Minamoto no Toru: The Basis of Famous Character Hikaru Genji

Throughout the history of Japan, there have been several men and women who played great roles in shaping not just the future of Japan but its culture as well. With different periods of time, some people were notable to the point that certain authors were inspired to create characters based on these people. In the case of the author of the renowned “Tales of Genji,” its main character Hikaru Genji was said to be based on the personality of a man named Minamoto no Toru.

The Life of Minamoto no Toru

Utagawa Kunisada [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born in the year 822, Minamoto no Toru was a son of Emperor Saga. He never became an emperor but he held various high positions in court throughout his lifetime. He was a well-known court noble as well as an influential official during the 9th century. In the year 872, Toru was designated as Sadaijin, which means “Minister of the Left.”

Later on, in the year 887, he was promoted to Junior First Rank. One of the things that Minamoto no Toru was famous for was being a probable inspiration for the main character of the epic Tale of Genji, Hikaru Genji. Hikaru Genji served as the lead protagonist of the story.

Another thing that Minamoto no Toru was known for was his villa located in Uji. His villa eventually became the site of the Byodo-in. One other structure that Minamoto no Toru was known for was his grand mansion located in Kyoto proper. This grand mansion once served as the location of the grounds of the Nishiki Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine.

Despite his considerable power and influence in court, he eventually retired to his grand mansion in Kyoto after a certain period of time. This grand mansion was known as the Kawara-no-in. It was said that one of the things that pushed Minamoto no Toru to retirement was the rise of Fujiwara no Mototsune.

Being an Imperial Regent, Mototsune was higher and more powerful than Toru. Not wanting to be in conflict, Toru just decided to retire. It was also said that Kawaramachi-dori, a primary avenue in Kyoto, was named after the grand mansion of Minamoto no Toru. Eventually, Minamoto no Toru passed away in the year 895.

The major property of Minamoto no Toru was vast and covered a considerably huge area of land. It stretched from the banks of the Kamogawa located in the east to Yanagi-no-banda-dori situated in the west. The area also spans from Gojo-dori located in the north to Shomen-dori situated in the south. The water used in the estate was drawn from the Kamo in order to be able to tend to its gardens and ponds.

One of the features of the estate was a huge hackberry tree. Until today, this tree still stands and is said to exist from the extensive woods that used to cover an area of the estate. This tree was so well-regarded that a small shrine known as Enoki Daimyojin had connections to the said tree. This shrine still stands to this day.

The Tale of Genji was said to be greatly associated with Minamoto no Toru. Many suggest that Minamoto no Toru and his personality served as the model for the character of Prince Genji. In addition, it was also said that the Kawara-no-in served as a model or basis for the setting of the Rokujo mansion.

It was in this mansion in the novel where a lot of action scenes took place. At present, Minamoto no Toru was enshrined at the Shiogama Shrine, more commonly known as Shiogama jinja. This shrine serves as a subordinate shrine under the Nishiki Tenmangu.      

Aside from being a prominent court noble, Minamoto no Toru also wrote poetry. One of his works went, “Michinoku no; Shinobu mojizuri; tare yue ni; midaremu to omou; ware naranaku ni.” This translates to, “Random patterned cloth; from Shinobu in the Northland; not for some other; this wildly imprinted abandon; to the turmoil of desire.”

Minamoto no Toru’s Father, Emperor Saga

By 日本語: 不明(伝小野篁)English: Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The father of Minamoto no Toru was Emperor Saga. A formidable man himself, Minamoto no Toru probably got his traits from his father. Born on the 10th of October in the year 786, Emperor Saga served as the 52nd emperor of Japan. This was based on the traditional order of succession. His rule began in the year 809 and ended in the year 823.

Emperor Saga was born the second son of Emperor Kanmu with Fujiwara no Otomuro. This meant that Minamoto no Toru was a grandson of the famous Emperor Kanmu. The personal name of Emperor Saga before he ascended the throne was Kamino.

Aside from being an emperor, Saga was also known as a great calligrapher who could compose in Chinese. It was he who was actually responsible for holding the first imperial poetry competition. There was also a legend that stated that Emperor Saga was also the first Japanese emperor who drank tea.

It was in the year 806 when Saga became the crown prince at 21 years old. Three years later, Emperor Heizei, the predecessor of Saga, fell gravely ill during his fourth year of reign. Because of this, the late emperor decided to abdicate his throne. The reason why it was Saga, the second son of Kanmu, who received this succession was that his older brother had become a Buddhist priest.

However, just a short period after his succession to the throne, Emperor Saga himself fell gravely ill. During this time, Heizei, who was already retired, had conflicting ideas with his brother when it came to the best location of the court. Heizei wanted the court to be moved to the Nara plain while his brother wanted the court to be located in the Heian capital.

Seeing Emperor Saga’s weakened state, Heizei took advantage of the situation. He gathered people and started a rebellion. This rebellion became known as the Kusuko Incident. However, there were also forces that were loyal to Emperor Saga. These forces were headed by taishogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. He was able to defeat Heizei and quench the impending consequences of an uprising.

