Translating Japanese

Biwa Hoshi 3

Continuation from Biwa Hoshi 2. Again, essentially a summary from Hyodo’s work on Biwa Hoshi.

In the old days, the markets used to be a place outside the boundary of daily norms, and they used to hold a kind of magical significance. The trading of money itself used to be not a normal act, and money used to be considered holding certain spiritual power. The markets were also the home ground and performance space for Biwa Hoshis.

Biwa Hoshis formed guilds and unions around certain founders. They were also in close contact with Buddhist monks as early as thirteenth century. (P72)

Most of the guilds were under the protection of Buddhist temples. The guilds worked to maintain their territory of performance, so as to protect their income source, and would sometimes file claims against other performers when the territory of the ‘blinds’ were violated.

Todo-guild was formed in fourteenth century around Kyoto. Todo is a term that used to mean “our speciality”, referring to the Tales of Heike. The founder Kakuichi, who was known to be a distinguished Biwa player and Heike singer, arranged a written text of the Tales of Heike, which was passed down to the highest disciples; the book was told to be kept exclusively to themselves, not to be copied by others (although it was presented to the Muromachi Shogunate in a few decades).

This written text, later became a source of authenticity for the Todo guild Biwa Hoshis.(P128-143)

(It is not written clearly anywhere, but I assume there were always visual/partly visual people around the blind people to support them, from the fact that written records are left and they negotiated with other parties.)

It is quite interesting to see how the guild of visually challenged Biwa Hoshis was involved in the political power structure. Because the Tales of Heike tells the fall of Heike clan, Biwa Hoshis became the epic singer of the ruler’s supposed heritage, namely Genji, the opposition of Heike. (P154-155)

As the power of Muromachi Shogunate was falling in the end of fifteenth century, the Biwa Hoshis evacuated outside the cities and once again came under the wings of the temples. Later, once the Edo Shogunate was established in the seventeenth century, the guild was put under the protection of the new Shogunate.

“Heike” was performed every time when the new Shogun was appointed. Now the tales of Heike was more an art for the Samurai caste, performed by the upper-class Biwa Hoshi from the Todo guild, and the rest of the blind people belonging to the guild gradually changed their instruments from Biwa to Shamisen, Koto, Kokyu… and eventually, many shifted to massaging work. Even when they were no longer playing Biwa, and no longer singing Heike, the domination of Todo guild over the visually challenged people has actually grown stronger, supported by the Edo Shogunate, whose control of the people was increasing.

And it was the Biwa Hoshis of Kyushu and neighbouring regions in the South who resisted against the Todo guild’s exercise of power. (P159-161)

In the late seventeenth century, a court case was made to have the Kyushu blind monks belong to Todo guild; while a few appealed to Tendai temple in Hiei mountain to have them under their wings instead of Todo guild, the court only backed Todo guild to win the control. The Kyushu Biwa Hoshis became prohibited of many customs, including wandering and performing; yet, this prohibition was not always effective.

After a century, at the end of eighteenth century, the blind monks of the Northern Kyushu to Chugoku areas were allowed to leave Todo guild and become a part of Monzen temple. The Southern Kyushu had a strong control by the Satsuma regional government, so only Echigo area remained under the influence of Todo guild.

With the rising status of the Tales of Heike, Jishin sutra was stated as sutras of lower-graded blind monks, although it was already practiced widely. It was in the attempt to establish the hierarchy among the performers by what they were allowed to play (p161-164).

In Kyushu and the surrounding region, Biwa Hoshi and the Biwa instrument had a more significant religious/shamanic role than the other regions. (P175)

We can have some glimpse of Biwa Hoshi in its shamanic role in this video made in 1971. This is Seigen Takagi.

This one is also from the same year, from the same region. This Biwa Houshi is Seikou Hashimoto; he seems to be seeing in the video, and I have found some sources telling that Seikou Hashimoto is a blind monk and the master of Seigen Takagi, the Biwa Houshi in the above video. Perhaps this is the seeing son or successor of the blind father. Or, because “blind monk” has become a name of a lineage of the tradition even if the monk is able to see, maybe he is the master of Seigen Takagi.

From around 6:30, Jishin sutra seems to be sung (I think).


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


*I have not read through yet, but this is also an interesting study of “blind monk” Biwa.

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