OKAGAMI, The Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times

OKAGAMI, The Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times

by Helen Craig McCullough


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OKAGAMI, The Great Mirror: Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times by Helen Craig McCullough

Presented here in a new and complete translation is the Japanese classic Okagami, an historical talc that mirrors a man's life and the times in which he lived. Dating from the late eleventh or early twelfth century, it focuses on Fujiwara Michinaga, the leading political figure in the great family that dominated the court during most of the Helan period.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691616087
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Okagami, the Great Mirror

Fujiwara Michinaga (966-1027) and His Times

By Helen Craig McCullough


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06419-2



It happened recently that I attended an enlightenment sermon at the Urin'in, where I witnessed an encounter between three people of extraordinary and disturbing antiquity — two graybeards and a crone, who had, it seemed, sat down in the same place by chance. How strange that such a trio should have come together! As I stared, they laughed and exchanged glances.

"For years now, I have been wanting to meet someone from the old days with whom to discuss what has been going on in the world, and especially to talk about the fortunes of our present Novice Excellency," one of the old men said. "This happy meeting reconciles me to the thought of dying. A person feels stuffed when he can't get things off his chest. No wonder the man of old dug a hole and talked into it when he had a piece of news to pass along. It's delightful to see you. Tell me, what is your age?

"I don't know," said the other, "but I am the Oinumaro who acted as page to the late Chancellor, Lord Tadahira, when he was a Chamberlain Lesser Captain. You are the famous Oyake no Yotsugi who served the Empress Mother in that reign, aren't you? You must be much older than I am. You were a man of twenty-five or twenty-six when I was only a boy."

"Yes, yes," Yotsugi agreed. "That's right. What is your name?"

"Lord Tadahira asked about my surname when I went through the capping ceremony at his mansion. I answered, 'Natsuyama,' and he named me Shigeki on the spot."

It was an astonishing dialogue. All the intelligent members of the congregation were watching from their seats or edging closer. A man of about thirty made his way to a nearby spot — an attendant from a noble household, by the look of him. "Really, now, you old people are saying some interesting things, but who is going to believe you?" he asked.

The two men looked at one another, laughing scornfully.

"You say you don't remember how old you are," said the attendant, fixing his eyes on the one who called himself Shigeki. "I wonder if this old gentleman might know?"

"Of course," said Yotsugi. "I turned 190 this year, which makes Shigeki 180; it's just that he is too modest to say so. I was born on the Fifteenth of the First Month in the year of Emperor Seiwa's abdication [876], so I have seen the reigns of thirteen sovereigns. That's not a bad age, is it? People may not think I am telling the truth, but I had a father who served a young university student, and it was a case of 'humble but near the capital.' He lerned to read and write, and he recorded my birthdate on a set of swaddling clothes, which has survived to this day. It was the hinoe saru year." He made it all sound perfectly natural.

The attendant turned to the other old man.

"I should still like to ask your age," he said. "Do you know your birth year? If so, we can easily calculate it."

"I was not reared by my own parents," Shigeki said. "Somebody else took care of me until I was twelve or thirteen. My foster father never mentioned my exact age. He just said, ? didn't have a family, but once I happened to take along ten strings of my own money when my master sent me to market. I met a woman carrying a pretty baby, and she said to me, "I'm looking for someone to take this child. He is my tenth. His father was forty when he was born, and furthermore he even arrived in the Fifth Month. I want to get rid of him." I traded my coins for him and took him home. When I asked about the family's name, the mother said it was Natsuyama.' I entered Lord Tadahira's service when I was thirteen."

"Well, well, I can't tell you how glad I am to meet you," said Yotsugi. "A buddha must have answered my prayers. Nowadays we are always hearing about sermons in some place or other, but I usually don't bother to go. It's a good thing I decided to attend this one. Is the lady someone you married in the old days?"

"No," Shigeki answered. "My first wife died young; I married this one afterwards. How about you?"

"My first wife and I are still living together. She got ready to come with me today, but she suffers from malaria, and it turned out to be one of her bad days, so she had to give it up." They seemed to be weeping, but their eyes were dry.

Time passed while we waited for the preacher. We were all feeling bored when old Yotsugi spoke up again. "Well, since there's nothing else to do, what do you say? Shall I give you a story about the old days to let these people know what things were like?"

"By all means! That would be splendid," said Shigeki. "Do talk to us. I'll speak up once in a while if I have anything to add."

It looked as though they were eager to talk, and I for one longed to hear them. Many others in the crowd were probably determined to catch every word too, but I was struck most of all by the attitude of the attendant, who seemed bent on taking part in the conversation.

"The world is a fascinating place," said Yotsugi. "Yet it is only the old who have learned to understand it a little. In ancient times, wise sovereigns sought out the oldest men and women in the country, asked them how various kinds of laws had worked in the past, and governed accordingly. The aged deserve your respect; don't look down on them, young people!" I watched in amusement as he gave a complacent cackle and hid his face behind his fan, which was made of yellow paper with nine black persimmon-wood ribs.

