Translating Japanese

Chuzaburoh Tanaka 1

You might have heard about Chikuzan Takahashi. He was a master tsugaru-shamisen (a string instrument) player and a pioneer in spreading this instrument and culture with his unique and extraordinary talent, after going through long years of poverty and hardship. Blindness was not the sole factor for his hardship; the whole region of Northern Japan used to suffer from poverty and cold in the winter. It was then customary for blind people to take up music as their occupation; men playing the instruments and women singing (and playing instruments, too), begging.

You would most probably not know Chuzaburoh Tanaka. I have heard that the term “boro” is starting to earn popularity in the textile world, so if you are in that field, then you might have heard of him. Boro literally refers to “used, worn-out, often-cloths material”. In the old times, people used to use every bits of textiles, or anything, till the very end; patch-working old clothes to the best or worst of its usage. Especially in the northern cold region, clothes were heavily patch-worked and stitched over many layers by peasants, which were used both as clothes and bed cover in the night. These are what is called Boro in international terms.

Chuzaburoh was a driving force for the re-evaluation of these materials. An anthropologist and a collector, he collected these old but still-recent artefacts, which were otherwise thrown out. As the materials were mostly just “something old and dirty” for the original owners, his work was almost never understood by the locals. His collection includes some underwear, which naturally were not preferred to be preserved and made public. But underwear can be in fact crucial in knowing the physical life of the people, of which change can transform their physical culture.

Chuzaburoh and Chikuzan were friends; here I am translating a few paragraphs where Chuzaburoh writes about Chikuzan.

Hence our friendship started from an accidental meeting in a hill one day. As we became closer, Mr. Chikuzan got to know about my situation, and one day said in deep voice.

“Ya know, you are doing such good work, but town folks look down on you calling an earth digger. I’m also working so hard playing Shamisen, but these folks look down on me saying blind, blind… All these folks don’t have proper eyes to see people nor any ears to hear proper sounds…”

Mr. Chikuzan looked at the air with his blind eyes. He must have felt sorry for me who never earned enough to feed myself, further said,

“Ya know, when you are hungry, you come to my home. Don’t hesitate at all, you eat at my home!”

He was such a simple person, he used to care for me and look after me so much.

Mr. Chikuzan was born in Tsugaru, and after catching measles at two years old, lost most of his eye sight. At the time when Japan was so poor and had no chance of welfare as such, the only way for a blind person to survive and be independent was to either become a massager or a wandering Shamisen player called Bosama. So he became a disciple of a Bosama at the age of thirteen and studied Shamisen, and became independent when he was sixteen, which was the beginning of a hard path of “Kado-zuke”, begging at doors.

Kado-zuke is to go around houses in town and villages, perform something and earn a handful of rice or coins. Most of the performers were physically challenged, or from discriminated villages.

The sound of Tsugaru-shamisen is much wilder and stronger compared to other shamisen culture. In order to have the doors open on windy cold days, Kado-zuke shamisen players had to make as big sound as possible. The sound of Tsugaru-shamisen holds the sadness of Bosamas, who had to survive through begging.

One day, when Mr. Chikuzan was going to play for a local radio, I became his assistant and held his hand into the train, and brought him to the studio in Aomori. He told me some stories when he used to walk around for Kado-zuke in his youth.

He went through many experiences in the decades as he was playing shamisen at doors receiving a handful of rice, walking from hills to coasts and to the most Northern region. He said he was always made to think about kindness of people.

Kado-zuke was not always welcomed. The reality was that it was ignored or sent away in most cases. It was quite normal to receive harsh and abusive words instead of alms. It was a tough work both mentally and physically. A person living in a great mansion does not necessarily have rich heart.

“Oh you noisy, go away and do it somewhere else.” It was often people from those rich houses who would send him away like they would do to dogs and cats. In contrary, people from worn-out simple houses, where you would feel sorry to receive anything, would say “you must be cold”, ”you must be tired” and invited the beggers inside, offering a bowl of porridge or some warm water when they did not have anything.

“It was always those poor and weak people who were kind to me. So, Saburoh, even when you become so rich and great, don’t be someone who makes a big mansion and be proud of it for nothing.” Mr. Chikuzan told me. He also told me that I must never laugh at others’ poverty.

The value of a person is not determined by how much money he has. It is about how much you can be kind to others when you yourself is in hardship. That is what he told me.

Almost two decades after that, Mr. Chikuzan’s position as a shamisen player is now unquestionable. He has even received a national award, but he never forgot these teachings he got from his wandering days.

Mr. Chikuzan always played Aliran, a Korean folk song at the end of his concert.

Because it was always people from Korean villages who suffered from poverty and discrimination, who were kind and gave hands to him who was just a beggar, he always played this song so he would never forget this gratitude.

(Chuzaburoh Tanaka 2011: p144-147, in Mono-niwa-Kokoro-ga-aru, published from Amuse Edutainment)


Chikuzan Takahashi lived 1910-1998, and Chuzaburoh Tanaka lived 1933-2013.

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