Blindmen netsuke

by Rosemary Bandini

The Jesuit mission to Japan, founded in 1549 by Francis Xavier, reached its height of activity at towards the end of the 15th century. One long-serving missionary there was the Portuguese Luis Frois, who tasked himself with writing an observation of the Striking Contrasts in the Customs of Europe and Japan, which now serves as an invaluable primary source of information about that period in Japanese daily life[1].

Frois notes that in Portugal the viola was played by noblemen, while it Japan it was the sole preserve of blind men ‘like blind concertina players in Europe’[2]. These musicians named biwa hōshi, dressed like Buddhist monks and were centred around Kyoto. Their songs recalled legends, especially the Heike Monagatari. In fact there were two guilds of blind men, the Tōdōza in Eastern Japan and the Mōdōza in Western Japan. The former was established in the 14th century with the sanction of the Ashikaga shogunate, by a biwa hōshi named Akashi Kakuichi and consisted of musicians, masseurs and acupuncturists ranked into over 70 divisions. Only men were permitted to join and blind women were organised in their own guild, the Gōzeza. In his record Things Japanese, Basil Hall Chamberlain remarks that rather than be a burden to their families, they were able to earn a good income, affording some the opportunity to branch out as money-lenders, becoming ‘correspondingly hated’[3]. Some became so wealthy that some were even recorded as buying the freedom of favoured prostitutes[4].

Frois also noted that while blind men lived peacefully in his native Portugal, those in Japan were quite pugnacious, going about with canes and wakizashi. Much like the Buddhist sects of the time, they were quite disposed to using their canes to protect their territories. As Danford’s study points out, Europeans viewed blindness as a punishment for past sins, and this same attitude was taken in Japan: “Blind singer-prostitutes, the goze, are usually beaten in senryu. Superstition said that it was good luck to hit the goze one slept with![5]

0-chc148a-copyAccording to legend, a ninth century emperor had a blind son and gathered blind companions from good families around him, setting the tone for good treatment for all suffering the loss of sight. There is some academic contention that such tales were simply invented to raise social status, and several such tales existed.

In netsuke form we are familiar with the blind man dressed in monk’s garb, the face usually rather cruelly distorted by a bulging sightless eye. They carry their thick canes, while others are depicted seated singing as they pluck their biwas, usually conveying the impression that the song is heartily rendered but rather tuneless. Frequently too, they are seen massaging a client, humour often added by making the whole presentation a little lascivious, the customer perhaps a scantily-clad Okame or a mischievous oni.

Humour seems to be the key, showing a lack of sympathy which would be shocking in our modern world, but which in earlier times was a source of popular amusement. A group of blindmen feeling their way around a huge elephant is indeed a thought-provoking sight, but their physical deformities belie the idea that this might be a more enlightened subject matter.

One of the most puzzling is the familiar model of a blind man straining to lift a heavy rock. Close inspection sometimes reveals that this is not a rock at all but the man’s own distended testicles. Why would anyone want to lift one of these huge, smooth rocks? The stone is a chikaraishi, or strength stone. These have have been used since at least the 8th century and even today can be found at some Shinto shrines, where they were used for competitions of strength, or for divination purposes. Today some have been designated as Important Cultural Assets.

00-chikara_ishiAn internet blogger records that his grandfather told him that such stones in varying sizes used to be found down at the docks and that a stevedore would be paid a wage commensurate with the weight of the rock which he could lift. None of which explains the link with a blindman. Certainly the rock could be used as a training weight, and possibly the vision of a unsighted man straining to lift his swollen testicles as if it were a strength rock is a joke – the unfortunate fellow unable to distinguished between a heavy stone and his own diseased gonads?

[1] Danford, Richard K., Gill, Robin D., Reff, Daniel T., The First European Description of Japan 1585, Routledge, 2014
[2] Danford et al., Ibid, p.239
[3] Hall Chamberlain, Basil, Things Japanese, 1890, p. 315
[4] Danford et al, Ibid, p. 241
[5] Goze, blind female musician, late 19th century
[6] Unsigned ivory netsuke, 9.5cm
[7] Danford et al., Ibid, p. 241
[8] Blind masseur and client late 19th/early 20th century
[9] Unsigned wood netsuke, 3.9cm
[10] Blind stone lifter, signed: XXX, 3.4cm