“Goze” refers to visually challenged women who used to live by singing at the doors with Shamisen (musical instrument) and receiving alms. Their image as blind minstrels is typically associated with “Tohoku”, the North-east region, as most of the records were taken from there, but they seemed to have been active all over the archipelago. Nonetheless, by the time people realised the value of their songs in the late twentieth century, many were no more. Those very few who were still alive were concentrated in the North-east.
Taken at young age to apprenticeship, into a kind of “family” or a guild of Gozes- and there were very few choices of livelihood for blind people in the old times- they went through strict and hard trainings in order to master the singing and musical skills.
While musical performers, Gozes were also considered to have shamanic power till the beginning of the twentieth century. Their power was effective especially in relation to child birth and growth of silkworm and crops.
Not only Gozes gave blessings, but the strings of the instrument they used were thought to do good for child birth, and were taken, ground into powder, as medicine. Or their instrument bag, given in exchange to a newly sewn bag, would be remade into clothes of physically weak babies.
Silkworm farmers would ask Gozes to sing for silkworms and stay the night with them. This was the same with crops like rice, barley and cotton. The rice Gozes received as alm and carried were also considered to have healing power, and it was bought in high price in the next destination.
Gozes had a religious association with Benzaiten (Goddess Saraswati), and had yearly ceremony where they would gather for special rituals. This way people knew that they had religious merits, and Gozes also had strict rules they abided to, which included no sexual intercourse with men.
There are also episodes of them communicating with the dead soul. One such is as below;
This is Take Ibira from Kariha Goze Nonaka-clan’s story when she travelled Joshu (now Gunma, north to Tokyo) as a young girl. She was visiting door to door with Tei in a village in Maebashi. The two girls asked “Excuse me!” in front of a closed door and they got a response saying “Yes, yes”, so they started playing Shamisen. Someone said from inside the house, “Have you eaten?” “No, we haven’t.” “Why don’t you come in and have something here?” And she gave the Gozes bowls full of udon-noodle. So they enjoyed it, said thank you, sang another song and left the house. Then the neighbour came out and asked them, “What were you doing in the empty house?” “It was not empty, a young girl gave us some food.” “Don’t talk nonsense, the girl has just passed away in that house.” The neighbour continued, “Today is the 35th day from her death. Her family went to Maebashi for shopping. They asked me to tell any enquirers that they are out today.” As it turned out that the dead girl had given the Gozes the noodle she received as offerings, Gozes felt eerie.
(Suzuki 1996 in Fuku 2015, p45)
Translated by Paromita
Kuzunoha by Echigo Goze Take Ibira, recorded in 1962
Their hardship and poverty should not be overlooked by the whims and fancies of nostalgic past. Singing was their business, their means of survival. They had to carry rice and other crops given as alm over many kilometres by themselves however heavy it was; a group of only females, only very few among them could see a little bit. They preferred to receive coins.
Yet at the same time, the spiritual work they had in their role in real life should also not be dismissed. It was real, and was everyday life. In the daily hardship of sustaining their life, still they were serving their shamanic role, which was sustaining the balance of the world then.
I will go a little more into the history in the next post.
Fuku, Hiromi (2015) Uta to Shaaman (Songs and Shaman) [Nampo-Shinsha]