Eventually, Emperor Saga passed away on the 24th of August in the year 842 at the age of 57. As tradition went, Emperor Saga was venerated at his tomb. Saganoyamanoe no Misasagi, also known as Saganoyamanoe Imperial Mausoleum in English, was appointed as the location of Saga’s mausoleum by the Imperial Household Agency. This mausoleum can be found in Ukyo-ku situated in Kyoto.

Minamoto no Toru, as well as his father Emperor Saga, belongs to one of the four noble clans in ancient Japan, the Minamoto clan. This clan was part of the four well-known families in old Japan collectively known as the Gempeitokitsu. The Minamoto clan was also sometimes referred to as Genji. The Saga Genji began from Emperor Saga.

One of the many actions of Emperor Saga as emperor of Japan was the prohibition of meat consumption in the 9th century. This prohibition had an exception for fish and birds. In the year 818, Emperor Saga also removed capital punishment. The dietary habit of the Japanese people of eating healthy and nutritious food was cultivated by this decree of the emperor. However, it only began to change when the European dietary customs were introduced to Japan in the 19th century.

Emperor Saga also highly supported the Buddhist monk Kukai. Through the Emperor’s help, Kukai was able to build and establish the Shingon School of Buddhism. He was granted To-ji Temple located in the Heian capital now known as Kyoto by Emperor Saga.

Fujiwara no Mototsune: Surpassing Minamoto no Toru

By Hannah [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

The man that pushed Minamoto no Toru to retirement was none other than Fujiwara no Mototsune. Born in the year 836, Mototsune was also referred to as Horikawa Daijin. He was a courtier, statesman, and politician during the Heian era. Although he was originally the third son of Fujiwara no Nagara, Mototsune was eventually adopted by his uncle.

Fujiwara no Yoshifusa favored Mototsune and adopted the latter because he did not have any sons. Influential and powerful, Mototsune followed his uncle’s footsteps and was able to become powerful in his own right. He served as regent for four consecutive emperors of Japan.

Because Mototsune wanted to maintain his power and influence in the court even after an emperor has already become mature to lead on his own, Mototsune thought of a way to achieve this. He invented the position of kampaku regent. Through this, he was still able to support and advise the emperor even if the emperor was already of sound mind and body to decide for himself. Thanks to Mototsune, the Fujiwara clan was able to sustain its power through the years.

Also because of his great power and influence in the court, Mototsune overshadowed Minamoto no Toru. Instead of trying to fight against Mototsune, Toru decided to just retire to his home and avoid any problems. Mototsune became Dainagon in the year 870. Through the years, he was able to climb up the ladder of power in court. He became Udaijin, Sessho, and Daijo Daijin.

Eventually, Mototsune invented the title Kampaku and bestowed it upon himself in the year 884. After six years, Mototsune decided to retire as Kampaku in the year 890. Finally, Mototusne passed away at the age of 56 on the 25th of February in the year 891.

Shiogama Shrine: Where Minamoto no Toru is Enshrined

By Bachstelze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Minamoto no Toru was enshrined at Shiogama jinja. This Shinto shrine is located in the city of Shiogama situated in Miyagi Prefecture. Well-known since the 9th century, this shrine can be found in the region of Tohoku situated in northern Japan. Several of the buildings of this shrine were designated as Important Cultural Properties.

Shiogama Shrine also serves as the head shrine of numerous Shiogama shrines that can be found all over Japan. The gods in this head shrine were composed of guardian deities of seafarers. It is common for fishermen and voyagers to visit this shrine to pray and say thanks. It also had a guardian deity for pregnant women.

Shiogama Jinja was said to have been built prior to the historic era. There is a legend that surrounds the shrine. It is said that Amaterasu-Omikami, the Sun Goddess, ordered both Takemikazuchi-no-Kami and Futsunushi-no-Kami to develop the area of the Tohoku region. However, a third kami known as Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami joined the duo.

Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami served as the guidance of the two other kami that led to this region. Upon the arrival of these gods, the area was able to enjoy peace and serenity for a period of time. It was also Shiotsuchi-Oji-no-Kami who served as the teacher of the people wherein they were taught how to create salt from seawater. As thanks, the people constructed a shrine to devote to the three kami.

There are historical records that prove the existence of Shiogama jinja that dates back to 820 AD. Shiogama Shrine was also appointed the Ichinomiya of the province of Mutsu. Furthermore, it was also named in the Engishiki records that date back to 927 AD. The shrine enjoyed donations from several emperors for a certain period of time during the Heian era. Moreover, several local warrior clans like the Northern Fujiwara patronized and supported this shrine.

The shrine also became as part of the territory of the Date clan of Sendai Domain during the Edo period. Shiogama Shrine enjoyed the patronization of the Date clan beginning with Date Masamune. Several of its present buildings were constructed from the period of the ruling of the Date clan.

At present, there are several festivities held in Shiogama Shrine every single year. Some of these include Hatsumode on the 1st of January, Setsubun on the 3rd of February, Hote Matsuri on the 10th of March, Hana Matsuri on the 4th Sunday of April, and Rensai from the 4th to the 10th of July. Hote Matsuri dates back to the year 1882 and is held for the prosperity and protection of the city of Shiogama.