Introduction to Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami


Historical Basis of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami


Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami (Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy), originally a jôruri (puppet) play in five acts in the jidamono (history play) style, was written by Takeda Izumo II, Miyoshi Shôraku, and Namiki Sôsuke in 1746. The same playwrights were also responsible for Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, 1747, and Kanadehon Chûshingura, 1748, which together constitute the golden period of writing for jôruri (puppet theatre). Sugawara was quickly adapted into kabuki, with “The Village School” (Terakoya) Scene becoming representative of the play, so much so, that it is frequently performed as an independent play. While the play drew on one by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), Tenjin-ki (“Chronicle of Tenjin”), the playwrights added various folktale elements and plot innovations. According to legend, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), one of two principal ministers at the imperial court in Kyoto and a master of calligraphy, was exiled by the emperor in 901 to Dazaifu in Kyushu, where he died. The malice of the other principal minister, Fujiwara no Tokihira (in the play, Shihei), was the cause for the emperor’s action. Soon after Sugawara’s death, natural disasters followed in quick succession until his reputation was restored and he was elevated to the position of a god (“Tenjin”). Since then Sugawara has been venerated as the patron of calligraphy and scholarship; a veneration which persists in modern Japan with students praying at the numerous Tenjin shrines for success in entrance examinations at all levels of the education system. The parts of the triplets, Matsuômaru, Umeômaru, and Sakuramaru were included along with Takebe Genzô and his wife, and Michizane’s aunt Kakuju. The triplets are named after Sugawara’s favorite trees: pine (Matsu[ômaru]), plum (Ume[ômaru]), and cherry (Sakura[maru]). Each of the triplets serves a different master, including the opposing masters Sugawara and Shihei, which leads to passionate rivalry. Also, the playwrights are reputed to have competed in the writing of one scene apiece based on the theme of parting between a parent and child. This resulted in three such scenes in the play: Dômyôji Temple” (Dômyôji), “Celebration” (Ga no Iwai), and “The Village School” in Acts 2, 3 and 4, respectively.


Principal Characters and Households


(Bold Font marks the name by which the character is popularly known.)


The Imperial Court.

Prince Tokiyo, the emperor’s younger brother


Sugawara’s Household (and allies).

Sugawara no Michizane, Minister of the Right

Kan Shûsai, young son

Kariya, adopted daughter

Kakuju, Sugawara’s aunt

Tatsuta, older daughter

Kariya, younger daughter

Shiradayû, retainer; father of the triplets

Genzô, former calligraphy disciple of Sugawara; now a teacher in a remote village

Tonami, wife

Sansuke, servant of Chiyo


Shihei’s Household (and allies).

Fujiwara no Shihei, Minister of the Left

Genba, retainer

Haji no Hyôe, Tarô’s father of Sukune Tarô

Washizuka Heima, retainer


The Triplets:

Matsuômaru, groom in Shihei’s service

Chiyo, wife

Kotarô, son

Umeômaru, groom in Sugawara’s service

Haru, wife

Sakuramaru, groom in Prince Tokiyo’s service



Act 1. The Imperial Palace; The Banks of the Kamo River; and The Transmission of the Secrets of Calligraphy


In Scene 1 Chinese priest arrives to paint a portrait of the emperor. Due to the emperor’s illness, Shihei and Sugawara discuss a stand-in for the emperor. Shihei nominates himself in a move calculated as a step towards the throne, but the emperor selects Prince Tokiyo. Shihei perceives favoritism for Sugawara whose younger daughter, Kariya, is Tokiyo’s betrothed. The emperor also orders Sugawara to pass on his calligraphy secrets to a disciple of Sugawara’s choice. In the second scene on the banks of the Kamo River, Sakuramaru arranges an assignation between Tokiyo and Kariya. A spy spots the couple, reports back to Shihei, and returns with support to attack the young lovers’ rearguard, Sakuramaru’s wife, Yae, who escapes. The significance of the first two scenes (which are often omitted) is the rousing of Shihei’s wrath for Sugawara. The play normally commences with Scene 3: “The Transmission of the Secrets of Calligraphy.” Sugawara summons his best disciple, Genzô, who was previously dismissed for falling in love with a maid, Tonami, in Sugawara’s service. The couple have since established a remote village school. After Sugawara passes on his calligraphy secrets, the emperor summons him to court. Sugawara’s hat falls off, in what is seen as an ill omen, and Shihei falsely accuses Sugawara of coveting the throne via the marriage of Kariya to Tokiyo. The emperor exiles Sugawara. Genzô, realizing the threat to Sugawara’s son, Kan Shûsai, runs off with the young boy to the country.


