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The History Behind Dazaifu Tenmangu

Experience the Shinto faith and discover 1,100 years of history at one of Japan's most important and impressive shrines. Learn about the legacy of Sugawara Michizane, who is enshrined at Dazaifu Tenmangu, and explore the shrine as a site of worship and a sanctuary for learning, culture, and the arts.

What Is Shinto

Shinto is Japan’s indigenous faith. Shinto is centered on a great reverence for the natural world, and is integral to Japanese culture. The Japanese regard the many forms of nature’s life force as different manifestations of the divine, and worship each of them as kami, or Shinto deities.

Shinto has no doctrine, no sacred texts and no founder. It originated with the ancient Japanese people who lived off the land, growing rice, farming, and fishing. They gave thanks for nature’s bounty and were accepting of its strength and rage. Shinto places great value on maintaining a harmonious connection with the world around us, centering on respect for the myriad kami and gratitude for the blessings of nature. Ancestor worship plays a key role in Shinto, with ancestors regarded as guardians of the family.

Today, there are approximately 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan. These sacred spaces enshrine many different kami, including some historical figures who are worshipped as kami for the great contributions they made to society or the state. Dazaifu Tenmangu enshrines Sugawara Michizane (845–903), a key historical figure worshipped as Tenjin, the deity of learning, culture, and the arts.

The Origins of Dazaifu Tenmangu

Dazaifu Tenmangu is one of Japan's leading Shinto shrines, and the head shrine of the Tenjin faith. The shrine is quite unique in Japan as it is built on the burial site of Sugawara Michizane (845–903). He was a ninth-century court noble, politician and scholar, who is enshrined here as Tenjin, the deity of learning, culture, and the arts.

The present elegant honden, or main sanctuary, built in 1591 is a reconstruction of an earlier version from 919, which replaced a much smaller shrine built at Sugawara's grave in 905. The legacy of Sugawara Michizane is so profound that this small shrine built by a loyal disciple more than 1,100 years ago grew into the impressive Dazaifu Tenmangu we see today. Dazaifu Tenmangu is the head of more than 12,000 shrines throughout Japan dedicated to Tenjin.

All are welcome at Dazaifu Tenmangu and free to offer prayers at the honden. Since the Tenmangu is the shrine of learning, many of the millions of annual visitors come to pray for success in exams and other education-related endeavors. Visitors can receive blessings, offer prayers, purchase amulets, and observe Shinto tradition in a beautiful and expansive natural setting.

Sugawara loved plum blossoms, and Tenjin shrines are closely associated with plum trees and plum blossoms. There are 6,000 plum trees in the grounds of Dazaifu Tenmangu, all of which have been donated.

Sugawara Michizane

Dazaifu Tenmangu is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane (845–903), who was an exceptional scholar of virtuous character. He was deified as Tenjin during the tenth century and is worshipped as the deity of learning, culture, and the arts.

Sugawara was born in 845 into a family of scholars with a history of loyal service to the emperor. Like his ancestors, Sugawara showed great scholarly potential and literary talent from an early age. By as young as 11, he had mastered classical Chinese poetry. Sugawara dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of knowledge and learning, and passed a succession of the nation’s top exams at unprecedented speed. By 33, he had become a professor of literature, the highest and most esteemed rank awarded to scholars at the time.

During his lifetime, Sugawara made monumental contributions to Japanese culture and politics. He helped define Japanese culture by adapting the best aspects of foreign cultures while maintaining the essence of Japanese identity and thinking—a methodology that continues to this day. On the political stage, Sugawara championed social reform promoting the regeneration of poor communities and advised the Imperial Court on matters of foreign affairs in a manner quite progressive for his time.

Sugawara’s achievements earned him the emperor’s appreciation. He became both a major political figure and the emperor’s most trusted advisor. Sugawara served the emperor and the country sincerely, helping foster the growth of late ninth-century Japan, but his influence with the emperor threatened the powerful Fujiwara family who dominated the politics of the era. In a bid to eliminate this threat, the Fujiwaras orchestrated a plot that saw Sugawara falsely accused of abusing his position and power. The punishment was exile to Dazaifu, far from his family and the Imperial Court in Kyoto.

