The Great Virtue and Influence of the Inspiring Tenjin Sutra

Depiction of three battles between the armies of the daimyo Shingen Takeda and Kenshin Uesugi

Japanese Color Woodblock Print 

The Great Virtue and Influence of the

Inspiring Tenjin Sutra

by Utagawa Yoshitora, 1859

Act XII (Jūnidanme), from the series The Storehouse of Loyal Retainers (Chūshingura)

IHL Cat. #1711

About This Print

This vertical diptych depicts Sugawara no Michizane, 菅原道真 (845–903), who after his death in exile was elevated to "Tenjin" (a god who was originally mortal), sitting in the Tenman Shrine. Behind him is a painting of a plum tree, ume, alluding to his famous poem written in exile in which he laments the absence of a particular plum tree he had loved in the capital. Beneath him, on the bottom sheet, are his guardian attendants and two komainu (guardian dogs) on pedestals, each pedestal bearing the characters 奉納 (hōnō) "votive offering."

Known as the patron of scholarship, Tenjin shrines are visited by multitudes of students each year as entrance exams approach. Votive offerings are made requesting academic success and admission to the college of their choice. In commenting on this yearly student pilgrimage, Professor Emeritus Robert Borgan writes, "They give the impression that Japan's largely secular youth is experiencing a religious revival."1  

The scroll at the top of the print (see detail below) is the Tenjinkyō (Tenjin sutra). Likely composed in the early Edo era, the Tenjinkyō, which incorporates elements of the Tenjin cult and Buddhism, is a short apocryphal sutra invoking the name of Sugawara no Michizane (Tenjin) read before classes in the Tokugawa period terakoya.2

The Historical Figure Sugawara no Michizane

Source: British Museum website

Sugawara no Michizane 菅原 道真 (845-903) an outstanding cultural figure of the Heian period (794 -1185), is still widely regarded in Japan as the patron of scholarship. He was a scholar of Chinese and also a politician who rose to be Minister of the Right, one of the highest ranks in the government of the time. However, he was exiled to Kyūshū as the result of a conspiracy of the Fujiwara family. After his death in exile there were several disasters in the capital of Kyoto which people believed were caused by his angry spirit. He was therefore reinstated and raised to the rank of a Shintō deity (renamed Karai Tenjin) and the Kitano Shrine was founded in his memory.  In the Muromachi period (1333-1568) there was a revival of interest in kambun (Chinese-style writing) and Michizane's reputation was re-established as the greatest Japanese poet who had written in the Chinese language.

One of his most famous poems . . . is his farewell to the beloved plum tree in his garden, written shortly before going into exile.

When blows the eastern wind,
Send to me your fragrance,
O flower of the plum
Though absent from your master,
Forget not the season of spring.

The Sutra in the Scroll - The Tenjin kyō

The sutra starts "Thus I hear..."

click on image

大威徳天神感應經 [The Great Influence of the Inspiring Tenjin Sutra]
如是我聞 一時仏在須菩提王 八万四千宝蔵 金剛般若波羅密多 第一梵天王 第二帝釈天 第三閻羅王 釈迦牟尼仏道 三千大千世界 広大福寿経 一切諸仏 奉行礼拝 供養慧命 須菩提王 一切明神等 三千大世界 供養諸説奉行

1 Sugawara No Michizane and the Early Heian Court, Robert Borgen, University of Hawaii Press, 1994,  p. 1.
2 Terakoya (temple schools) were public educational institutions that provided children with an education of reading and writing and in some places taught the use of the abacus. They existed not only in Edo but also  in other towns and villages throughout Japan. The number of terakoya at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate seems to have reached some thirty or forty thousand and it was these institutions that contributed to the high levels of literacy among ordinary people.

Print Details

 IHL Catalog
 Title or Description The Great Virtue and Influence of the Inspiring Tenjin Sutra
 大威徳天神感應經 Dai Itoku Tenjin kannō kyō だいいとくてんじんかんのうきょう
 Artist Utagawa Yoshitora (fl. c. 1836-1882)
孟斎芳虎拝画 Mōsai Yoshitora haiga
 芳虎 Yoshitora (see above)
 Publication Date
combined date-aratame censor seal
芝神明前 Shiba Shinmei 甘泉堂板 Kansendōhan 
publisher name 和泉屋市兵衛(甘泉堂) Izumaya Ichibei (Kansendō)
Marks: Pub. ref. 180; seal ref. not shown
 Impression fair - poor registration
 Colors good
 Condition good - paper rubbed; not backed; separate sheets
Genre ukiyo-e; kaika-e
 Format vertical oban diptych
 H x W Paper 
 (T) 14 3/8 x 9 5/8 in. (36.5 x 24.4 cm); (B) 14 x 9 11/16 in. (35.6 x 24.6 cm)
 Collections This Print
 Shizuoka Prefectural Central Library K915-110-072