The History of the Tenjin Festival in Tokyo
Festivals are an important cultural event that adds to a nation’s cultural heritage. In Tokyo, there is an annual celebration known as the Tenjin Festival when a considerable number of Japanese people visit the small Tenjin Shrine in Yushima, Bunkyo-ku. It is also known as the shrine’s annual plum blossom festival.
The festival is held on the 25th February, on the day Sugawara Michizane died in his exile in Dazaifu, Kyushu in 903 CE. He was exiled and then died only after a few short years as he lamented on his banishment. After his death, it is said that he became a vengeful spirit (onryo) and a god of thunder. As a thunder god, he tried to seek revenge on his enemy Fujiwara Tokihira until he finally succeeded. Tokihira became ill and a great flood appeared in the capital.
This was all due to Michizane’s un-consoled spirit. To try and calm his spirit, he was enshrined at the Kitano Shrine in Kyoto. Eventually he merged with a Tenjin already enshrined here but his worship spread and replaced many of the previous Tenjin worshipped. The monk Nichizo, in his descriptions of journeying through hell, tells that Michizane’s spirit underwent purification and ultimately became Tenjin, the friendly and helpful god.
There is much we do not know about the historical person, but Michizane appears to have been a famous calligrapher and reached the rank of Monjo Hakase, the highest scholarly rank, by the time he was 32. This was then passed on to his spirit and because of such, Tenjin was venerated as the tutelary deity of scholarly and literary activities among the literati of the time.
The Tenjin festival is not only the celebration of the day he died. The plum tree blossoms in his garden gave him the inspiration of one of his poems when he left to go into exile. According to legend, the flowers blew thousands of miles to reach him in Dazaifu. After this, this flower became the icon for his worship.
There are many different activities to do in the Tenjin Festival. Women will dress up in their best kimonos and the men will put on their best suits. One the first day of the festival, as Tenjin is the deity of brush writing as well, a ceremony of brush writing will take place as an offering. There are at least two ‘burial sites’ for the brushes.
A sweet cake, shaped in the form of a plum, and a five Ten coin are also given as offerings. Open air performances of Ikebana and tea ceremonies are also held.
Knecht, Peter (1971) Tenjin Festival in Tokyo, Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.