Sugawara’s life in Dazaifu was hard. Stripped of his wealth and status, he had no support, barely enough food to eat, and only the most basic housing and clothing. Although he was understandably devastated, Sugawara bore his hardships honorably, and instead of turning to despair, remained sincere, virtuous and loyal to the emperor. He turned to the deities, praying earnestly for the welfare of the imperial family and the nation and for his own exoneration. In 903, he passed away at the age of 59.

Sugawara received his exoneration posthumously and was declared innocent by the Imperial Court. While alive and even more so after his death, Sugawara was revered for his unrivalled academic ability, virtuous nature and unquestionable integrity. Dazaifu Tenmangu stands where this revered figure was laid to rest and has become a site of pilgrimage for many people from all walks of life, that have come to worship Sugawara Michizane over the past 1,100 years.

A Sanctuary for Learning

Dazaifu Tenmangu is closely associated with learning, because of Sugawara Michizane’s legacy as one of the most influential and renowned scholars in Japanese history. Students and examinees from Japan and abroad visit the shrine to pray for success in their studies, and to express gratitude for scholarly achievements. As learning is a lifelong pursuit, Dazaifu Tenmangu attracts visitors seeking personal growth and wisdom, of all ages, and from all sections of society.

Dazaifu Tenmangu encourages visitors to experience Shinto and learn about Sugawara Michizane in a welcoming and friendly environment. Multilingual information at the shrine explains Shinto customs, such as offering a prayer and selecting an amulet. In the Kanko Historical Museum behind the honden, or main sanctuary, colorful dioramas featuring traditional Hakata dolls tell the story of Sugawara’s life. The most valuable artworks and artifacts associated with Sugawara Michizane and the Heian period (794–1185) in which he lived are exhibited in the Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum.

A Sanctuary for Culture and the Arts

Sugawara Michizane was a master poet, talented calligrapher, and renowned literary scholar. He composed many famous classical poems, and some of his original works are on display in the Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum. His mastery of the literary arts and the great contributions he made to Japanese culture and society have inspired people to donate poetry, calligraphy, and other works of art to Dazaifu Tenmangu over the centuries since his death and deification. These gifts include picture scrolls, ceramics, Noh masks, and other items of artistic and cultural value.

Deified as Tenjin, Sugawara Michizane came to be revered as both the deity of learning, and of culture and the arts. Dazaifu Tenmangu has an extensive collection of artworks and culturally important artifacts. Many, such as the marble komainu shrine dogs, the fourteenth-century torii gate, and the bronze ox statue are on display in the grounds, while others are exhibited in the two on-site museums—the Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum and the Kanko Historical Museum. Building upon its reputation as a sanctuary for culture and the arts, Dazaifu Tenmangu has its own art program. The shrine collaborates with leading artists to produce contemporary pieces inspired by Shinto that offer a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on Japan's indigenous faith.

The Tenjin Faith—Past and Present

Sugawara Michizane has been worshipped as Tenjin, the deity of learning, culture, and the arts, for more than 1,100 years. People have also worshipped Tenjin as a protector of children, a dispeller of misfortune, and as the deity of sincerity and devotion. The Tenjin faith has grown and evolved over the centuries and there are now more than 12,000 Tenjin shrines throughout Japan. Tenjin continues to be worshipped in many different ways today, but is most commonly known as the deity of learning, culture and the arts.

Visitors to Dazaifu Tenmangu can offer prayers and receive blessings for success in academic endeavors, good fortune, good health, and a long life. Talk to a Shinto priest or shrine maiden at one of the counters beside the honden main sanctuary to inquire about amulets, ema, blessings, and special ceremonies. Visitors from all faiths are welcome to participate in any of the blessings and ceremonies offered at the shrine.