Translating Japanese

Biwa Hoshi 1

This is Yoshiyuki Yamashika, the last Biwa Hoshi who has passed away in 1996. He was the last to be living only on playing and singing with Biwa (Pipa), with the vastest repertoire of long stories including Tales of Heike.

Born in 1901 as the third son of a farmer in Kyushu (South-West island of Japan), his left eye lost its sight at the age of four. The right eye sight also weakened gradually, and he became a disciple of a Biwa player at the age of 22. After three years, he started his career as a wandering Biwa player. Later, Yamashika learned certain Buddhist/Daoist rituals from another blind monk, and learned further repertoires from other Biwa player friends. In 1973, he received proper initiation at Jouju-in, the main temple of the blind-monk clan of Tendai sect. Blind monk, whose main work was religious service rather than entertainment, was respected more than a mere Biwa player in the region.
Even at the age over eighty, Yamashika had a repertoire of almost 50 stories, where each story lasted a couple of hours. It was said that he had the largest repertoire in around a century.

Hyodo points out an interesting point; that, whereas in the Southern land of Okinawa and Amami islands, the shamans become shaman by going through spiritual breakdown, which include physical, mental and financial crisis after being called by the gods, in the mainland side of Japan, it is mainly the blind people who tend to take over the shamanic role. Hyodo relates that the visually challenged people have different sense of subjective self, not having the visually comprehensive image of themselves, hence had more aptitude as shamans. Especially, the stories told by Biwa minstrels were mainly the stories and voices of the dead souls.

Hyodo writes;

I first visited Yoshiyuki Yamashika in 1982. I visited him regularly since then over the next ten years. The overall dates I stayed at his home would be more than 100 days. There are so many memories of him in having tea or sake with him; but even when I brought with me some questionnaires for him, the communication would never flow in a way that I would have wanted to plan.

The focal point of contact in communication, normally, depends largely on sight. For Yamashika, who was visually challenged and an unmatched storyteller, the kind of normal communication picture could not happen.

Whenever I asked him about his training years, or the following wandering years, all the episodes were told in the manner of story telling. Because Yamashika easily ‘becomes’ the person in the story, he would tell the voice of that person in first person, and then again he himself in the story also appears in first person voice. In such a speech, it only seemed that the subjective “I” of the story teller, who is supposed to be integrating the different personas in the story, just did not exist.

The story telling without the integral speaking ego is a solid sense I came to after countless dis-communication with Yamashika. The telling of old times where he gets possessed from one character to another was done really as in any other story telling he used to do. This experience is the very prototype of my image of story telling (Mono-gatari) and Biwa Hoshi.

Biwa playing and singing was the only income source for Yamashika, and he had gone through so much difficulty in his life. He married four times, three wives passed away, and one went lost (Three out of the four were Goze he met in his journey). He lost five of his children. All these life episodes were told in a story-telling manner, but really, all the stories such as Shuntoku-maru and Oguri-hangman were there for him only as a connected, closely relatable world from his own life history.

The next article I should be writing a little bit on the history of Biwa instrument in Japan, and the differences between the schools.

Hyodo, Hiromi (2009). Biwa Hoshi—Ikai wo kataru hitobito [Iwanami Shinsho]

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