If one is to study Japanese history, at first glance, the only things that they will find are records of conquests, wars, temples, and feudal lords. But delving deeper, one may find some interesting facts about this ancient land, one of many being the infamous legends of Abe no Seimei.
Abe no Seimei, born in the year 921, February the 21st, was an Onmyōji in the middle of the Heian Period, a time of relative peace and culture. An Onmyōji was a leading specialist of Onmyōdō, a mixture of natural science and occultism which was widely accepted as a practical system of divination around the late seventh century. As a young boy, Seimei was taught to excel in many different fields, taught by the most prominent scholars of the day. Taking a particular interest in Astronomy, Seimei soon became a renowned Astronomic advisor in the Imperial Court, serving in close proximity with six generations of Japanese Emperors and leaving many achievements and wild legends in his wake. Seimei’s duties in the Court involved analysing strange events, conducting exorcisms, warding against evil spirits, and performing various rites of geomancy (otherwise known as ‘earth divination’). He was also particularly skilled in divining the sex of fetuses and finding lost objects. It is recorded in the Konjaku Monogatarishu that Seimei even correctly predicted the abdication of Emperor Kazan based on his observation of celestial phenomena. Through his many deeds of excellence, Seimei soon earned the trust of the Imperial Court. In fact, Seimei’s infamous reputation grew so adequately that, from the late tenth century, the Onmyoryo, the government ministry of onmyodo, was controlled by the Abe clan. The Kamo clan likewise became the hereditary keepers of the calendar,after Kamo no Yasunori’s son devised the calendar (interestingly, it was Abe no Seimei that succeeded Kamo no Yasunori, not his son). While serving under Emperor Ichijyou in the second year of Kanmu (1005), September the 26th, Seimei died at the age of 85.
Though Seimei’s life is well-recorded and there is little question about it, it seemed almost inevitable that legends would rise after his death, much mimicking the great tales of Merlin in the West. Part of these legends arose due to Seimei’s extreme longevity and good health, leading many to think that he had strange mystical powers. The mystical symbol of the five-pointed star, known as a pentagram in the West, is known in Japan as the Doman Seiman, or Seal of Abe no Seimei, since it was Seimei’s crest which one can see all over Seimei Shrine which was built in dedication to him.
According to legend, Abe no Seimei was not entirely human. His father, Abe no Yasuna, was human, but his mother, Kuzunoha, was a kitsune (a Japanese ‘fox spirit’), and at a young age Seimei was said to be able to command weak oni (a Japanese ogre) to do his bidding. His mother entrusted Seimei to Kamo no Tadayuki so that he would lead a peaceful human life and not become evil himself.
Like any good hero in a tale of gallantry, Abe no Seimei had an evil rival with whom he engaged in a series of magical battles which are the center-point of the Seimei legends. Ashiya Doman was Seimei’s so-called ‘arch-enemy’ and would often try to embarrass Seimei so that he could usurp his position. Of course, like in any good story, Doman often ended up being embarrassed himself by Seimei, and their conflicts often ended in Seimei’s triumph and Doman’s defeat.
Unsurprisingly, Abe no Seimei’s popularity has not faded even to this day and is widely celebrated in modern Japanese culture. Abe no Seimei comes out in many Japanese manga such as Nurarihyon no Mago and Gintama, as well as the best-selling historical fantasy novel Teito Mongatari which is said to have singlehandedly sparked interest in Semei, oni, and onmyoji in Japanese culture. Baku Yumemakura started a novel series named Onmyoji, portraying Seimei as a handsome young man (a popular portrait of Seimei in pop culture, though it is indisputable that he was an old and refined man) who resided in a Heian-period world inhabited with mysterious, mythical beings, which later was adapted into a manga which became widely popular with teenager girls. Even adapted into movies such as Onmyoji and its sequel, Onmyoji II, it seems as if Abe no Seimei has been immortalized into Japanese folklore and culture and it is unlikely that his influence, both as the founder of the Yin and Yang religion in Japan, and his many legends as a brave and heroic onmyoji, will fade so easily.