"I have only one thing of importance on my mind," he went on, "and that is to describe Lord Michinaga's unprecedented successes to all of you here, clergy and laity of both sexes. It is a complicated subject, so I shall have to discuss a fair number of Emperors, Empresses, ministers of state, and senior nobles first. Then when I reach Michinaga himself, the most fortunate of all, you will understand just how everything came about. They tell us that the Buddha began by expounding other sutras when he wanted to explain the Lotus, which is why his sermons are called the teachings of the five periods. That is how it is with me, too; I need to 'expound other sutras' in order to describe Michinaga's successes."

In spite of this rather theatrical and pretentious prelude, I wondered whether he would have anything worthwhile to say, but he continued in a most impressive vein.

"I suppose you youngsters nowadays think every Regent, minister of state, and senior noble in history has been very much like Michinaga.

That is far from true. Of course, they have all been descendants of the same ancestor and members of the same family, but the family has produced many different kinds of people in the process of branching out.

"The first Japanese sovereign after the seven divine generations was Elmperor Jinmu; and there have been sixty-eight Emperors from Emperor Jinmu to our present ruler. I ought to discuss each of them in turn, from Emperor Jinmu on, but that would take us far back into unfamiliar history, so I had better confine myself to the recent past.

"There was an Emperor called Montoku. From that Emperor to the present, there have been fourteen reigns. To put it in terms of years, 176 have elapsed since the accession of Emperor Montoku in the third year of Kashd [850]. Awesome as it is to speak the names of those august sovereigns...."

And he went on to tell the following story.

Imperial Annals



Emperor Montoku was the first son of Emperor Ninmyo. His mother, Senior Grand Empress Junshi, was a daughter of Minister of the Left Fuyutsugi, who was posthumously granted Senior First Rank with the title of Chancellor.

Emperor Montoku was born in the Eighth Month of the fourth year of Tencho [827]. He was bright and a good judge of character. He performed the capping ceremony on the Twenty-Sixth of the Second Month in the ninth year of Jowa [842], and became heir apparent on the Fourth of the Eighth Month in the same year, when he was sixteen. (1) He ascended the throne on the Twenty-First of the Third Month in the third year of Kasho [850], when he was twenty-four, and reigned for eight years.

The Emperor's mother gave birth to him in her nineteenth year. She attained Imperial rank at the age of forty-two, in the Fourth Month of the third year of Kasho [850]; rose to the status of Empress in the first year of Saiko [854]; received the sacramental waters as a nun on the Twenty-Ninth of the Second Month in the third year of Jogan [861]; and became Grand Empress on the Seventh of the First Month in the sixth year of Jogan [864]. She is called the Gojo Empress. It was her residence about which Middle Captain Narihira composed the poem in Tales of Ise, "Would that he might fall asleep every night" — and also "The spring of old."



The next sovereign, Emperor Seiwa, was Emperor Montoku's fourth son. His mother, Grand Empress Meishi, was Chancellor Yoshifusa's daughter. The Emperor was born in the Koichijo residence of his maternal grandfather, Yoshifusa, on the Twenty-Fifth of the Third Month in the third year of Kasho [850], which is to say on the fifth day of his father's reign — a happy and auspicious season.

Emperor Seiwa was a man of splendid character and appearance. I believe he was the one who competed with Prince Koretaka for the heir apparency. He became Crown Prince very quickly — on the Twenty-Fifth of the Eleventh Month in the year of his birth — and ascended the throne at the age of nine, on the Twenty-Seventh of the Eighth Month in the second year of Ten'an [858]. He performed the capping ceremony at fifteen, on the First of the First Month in the sixth year of Jogan [864], abdicated at the Somedono Palace after a reign of eighteen years, on the Twenty-Ninth of the Eleventh Month in the eighteenth year of Jogan [876], and entered holy orders on the Eighth of the Fifth Month in the third year of Gangyo [879]. He is called the Mizunoo Emperor. The members of today's warrior house of Minamoto are his descendants. Need I say that they serve as guardians of the Court!

Emperor Seiwa's mother gave birth to him in her twenty-third year. She rose to the position of Empress on the Seventh of the First Month in the sixth year of Jogan [864], and enjoyed Imperial status for forty-one years. She is called the Somedono Empress.

The Imperial Exorcist during that reign was Great Teacher Chisho. He returned from China in the second year of Ten'an [858].



The next ruler was Emperor Yozei, the oldest son of Emperor Seiwa. His mother was Grand Empress Koshi, a daughter of Provisional Middle Counselor Nagara, who was posthumously promoted to the office of Chancellor with Senior First Rank.

