Translating Japanese

Goze 2

This is in continuation from the previous post on Goze, the female shaman-minstrels who lived on alms.

Around 18th century, along with the development of social systems of monetary transactions, art was also becoming something that can be sold and bought, and be taught outside the community; teaching music also became a sellable product, which not only towners but even artistes could employ to expand their repertoire. Gozes are known to have had a huge repertoire of songs and mantras, religious or otherwise. They took in any possibility that could draw more attention of the audiences to them.

The records suggest that even lay farmers had the culture of enjoying arts and music; there were repeated bans from the government that the farmers should not be extravaganza and spend on entertainments. Yet often visually challenged people were exempted from certain regulations, as it was considered that music is the only possible means of living for them.

There were various groups of wandering entertaining art practitioners in the old time, and I will need another separate post or two to discuss this. For now, I am just writing that Goze guilds had to establish their authenticity as the state rulers tried to regulate their activities and mobility. They did so by holding certain dignifying rules and authentic roots as background, and sticking to them.

At the same time it is interesting that there seemed to have been a common understanding among the settlers’ communities that these wandering practitioners had to be given something if they come; which must be why there are records of this kind of expense in the community finance records.

There were official rules and budgets for receiving them and giving something to them. However, such budget was mostly cut out after the Meiji restoration in the wave of modernisation, from late nineteenth century.

Tokyo Goze songs by Fuji Enomoto recorded in 1960

To go around in the country and sing was, in the words of Echigo Gozes, their “business”.

As a business, they had to be flexible in any situations. For example, when they “make noise”, they would choose a song that busy farmers and householders could understand and appreciate easily, while they would choose long songs such as “Saimon Matsuzaka” (also called Dan-mono) in the night occasions. Gozes would change the length, pitch, volume, speed, and instrument playing… according to the situations.

If they stay silent, they would be seen mere “beggars”, so playing music was quite an essential symbol in showing their authenticity. Still, if their voice got cracked during the day, it would be a hinderance for the night performance, which results in less income. It was a must for the Gozes to preserve their voice. They controlled their music so it was easier for them to keep singing.

As Echigo Gozes had to sing door to door throughout the day, one of the ways to preserve the voice was to lower the pitch of the songs. And when they did not sing, they would play the Shamisen very loud. Like Chikuzan explains, “Because Bosamas (male blind minstrels) had to sing in front of dozens of houses, if they sung just like you normally do, it was impossible for the body to keep up… so they sung in lower tone which was easier.” However, “There were some song lovers who would say ‘Oh, this is a nice song, how does it go? I’ll give you 30 sen so sing me a nice song.’ Then I’ll have to tune my Shamisen properly and sing nicely.” That was the wisdom that these minstrels had acquired over the years of wandering.

Take Ibira, who travelled and performed in Gunma prefecture, also says, “Well, since they gave me 50 mon, then I had to sing another song. At doors we used to sing two songs. Then after those two, I was asked to sing another song because I received coins, or they’d ask for some different song. But they didn’t give rice like they did in Echigo.” Like Bosamas in Tsugaru, for Echigo Gozes too, songs were precious business tools given from their master.

Groemer (2014) p22-24
Translation by Paromita


It kind of confuses me to see the seeming popularity of Goze songs and music in the pre-modern time from farmers to warrior aristocrats, and the contrasting poverty they went through in the twentieth century. It is perhaps just that there was a wide spectrum of Gozes in various situations; or maybe it was really the responsibility of modernisation to be the driving force for their decline in status.

A part of their authenticity was their religiosity. The kind of shamanic and sacred power backed their position in the society, even if it was so with bitter taste. It is certain that the modernisation has gradually taken away the spiritual senses of the villagers and towners alike, and the government eventually banned homeless wanderers and beggars. The decline in the number of Gozes were unavoidable. Many became massagers, which was pretty much the only other job option for the visually challenged.

And certain North eastern regions were the last in restricting the activities of Goze and other blind wanderers; which is how we got the last tradition holders from this area. Chikuzan Takahashi also grew up in this context.

Groemer, Gerald (2014) “Goze Uta” [Iwanami Shoten]

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