Abe no Seimei (安倍 晴明) was the greatest onmyoji (Japanese wizard) to ever have lived. Much like Merlin, although he was once a real person, his life is surrounded by fascinating tales of his supernatural abilities!
Onmyoji: Japanese Wizards
The word onymoji directly translates to “those who study yin and yang”, they are those who practice onmyodo (aka “the path of yin and yang”). Onmyoji are similar to Western magicians, wizards or astrologers. The people of the Heian Era (around 1000 years ago) believed that onmyoji were able to use the stars to predict the future. They also believed that onmyoji could use their spiritual power to control spirits, yokai and yurei (ghosts). Onmyodo, came to Japan from Ancient China as Taoist magic. However, later onmyodo branched away from its Chinese roots, becoming influenced by Shintoism and Buddhism.
Onmyoji were appointed by the Emperor, to perform various ceremonies for the court. These ceremonies could prevent misfortune by appeasing wrathful spirits, exorcise ghosts and even guide the Emperor by predicting the future!
Abe no Seimei helped the Emperor of the time, as the most talented member of the Bureau of Onmyoji (or Onmyoryo), the official government office for Onmyoji (because of course, in Japan, even wizards get to be a part of bureaucracy).
The Factual History of Abe no Seimei
Abe no Seimei’s life, much like that of Merlin, is a mix of facts found in historical records, and legends. However, there are a few points about his life, of which we can be certain:
Abe no Seimei was a real historical figure, born on February 19th, in the year 921. He was born on the current location of the Abemonju-in Temple in Sakurai, Nara, Japan.
Abe no Seimei’s given name (晴明), in the Japanese pronunciation is Haruaki, but in the Heian era, the names of important figures were pronounced in the Chinese manner instead.
Seimei’s father was Abe no Yasuna, and he was a descendant of the Poet Abe no Nakamaro. Abe no Yasuna also studied onmyodo, his masters were Kamo no Yasunori and his father, Kamo no Tadayuki.
Abe no Seimei studied onmyodo and astrology (tenmondō 天文道) under the tutelage of Kamo no Yasunori. He later took Kamo no Yasunori’s place as Court Onmyoji and Astrologer. Kamo no Yasunori’s son was placed in charge of the court calendar (rekidō 暦道)
His Time At Court:
Abe no Seimei’s fame did not begin until the end of his life, around the age of 50, when the Emperor appointed him to the Bureau of Yin and Yang, or Bureau of Onmyodo. In addition to being an onmyoji, Abe no Seimei was also a middle tier bureaucrat, performing more mundane tasks as well. Many of Abe no Seimei’s actions as a court official are recorded in the diaries of various officials: the Midō- kanpakuki, the Seiji yōryaku, the Shōyūki, the Gonki and the Chikanobu-kyō ki.
The genealogy of the Abe clan in the Sonpi bunmyaku records that Abe no Seimei lived until the year 1005, dying at the age of around 85. This was a very long life for the time. His abnormally long life is perhaps one of the reasons people believed he was so supernaturally powerful.
In 1007, after his death, the Emperor Ichijou erected the Seimei Jinja Shrine in Kyoto at the location of Abe no Seimei’s home.
The Abe clan later remained in charge of the Bureau of Onmyodo, and the Kamo clan in charge of keeping the calendars until 1869 when the Bureau was shut down.
Seimei is attributed authorship of the Senji Ryakketsu, an onmyodo primer which explains how to use shikigami in divination rituals (six thousand forecast and thirty-six fortune telling techniques to be exact). He also translated the Hoki Naiden (also called the Book of Yin and Yang)which contains secret divination techniques.
Asteroid 554, discovered in 1976, is named Seimei.
Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu used the music from the movie Onmyōji for his skating program in 2015, winning him his second consecutive gold medal.
Abe no Seimei’s seal (mon) is a five pointed star, the Seiman. It is based on the Chinese philosophy Wu Xing, or the five elements:
The Legends of Abe no Seimei: a Life of Magic and Mystery
After his death, countless legends sprang up around Abe no Seimei. There were even noh and kabuki plays about him. Unfortunately, these plays and legends have so dramatized his life, that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. But they make for great stories!
