Shinigami inspiration: The Fujiwara Clan

This post contains SPOILERS from Shinigami

The Fujiwara clan was a powerful family which dominated all areas of Japanese government during the Nara (710-794) and Heian Periods (794-1185). The clan was founded by Fujiwara no Kamatari in 645 AD, and during a period of almost 500 years, male members held on to key official positions, many acting as regents to the emperor, and ensured their daughters married into the imperial line.

“My son,” Umakai said, “our wealth, power, and name come from your great-grandfather, Fujiwara no Kamatari.” He gestured toward the fields. “He was the beginning of us all, the reason why you and I were born to live among the most powerful men in Yamato.”


Fujiwara no Kamatari with his sons Fuhito and Jōe, Nara National Museum, Japan

Why was Shinigami built around the history of the Fujiwara clan? It all started with a ghost so feared by the superstitious aristocracy of Japan, it led to the Yamato Imperial Family moving capitals from Heijo-kyo (modern day Nara) to Heian-kyō (modern day Kyōto), and shifting to a new imperial era known as Heian.

This ghost was one of the most famous onryō (vengeful/wrathful spirit) from Japanese antiquity and its haunting/possession was the first to be recorded in a historical chronicle. It had been the heir of one of the Fujiwara Four (the four sons of Fujiwara no Fuhito), who started a rebellion against the crown in order to banish Buddhism from the land.

Have you guessed who the ghost was? Here is an extract from the Shoku Nihongi, one of the Six National Histories of Ancient Japan:


***Get back now if you don’t want to be spoiled***

***Ooookay, prepared to be spoiled***

“Fujiwara Hirotsugu (藤原広嗣)’s soul harmed Genbō to death” (Hirotsugu having died in a failed insurrection, named the “Fujiwara no Hirotsugu Rebellion”, after failing to remove his rival, the priest Genbō, from power).” – Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric. (2005). “Shoku Nihongi” in Japan Encyclopedia, p. 883.

From Hirotsugu’s ghost, to the Isshi no Hen (The Isshi Incident when Soga no Iruka was assassinated by the hand of Fujiwara no Kamatari – I will write a post about this too), to the 735–737 Japanese smallpox epidemic, the book was practically writing itself.

There were many deaths in Shinigami, but only one that was not historically attested, as the character did not exist. It was the death of Takahashi Ryū. He needed to become a beautiful kitsune that would take the lead of the story inspired from the Noh play called “Kojiki”, and be more than Hiro’s lover. Everybody else, including the million people that died of smallpox, were all historical deaths. History might have been twisted, as it was woven with fantasy and mythology, but the story in the book was milder than reality, as only half of all the murders/deaths happening during Hirotsugu’s life were mentioned. History is gruesome, isn’t it?

This time last year I created a family tree for the Fujiwara Clan to help me keep track of everyone.

Hope that was interesting. See you next time!


Xia Xia

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