The Peculiar Life of Emperor Sutoku

Because of Japan’s colorful history and culture, each of their emperors was characters whose lives were all worth putting into a book to share with the world. There were emperors in Japan whose lives could have been turned into a Hollywood blockbuster film while others’ lives could have been turned into the next “Romeo and Juliet”. Of all the interesting lives each of their emperors have had, the life that Emperor Sutoku had is one that is worth remembering because of the twists and turns that happened which contributed a lot to why his life became a unique one.

By ? (白峯神宮所蔵) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Sutoku’s Beginnings

He was born on the 7th of July in the year of 1119 and from his birth until right before he ascended into the Chrysanthemum Throne, his imina or the personal name he went by was Akihito. Do not confuse him with the Akihito who became His Imperial Majesty though because they are far from being the same person. Emperor Sutoku was the eldest child of Emperor Toba and Fujiwara no Tamako who ruled during the years of 1107 until 1123.

By ? (安楽寿院) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, the leadership of a clan or a transfer of major power during those times was done when a boy reached the age of 7 but the situation with the succession of Japanese emperors is a completely different thing. There isn’t usual or official time or age that an emperor becomes an emperor in Japan but in the case of Emperor Sutoku and his father, Emperor Toba, a pattern occurred. It happened through different series of events but both of them started their reign at the age of 3. It happened to his father at that age because his father and predecessor, Emperor Horikawa, died at the young age of 29. After Horikawa’s death, the succession was received by Toba in the year of 1107.

Since 3-year-old Toba cannot handle the power and responsibility handed to him by the succession he received, during the earlier years of his reign, the Emperor’s power was actually held by his grandfather and former Emperor Shirakawa under a rule known as the cloistered rule. This is an important thing to take note of because it showed how a retired emperor can still hold that much power in the Japanese government then. This cloistered rule would also be how a retired Emperor Toba would continue to be in power even after he had abdicated and gave succession to Emperor Sutoku.  Emperor Sutoku was given succession at age 3 as well and just like Emperor Shirakawa did, Emperor Toba used this to stay in power even after this reign and no one could oppose it.

Emperor Sutoku’s Reign

Los Angeles County Museum of Art [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is unclear when Emperor Sutoku really took the reins from Emperor Toba since Toba did handle the duties of being emperor while Sutoku was still unable to due to his age. Despite this fact, the recorded events in Sutoku’s reign started from the time of his succession. This happened in the year of 1123, specifically on February 25. That day was the 28th day of the 1st month in the Hoan 4 period and it ended the 16-year reign of Emperor Toba.

Succession was received during the 1st month of the Hoan 4 period but Emperor Sutoku did not ascend to the throne until the 2nd month of that period. Not much was recorded shortly after that but in the year of 1124, particularly in the second month of the Tenji 1 period, there was a grand get-together. It is considered a grand get-together because so many people of great position showed up. There were the likes of former Emperor Shirakawa as well as former Emperor Toba. Taiken-mon’in, who was formerly known as Fujiwara no Shoshi, was also in attendance along with Fujiwara Tadamichi, who would play a big role in serving the emperors of the late Heian period.

On the 10th month of the Tenji 2 period, the emperor went on a pilgrimage of some sort as he visited the Iwashimizu Shrine as well as the Kamo Shrines. He didn’t stop there as he also visited the shrines found in areas like the Hirano, Mutsunoo, Kitano, Gion, Oharano and much more for that matter. Since Emperor Sutoku would have been at the age of 6 or 7 when this happened, it could be noted as one of his first official acts as emperor because he would have already been conscious about his actions at that age.

Emperor Sutoku’s reign is comprised of 7 eras which are namely the Hoan, Tenji, Daiji, Tensho, Chosho, Hoen, and Eiji. All these eras combined would amount to about 19 years at the throne. The events of the Hoan and Tenji eras have been mentioned but if you are looking for details about an era that defined Emperor Sutoku, you should skip straight to the Eiji era. This happened in the last two years of his reign which was during the years of 1141 and 1142.

It might have been unrelated to each other but coincidentally, the year 1141 was the year wherein former Emperor Toba decided to go on with his plans to become a monk. This was also the year wherein Emperor Sutoku would decide to step down or retire from the throne in favor of his half-brother. The half-brother being spoken off here is no other than Emperor Konoe. This retirement was seen as a great move by some because it helped maintain the peace but what Sutoku would do after changed everything about it.

Just like his father and grandfather who had held the power of the throne for years even after their time, he tried to do the same thing as well but in a different way. This attempt of Sutoku to keep or retain the power obviously created a lot of tension and disturbance between Sutoku and Emperor Go-Shirakawa, who took over after Emperor Konoe. Eventually, things would escalate even further and in the year of 1156, it resulted in the breakout of the famous Hogen Rebellion. In this rebellion, the leaders of the Minamoto clan, as well as the leaders of the Taira clans, fought for both sides. In the end, Sutoku would lose the battle and this loss meant his exile to the islands of Shikoku in the Kagawa prefecture which was known as the Sanuki province on Shikoku during those times.

The Final Chapters of Emperor Sutoku

Public Domain,

Since Emperor Sutoku was exiled to islands in the Kagawa Prefecture, it was only natural for his grave to be there as well. He is usually honored at a memorial Shinto shrine in the area but he is also enshrined in the Shiramine shrine, which can be found in Kyoto and Kotohira-gu. These are all great facts to know when learning about Emperor Sutoku but it isn’t what is most enticing about the story of Emperor Sutoku.

The details that make Emperor Sutoku such an interesting emperor in the history of Japan are the legends that he is linked to. Many believe that after he was exiled, he gave all his time and effort to live a monastic life. He offered several copied scriptures to the court but not one of the scriptures was ever accepted because the court feared that he cursed these scriptures. Legends say that this left him bitter enough to turn into an onryo upon his death. For those who do not know, the onryo is what you call a Japanese vengeful spirit.

Because he was believed to have turned into an evil spirit, events like the rise of the samurai power as well as the draughts and internal unrests where blamed on the spirit of Sutoku as they believed it was his acts of haunting. This legend became so popular that Emperor Sutoku would actually be known as one of the “Three Great Onryo of Japan” along with Sugawara no Michizane and Taira no Masakado. There are also variations of this legend wherein the spirit of Sutoku did not turn into an onryo but rather a tengu, which is also a mythical creature in Japanese culture. If you follow this version of the legend then you would eventually find out that as a tengu, Sutoku’s spirit was considered to be part of the “Three Great Evil Yokai of Japan”.

Considering the entire life of Emperor Sutoku as written by writers like Varley and Brown, it can clearly be seen that it was one that involved a lot of superiority. As for the legends at the end of his life, these details actually separate the life of Emperor Sutoku from all other emperors because he is one of only a few that have such stories and beliefs linked to their life. There are many other great Japanese personalities like Oda Nobunaga who were believed to turn into vengeful spirits or mythical beings upon their deaths but none like how Emperor Sutoku’s spirit was seen. Farfetched or not, the story of Emperor Sutoku’s life is proof of Japan’s creativity and it has become a story that teaches the youth about letting go of bitterness to save your spirit from becoming an evil one upon one’s death.