Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) is one of the most famous historical figures in Japan. He lived during the Heian period (794-1185). During this period, the nobility and the imperial court controlled the Country from Kyoto and leaving the capital to go, for example, to administer a province was considered social death. Outside the capital there was only barbarism, rough people, danger and misery. The nobles of the Heian period were probably the snobbiest people ever to have existed in the entire history of mankind, from its inception to the present day. Michizane came from a very noble family and was a man of culture and a famous poet; he was most famous for his poems in Chinese, as was appropriate for a nobleman of the early Heian period, but he also liked to write poetry in Japanese.

However, Michizane, although noble and scholar, is not part of the right circle in the power games at court and so in 886 he is sent to be governor of Sanuki province, social death. While he carelessly governs the province, a quarrel breaks out in Kyoto between the head of the very powerful Fujiwara family (the most powerful noble family of this period) and the emperor, who is fed up with the power of this family; Michizane sides with the emperor. He made the right move because he is on the winning side and when he returned to Kyoto in 890 he makes a very rapid career, rising to the highest levels of the court.

All goes well until the emperor retires and Michizane thus loses his sponsorship. The Fujiwara family regains command over the new emperor and the imperial court and the consequence for Michizane is that he is demoted and sent to a secondary role (not even governor) in the province of Chikuzen (even further away than before). There in 903 he sadly dies in exile.

The end. Well. Not really. 

The Japanese are very fond of harmony. They are hurt if you are hurt by it. They can stab you in the back, metaphorically or literally, but if you resent them it’s not nice; you upset the harmony and something absolutely must be done to restore it. Harmony, today as yesterday, is a very important matter in Japan. Immediately after Michizane’s death, very unpleasant things happen in Kyoto, such as plagues, floods, lightning repeatedly striking the imperial palace, death of many members of the Fujiwara family. The verdict is clear: Michizane’s onryō (vengeful spirit) is taking revenge. What can we do? Simple: turn him into a goryō (benevolent spirit). Michizane’s exile is lifted, his titles restored, he is given the name Tenjin (literally sky deity) and a temple is erected for him. Harmony restored.

Tenjin was initially a deity of natural disasters: he was prayed to in order to prevent or calm them. With the passage of time, however, we witness a very interesting phenomenon, which shows us that even deities can reinvent themselves: as Michizane was a scholar, poet and scholar, with time Tenjin changed cult and became the patron saint of students and knowledge, Today, it is common practice for students to go to one of the temples dedicated to him and pray to him in order to pass an exam. He is therefore no longer known as a deity of natural disasters but as one much more in line with his historical persona.