Abe No Seimei’s Childhood
Abe no Seimei’s father was an onmyoji, his mother a kitsune (a fox yokai). The love story of Abe no Seimei’s parents is dramatic enough to rival a K-drama. The kabuki play Ashiya Dōman Ōuchi Kagami (A Courtly Mirror of Ashiya Dōman) also tells this story, albeit with some minor differences.
The Romance of Abe no Yasunori and Kuzu no Ha
One day, when Abe no Yasunori, (Abe no Seimei’s father) was on his way to Shinoda Shrine, he met a hunter, trying to kill foxes and use their livers as medicine. Abe no Yasunori stumbled accross a hunter about to deal the death blow to a beautiful white fox. Yasunori rushed forward to save the fox, battling the hunter and getting injured in the process. After driving the hunter away, Abe no Yasunori treated the white fox’s wounds, and released her back into the forest.
Some time later a woman, Kuzu-no-Ha appears from the forest. She helps the injured Abe no Yasunori home. The two fall in love and marry. Kuzu-no-Ha soon gives birth to a son named Seimei (childhood name Doji, which actually just translates to child…)
A Troublesome Child
According to the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, Abe no Seimei’s yokai ancestry soon manifested itself. In early childhood, he could already see all things supernatural and was unusually clever. At the precocious age of five he was already able to control weak oni to follow his orders as his shikigami (can you imagine taking care of a five year old who can control demons?)
Abe no Seimei was too powerful for his own good. Because he was able to see spirits, he one day he saw through his mother’s disguise. He realized she was a fox-spirit, or kitsune, not a human. Her disguise seen through, Kuzu-no-Ha returned to the wild, only leaving behind a poem telling her husband to come find her at Shinoda forest. The poem is the following:
“Koishiku ba / tazunekite miyo / izumi naru / shinoda no mori no / urami kuzunoha.”
Folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki translates the poem as: “If you love me, darling, come and see me. / You will find me yonder in the great wood / Of Shinoda of Izumi Province where the leaves / Of arrowroots always rustle in pensive mood.”
Naturally, Abe no Seimei and Abe no Yasunori went looking for Kuzu-no-Ha in Shinoda forest. Eventually, she appeared, in the form of a fox. She fully awakened Abe no Seimei’s spiritual powers and also gave him the ability to understand beasts.
To Use his Powers for Good…
Because Seimei was too powerful, and because of his tendencies to act like a fox (he liked to eat bugs and raw meat), Kuzu-no-Ha told her husband that she wished for Abe no Seimei to study onmyodo with Kamo no Tadayuki. She hoped that the Kamo clan would raise Abe no Seimei to become a proper human, and not let him use his powers for evil. And so Abe no Seimei began the path of an onmyoji…
Abe no Seimei’s Time at the Imperial Court
As an accomplished onmyoji, Abe no Seimei was famous for his use of shikigami, or servant spirits (for more, read my article on shikigami!)
During his time at court he had a rivalry with Ashiya Doman, who was an onmyoji with similar spiritual powers. They had many magical battles, one of the most famous of which is the following:
The Divination Duel
Doman challenged Seimei to divine the contents of a box. Doman’s assistant had placed fifteen mandarin oranges in the box beforehand, so Doman was able to correctly “divine” the presence of the oranges. When it was Seimei’s turn, also being able to see the contents of the box, he used his powers to transform the oranges into rats. When the judge opened the box, fifteen rats spilled out, to the astonishment of the court, and the even greater astonishment of Ashiya Doman himself!
Other Supernatural Deeds
The emperor gave Seimei his official name of Abe no Seimei after he performed some (unnamed) meritorious service for the court.
Abe no Seimei revealed the identity of Tamamo no Mae, a fox-spirit, who was attempting to assassinate the Emperor (the story can be read on my site, here). Other documents state that it was his descendant Abe no Yasuchika who found her, as the dates of Abe no Seimei’s life and Tamamo-no-Mae’s discovery don’t match up.
According to the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, Seimei divined the abdication of Emperor Kazan based on his astrological methods.
