Translating Japanese

Biwa Hoshi 2

This post is, like the last post, essentially a summary from Hyodo’s work on Biwa Hoshi (i.e. Biwa monk-minstrels) with my interpretation. I have had this book for over ten years I think, but revisiting it after so many years brought me a touching surprise and great inspiration; there is just so much that I was unable to receive some years ago, which now I can. I am sure there are more that I am missing.

Biwa (Pipa) instrument came from the continent. Originally from Persian region, it was modified in China, and then introduced to Japan.

There are at least two routes that it came in through. One was through the official diplomatic import of court music, and the other was through a more local migration from Korea to Kyushu region. They had different characteristics both in shape and playing style, but here I will not be going too much into it. The instruments’ shapes also got changed and influenced each other over the course of history.

Sawari, the noise-like, buzzy kind of sound, is a particularly distinguished characteristic of wandering-monk Biwa in Kyushu.


Was this Sawari, which distinguishes the Biwa Hoshi’s Biwa sound, already present when the instrument arrived from the continent? Or was it invented originally after arriving in Western Japan?

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), the worldly renown composer who composed “November Steps” and “eclipse” which employed Satsuma Biwa, referred to the Sawari of blind-monk style Biwas that include Satsuma Biwa, and said it is an actively engaging method to “reconnect to the natural world by adopting noise as the catalyst”, and claims that it is the original creation of Japanese (from a dialogue with Yuko Tanaka “Sound of Edo” in 1988).

It is an important perspective, but rather than to say it is the original Japanese creation, it would have been more the creation of the blind monk-minstrels, who gave voice to the murmurs of the “natural world”. In contrast to the court Biwa that is played with pure sound without Sawari, the Biwa of Biwa-Hoshi, who intentionally echoes the ‘noise’, is almost a completely different instrument despite its similarity in form.

And this Biwa Hoshi’s work on Sawari (although there are different kinds of Sawari according to the areas and styles) was inherited to the more recent Shamisen music.

The Shamisen that was brought to Japan in the sixteenth century from China and Ryukyu (Okinawa), was at first played mostly by Biwa Hoshi. The big Bachi pick used for Shamisen came from Biwa pick. Sawari in Shamisen also follows Biwa Hoshi style. Interestingly enough, Sanshen in China and Sanshin in Ryukyu (sister instruments of Shamisen) do not have Sawari, and use claw-like pick instead of the Biwa’s big pick, resulting in a different playing style.

The tradition of visually challenged people playing Pipa and working on religious as well as artistic rituals also seems to have been imported from the continent. Such records in China are found in written documents, from as early as sixth century. Now it is not significant.

(Interestingly enough, it seems that now in China it is mostly women who play Pipa)

There is a sutra called Jishin-kyo that is passed down among Biwa Hoshis. Relating to Earth spirit, it has strong Daoist content, and with its contradiction with other authoritative sutras, it was dismissed as a fake sutra by the more mainstream monks as early as in the twelfth century. However, Biwa Hoshis favoured it for rituals till recent times.

Nonetheless, this “fake sutra” existed also in Korea. The Jishim sutra in Korea has a very similar content to the one in Japan, and was recited by blind shamans called Pansu whose tradition goes back to Goryeo kingdom time (918-1392). Their practice was based more on Daoism rather than Buddhism. Biwa is not used in Korean shamanism; Hyodo suggests the possibility that Biwa might have been used in Korea in the past considering their seemingly close connection. This connection is particularly fascinating for me.

I will continue to the next post about the history of Biwa Hoshi.

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

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