Act 2. Dômyôji Temple


Shihei’s spies have caught up with Tokiyo and Kariya. Tokiyo has been taken away and Kariya placed in the care of her older sister, Tatsuya, who lives near Dômyôji Temple. Sugawara is staying under the same roof pending the arrival of an escort at cockcrow to take him to Dazaifu. Angry at Kariya for her love affair which has been used to disgrace Sugawara, Kakuju, mother of Tatsuta and Kariya, beats Kariya with a stick. Sukune Tarô and his father Hyôe, Shihei’s minions, conspire to assassinate Sugawara. Tatsuta, who is Tarô’s husband, overhears their plan to make a cock crow before daybreak, is murdered by Tarô, and her corpse thrown into a pond. The cock crows when it is held over the corpse, in accord with superstition, and the false escort leaves with Sugawara in a litter. Kakuju discovers Tatsuta’s corpse, spots cloth missing from Tarô’s kimono used as a gag, and stabs Tarô. The real escort arrives, learns of the skullduggery and is about to set off in pursuit when the false escort returns having discovered that its passenger was, in fact, a wooden statue of Sugawara. However, Sugawara emerges from the litter, the false escort is arrested, and Hyôe summarily executed. Kariya tearfully sees off Sugawara.


Act 3. The Struggle for the Carriage; and The Celebration


“The Struggle for the Carriage” (Kuruma-biki) Scene brings together the triplets for the first time. Sakuramaru and Umeômaru, dispossessed of their masters (Tokiyo and Sugawara) and consequently unemployed, encounter Matsuômaru, retainer of Shihei, the cause of their plight. In order to represent the differences between the triplets, each acts in a different style (Sakuramaru — the weak, romantic; Umeômaru — the hero; and Matsuômaru — the villain), and each wears a distinctive costume with the sleeve bearing his flower emblem (cherry, plum, or pine) and makeup that indicates his role. Sakuramaru and Umeômaru attack Matsuômaru for his loyalty to his master and, when Shihei’s carriage arrives, pull apart the carriage. Shihei, in ceremonial court attire, long wig, and blue makeup, which denotes his role as an evil noble, emerges and glowers with malevolence from the top of the carriage. Terror-struck, Sakuramaru and Umeômaru agree to settle differences with Matsuômaru at Sugawara’s forthcoming birthday celebration.


In Scene 2, the triplets gather at the home in Sata Village of Shiradayû, their father and elderly retainer of Sugawara. Umeômaru and Matsuômaru soon begin fighting. Deprived of swords by their wives, they toss large straw bales and snap a branch from Sugawara’s favorite cherry tree just before he appears. Sugawara and Shiradayû disown Matsuômaru, who departs in anguish. Sakuramaru commits suicide as the result of an omen: the breaking of the branch that signified his responsibility for the act of bringing Tokiyo and Kariya together which has led to Sugawara’s downfall. Shiradayû’s heartbreak is compounded because he is obligated to live on in order to continue serving Sugawara. Sakuramaru’s wife, Yae, shares Shiradayû’s fate.