Emperor Yozei was born in the Somedono Palace on the Sixteenth of the Twelfth Month in the tenth year of Jogan [868]. He became Crown Prince during his second year, on the First of the Second Month in the eleventh year of Jogan [869]; ascended the throne at the age of nine, on the Twenty-Ninth of the Eleventh Month in the eighteenth year of Jogan [876]; performed the capping ceremony at the age of fifteen, on the Second of the First Month in the sixth year of Gangy [882]; and reigned for eight years, after which he abdicated and went to live at the Nijo Palace. Since he was eighty-one when he died sixty-five years later, the supplication at the Buddhist services on his behalf said, "He was the elder brother of Sakyamuni by one year." That was a witty conceit, but someone was told later in a dream, "His Majesty is suffering in the next world because he was called the Buddha's senior."

Emperor Yozei's mother was nine years older than Emperor Seiwa. She gave birth to him at the age of twenty-seven. She received the title of Empress at the age of thirty-six, in the First Month of the sixth year of Gangyo [882], and rose to the rank of Grand Empress at the age of forty-one, on the Seventh of the First Month in the same year. It is not clear to me how she happened to marry Emperor Seiwa, because she was the girl whom the Ariwara Middle Captain carried off and hid while she was still living a sheltered life at home. Her older brothers, Minister of State Mototsune and Major Counselor Kunitsune, who must have been very young at the time, went to fetch her back, and Narihira composed the poem, "... my beloved spouse is hidden here, and so am I." (Much later the Middle Captain recalled those events in his poem, "What happened long ago in the age of the gods.")

Under the circumstances, it would seem that Koshi probably did not become an Imperial consort in the manner usual for carefully reared young girls. I suppose the Emperor must have met her when she visited the Somedono Empress, from whom she was inseparable.

It is presumptuous for a nobody like me to talk about such things, but they are all matters of common knowledge. Is there anybody nowadays who hasn't read the Collection of Early and Modern Times and Tales of Ise?

People say the Middle Captain's poem, "Someone not unseen, nor yet quite seen," was also written during his affair with that lady. When we think of the poems he bequeathed to posterity, we can't help regarding him as an amazing gallant. Of course, the old times were more elegant and interesting than ours. (This was said with a smile. He grew more and more impressive; I felt quite put to shame.) She was the lady known as the Nijo Empress.



The next ruler was Emperor Koko, Emperor Ninmyo's third son. His mother, Posthumous Grand Empress Takushi, was a daughter of Posthumous Chancellor Fusatsugi.

Emperor Koko was born at the Higashigojo Mansion in the seventh year of Tencho [830], during the reign of Emperor Junna. He was granted Fourth Princely Rank at the age of seven, on the Seventh of the First Month in the third year of Jowa [836], during the reign of his father, the Fukakusa Emperor. He became Minister of Central Affairs at twenty-one, in the First Month of the third year of Kasho [850]; advanced to Third Rank at twenty-two, on the Twenty-First of the Eleventh Month in the first year of Ninju [851]; assumed the additional office of governor of Kozuke Province at thirty-five, on the Sixteenth of the First Month in the sixth year of Jogan [864]; transferred to the post of Provisional Governor-General of the Dazaifu on the Thirteenth of the First Month in the eighth year of Jogan [866]; advanced to Second Rank at forty, on the Seventh of the Second Month in the twelfth year of Jogan [870]; became Minister of Ceremonial at forty-six, on the Twenty-Sixth of the Second Month in the eighteenth year of Jogan [876]; advanced to First Rank at fifty-three, on the Seventh of the First Month in the sixth year of Gangyo [882]; assumed the additional office of Governor-General of the Dazaifu in the First Month of the eighth year of Gangyo [884]; and ascended the throne on the Fourth of the Second Month in the same year, at the age of fifty-five. He reigned for four years. He is called the Komatsu Emperor. I cannot say whether it is true, but I have heard that the Black Chamber next to the Fujitsubo Imperial Apartment was built during his reign.


Excerpted from Okagami, the Great Mirror by Helen Craig McCullough. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Translator's Preface, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • Chapter One, pg. 65
  • Chapter Two, pg. 90
  • Chapter Three, pg. 127
  • Chapter Four, pg. 162
  • Chapter Five, pg. 184
  • Chapter Six, pg. 215
  • Appendix A. Persons and Places Mentioned in the Text, pg. 241
  • Appendix B. Translations from Other Ōkagami Textual Lines, pg. 295
  • Appendix C. Chronology of the Ōkagami Period, pg. 305
  • Appendix D. The Fujiwara Role in Japanese Court History from Kamatari to Michinaga, pg. 335
  • Figure 1. Heiankyō, pg. 357
  • Figure 2. The Greater Imperial Palace (Daidairi), pg. 358
  • Figure 3. The Imperial Residential Compound (Dairi), pg. 359
  • Figure 4. The Emperor's Residence (Seiryōden), pg. 360
  • List of Works Cited, pg. 361
  • Index, pg. 367

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