks, praised by Confucian scholars and loved by high-schoolers. He got it all. He is Sugawara no Michizane, and let me explain his life to you.

Part 1 – The man

  • The origins of Sugawara clan
  • Michizane, the student
  • The Ako incident
  • Michizane, the minister and the Embassy to China
  • Minister of the Right
  • Plot and exile

Part 2 – The Deity

  • Michizane, the exile
  • It all starts with the death
  • Michizane, the evil spirit
  • Michizane, the deity (and he wants a shrine!)
  • The newer, nicer Michizane

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By now you already know what a big part of Japanese culture that one man Sugawara no Michizane is. So I won’t even try to cover everything that has been written and filmed about him. But here are a few works you might find useful.


  • Kojiki
  • Shoku Nihongi

The story of Michizane’s ancestors Ame no Hohi no Mikoto and wrestler Nomi no Sukune can be found in these two books. For a contemporary reader, they are not that easy and fun to read, but the fact is, they are a base of all Japanese mythology and belief system, and it’s good to read them at least once.

  • Cambridge History of Japan. Volume 2. Heian

The full series of Cambridge History of Japan is an awesome source of information on anything Japanese history related. Reading it is a pain though. It is written by academics for academics, so if you plan to read it, remember I warned you.

This book is completely dedicated to Michizane and seems to be the only book of a kind in English. Unfortunately, it’s not easily available.

This book touches on the topic of Michizane’s exile as a part of the phenomenon of exile widely used in the Heian period to punish nobility. The capital of peace and tranquillity was against violence. But psychological pressure was used to its full potential.

Now, this is one of my favourite books ever. Ivan Morris looks into the life and legacy of the most famous Japanese losers who are at the same time heroes in the eyes of the Japanese. The full concept of remembering and glorifying winners just doesn’t work that well here.

The full chapter of the book is dedicated to Michizane looking at all aspects of his life and afterlife.

  • Федянина В.А. “Покровитель словесности и воплощение бодхисаттвы: Сугавара Митидзанэ и ранняя история культа Тэндзин (IX-XII вв.)” (only in Russian)
  • Manga 応天の門 (only in Japanese)

I’m not that much into reading manga, but I’ve noticed mentions of this one a few times. Michizane is the main character here.


  • Robert Borgen “Oe no Masafusa and the Spirit of Michizane” from Monumenta Nipponica 50 (Autumn, 1995)

More on the matter from Robert Borgen. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find this one too.

  • Федянина В.А. “Сугавара Митидзанэ. Человек и бог” (only in Russian)
  • Федянина В.А. “Китано Тэндзин энги как исторический источник культа Сугавара Митидзанэ” (only in Russian)

This article is particularly awesome. It includes a translation of Kitano Tenjin Engi scroll and detailed comments provided by the author.

Only in Japanese, but it’s a full website dedicated to Michizane. It has an extensive list of publications related to him as well as detailed descriptions of many Tenmangu shrines. Original articles with interesting titbits of Michizane related folklore are my favourite. I particularly liked these three: 鯉に乗った天神さま, 祇園祭で天神さん, 五円札の男

Documentaries and Anime

An old-style historical TV program. The life of Michizane is told and discussed with experts and guests. Informative, but pretty boring to be honest. And here are some more:

  • その時歴史が動いた(2002年5月22日)
  • 歴史秘話ヒストリア(2021年1月13日)
  • 歴史漫才 ヒストリーズ・ジャパン(2017年7月、東名阪ネット6)

Michizane turned out to be a rather popular anime character as well. Mainly in historical anime, but not only.

There are a lot of opinions about old anime, and not everybody enjoys the style, but if you want a quick recap of Michizane’s story with a very vicious Fujiwara Tokihira, check this one out.

I didn’t manage to find this one, but I guess the story stays the same.

This anime is on my watchlist for years now. Dealing with Japanese folklore, it didn’t leave Michizane’s story aside. Look for his story in Season 6, Episode 42

An oversimplified version of Japanese history told like it would be if humans were cats. It’s not an anime to be taken seriously, but one to give you a good laugh. But it teaches Japanese history and cat behaviour at the same time and is pretty cute. So pick your favourite historical character and give an episode about it a try. 

You are still here? Than check out Japan Explained on Patreon to read travel suggestions for the episode.

Talk to you soon. Bye!

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