Act 4. Mt. Tempai; and The Village School


One year later on Mt. Tempai, in Kyushu, Sugawara dreams that his favorite plum tree has been transported to a neighboring temple. Shiradayû accompanies Sugawara on a visit to the temple where their plum blossom-viewing is interrupted by a duel between Umeômaru and Heima, a retainer sent by Shihei to assassinate Sugawara. Sugawara decapitates Heima with a plum branch and then ascends to heaven. This scene is rarely performed.


“The Village School” (Terakoya), the most famous scene of the play, begins with Sugawara’s son, the noble-looking Kan Shûsai, standing apart from the rough village children. Shihei has learned that Genzô, the school’s teacher, is harboring Kan Shûsai. His soldiers surround the village and order Genzô to surrender the child’s head. Chiyo escorts her son, the gentle-looking Kôtarô, into the schoolyard for Tonami, Genzô’s wife, to enrol him. The touching separation of Chiyo and Kôtarô is parodied by that between Sansuke, Chiyo’s servant, and her idiot son. As soon as Tonami introduces Kôtarô, Genzô realizes that the head of Kôtarô might substitute for that of Kan Shûsai, and he consults Tonami.


Shihei has ordered Matsuômaru to verify the head of Kan Shûsai. As a sign of the tragedy to follow, Matsuômaru wears a bushy wig, signifying sickness, and a magnificent kimono bearing a bleak design of snow-covered pines. The nasty Genba and a band of police encircle the school to ensure that Kan Shûsai does not escape. Matsuômaru compares the number of desks with the number of children, whose faces he inspects as they leave, and concludes that, as he has ordered, his own son, Kôtarô, has been brought to the school in the hope that Genzô will substitute his head. He orders Genzô to produce the head and then listens to the sickening sound of a decapitation indoors. Matsuômaru staggers sickeningly in a famous pose. Genzô returns with a box and, in the play’s climax, Matsuômaru grips the box and stares inside unable to betray whether it is the head of his son or that of Kan Shûsai. He declares that it is Kan Shûsai’s head and then departs with the resolution that illness has compelled him to leave Shihei’s service.


Chiyo comes to collect Kôtarô, and Genzô attempts to kill her to conceal the substitution. Chiyo defends herself by holding up Kôtarô’s desk, out of which falls his burial clothes, revealing the plan of Chiyo and Matsuômaru. The parents, joyous at preserving the life of Kan Shûsai and grieving for Kôtarô, remove their clothes disclosing white mourning kimono, and are joined by Sugawara’s wife. The mixture of exultation and sorrow lends the closing pose by all the parents especial poignancy.


Act 5. Disaster at the Imperial Palace


The final act is not often performed. Sugawara has died vowing retribution on Shihei. Catastrophes strike successively until a priest divines the cause. Kan Shûsai kills Shihei, Sugawara’s name is restored, and Sugawara is declared a god.


In Conclusion


The gradual convergence of the plots involving Sugawara and the triplets (including the supernatural elements and omens that demonstrate the loyalty of the triplets to Sugawara) climaxes in the “The Village School” Scene. In kabuki that scene is comparable in dramatic intensity only with the “Hangan’s Suicide” Scene in Kanadehon Chûshingura. The minor dramas concerning Kakuju and Kariya, the assassination attempts on Sugawara, and the display of Sugawara’s supernatural powers also provide highly engaging materials for kabuki.


Recommended Internet Sites and Reading

Internet Sites

“The Struggle for the Carriage” Scene (Kuruma-biki)

Collection of ukiyo-e (prints).


Sugawara Tenjin Shrines


Biography of Sugawara no Michizane


The Dazaifu Shrine dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane.


Precinct of the Shrine

The Significance of the Plum Tree for Sugawara


Sugawara in Exile at Dazaifu.


Translations and Analyses


Leiter, Samuel L. (Trans. and Ed.). The Art of Kabuki: Famous Plays in Performance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Press, 2000.

Ernst, Earle (Trans. and Ed.). Three Japanese Plays from the Traditional Theatre. London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1959; and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Jones Jr., Stanleigh H. (Trans. and Ed.). Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

To the Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami contents

Last revised January 2, 2001