Finally, Seimei helped the samurai Watanabe no Tsuna defeat the oni Ibaraki-doji at Modoribashi, the Bridge of Returning (near where the Seimei Shrine stands today). He also divined the location of the oni Shuten-Doji for the samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu, who went on to trick and defeat the evil oni.
Seimei in Modern Media (as a Wizard Heartthrob)
Abe no Seimei as a fictional character first appears in the 1985 historical fantasy novel Teito Monogatari. The novel is based on stories about Abe no Seimei from the Uji Shui Monogatari.
In 1988, Baku Yumemakura started a novel series named Onmyoji, about Abe no Seimei’s life in the imperial court. Reiko Okano then turned the series into a wildly popular manga. Her manga started the trend of portraying Abe no Seimei as a bishounen (handsome young man), popular with girls and women.
The film Onmyoji, based on Baku Yumemakura’s novel came out in 2001. In 2004, a miniseries came out called Onmyoji: Abe no Seimei
Abe no Seimei in Other Media
- In the anime Nurarihyon no Mago, Abe no Seimei returns to the modern era as an ayakashi (evil spirit).
- Abe no Seimei also appears in the manga Igyoujin Oniwakamaru as an evil spirit
- Seimei is a central character in the Heian Era anime called Otogi Zoshi.
- Seimei is an onmyoji in the anime Gintama.
- The protagonist of the anime Mayonaka no Occult Koumuin is a descendant of Abe no Seimei.
- In the show Shounen Onmyoji, Abe no Masahiro is the grandson of Abe no Seimei.
- In Twin Stars Exorcist Abe no Seimei is the villain.
- The comedic anime Youkai Gakkou no Sensei Hajimemashita! features Seimei (called by his other name Haruaki) as a teacher in a class of yokai.
- Seimei appears in anime New Getter Robo as the leader of the oni.
- The anime Garo: The Animation features a female Abe no Seimei as its protagonist.
- Abe no Seimei is the protagonist in Onmyoji, a new mobile game.
- The television show, Folktales from Japan, shows the meeting of Seimei’s parents and early life when he was called Doujimaru (aka round child) in episode 83.
- The character Hao Asakura from Hiroyuki Takei‘s Shaman King is based on Seimei.
- In the mobile game Fate/Grand Order, Ashiya Doman uses Semei as a pseudonym.
- The anime Magical☆Shopping Arcade Abenobashi features Seimei.
- The horror/survival PlayStation 2 video game Kuon features Seimei as a female exorcist.
References and Resources to Find out More!
- On Seimei’s Shrine and birthplace: http://www.taleofgenji.org/seimei.html and https://www.visitnara.jp/venues/A00516/
- On factual historical documents recording the life of Abe no Seimei: Shigeta, Shin’Ichi (2013). A Portrait of Abe no Seimei. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40 (1).
- On the accuracy of Abe no Seimei helping to defeat Tamamo-no-Mae: Kusano, Eisaburō. Stories Behind Noh and Kabuki Plays. Tokyo: Tokyo News Service, 1962. 80.
- On Abe no Seimei and Shuten Doji: Reider, Noriko T. Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present Utah State University Press, 2010. 113. (ISBN 0874217938)
- On Abe no Seimei’s mother: Goff, Janet. Conjuring Kuzunoha from the World of Abe no Seimei. A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, ed. Samuel L. Leiter. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. 271. (ISBN 0-7656-0704-2)
- On Abe no Seimei’s modern portrayal: Miller, Laura. “Extreme Makeover for a Heian-era Wizard”. Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 33.
- Discussing the defeat of Tamamo-no-Mae: Gilbertson, E. “Japanese Archery and Archers”. Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society of London. Volume 4. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co. Ltd., 1900. 118.
- On Abe no Seimei as an ikemen: https://popanth.com/article/a-wizard-shrine-charms-girls-and-women
- Abe no Seimei’s genealogy: 宝賀寿男『古代氏族系譜集成』古代氏族研究会、1986年、369頁。また卒年85歳（「安倍氏系図」（『続群書類従』巻第170 所収）による）とも一致する。
- On Kuzu-no-Ha: Nozaki, Kiyoshi. Kitsune — Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humor. Tokyo: The Hokuseidô Press. 1961. 110-111
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