Hoichi the Earless

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Have you heard of ‘Hoichi the Earless’? Perhaps you’ve read about him in Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan? Or seen him in the movie? Or maybe you’re more familiar with him by the name of ‘mimi nashi hoichi’ ((耳なし芳一 )? Or, if none of this is ringing any bells, don’t worry, just read on to know more about this earless man.

Hoichi is the name of a character in an adaptation of Japanese mythology. His story is well known in Japan, and the best-known English translation first appeared in the book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn.

A version of this story appears in the film Kwaidan, as well as the play The Dream of a Summer Day, which are both based on Hearn’s work.
You can find the full text here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/shi/kwaidan/kwai03.htm

But to summarise, Hoichi was a blind minstrel with amazing gifts for the biwa (a loquat-shaped Japanese lute).  His performances were so wonderful that “even the goblins could not refrain from tears.” Despite his talents, Hoichi was very poor and had no other choice than to live at a Temple with a friendly priest.

As the story goes, Hoichi was approached late one night by a gruff samurai who demanded that the he play for his lord. The retainer led the blind Hoichi into what appeared to be the home of some powerful nobleman, where a performance of the Tale of the Heike was requested. Hoichi’s performance was met by high praise and moved his audience to tears, and he was asked to return the next evening. Before the retainer returned him to his temple, Hoichi was told that the nobleman for whom he had been playing was traveling incognito, and was warned not to speak of the evening’s events.

DSC_0136The following evening, the samurai returned for Hoichi and led him away once again. This time Hoichi’s absence was discovered by the priest where he lived. The priest grew suspicious  of the blind Hoichi leaving at night, and instructed his servants to follow him should he leave the next night. When they saw him leaving the temple the servants  followed him, and eventually found Hoichi playing his biwa furiously in the middle of the graveyard. When they dragged him back to the temple, Hoichi explained the previous night’s events to the priest.

Realising that Hoichi had been bewitched by ghosts, the priest vowed to save his friend from further trickery. He painted Hoichi’s body with the kanji characters of the Heart Sutra for protection and instructed him to remain silent and motionless when he is called upon by his ghostly audience. That evening the samurai called for Hoichi as before, and was angered when he received no response. The ghostly samurai approached Hoichi but was unable to see anything but his ears, the only part of Hoichi’s body on which the sutra had not been written. The sutra had rendered the rest of Hoichi’s body invisible. Attempting to comply with his orders, the samurai ripped Hoichi’s ears off, to return with what he could of the lute player.

After the ghostly retainer had left, Hoichi was still too frightened to react, despite the blood gushing from the wounds on his head. When the priest returned, he realised in dismay that he had neglected to write the sutra on Hoichi’s ears, which had left them vulnerable to the spirit. Despite his injury, Hoichi’s ordeal had freed him from the spirit’s power, and he went on to recover from his wounds and become a famous musician.

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The writer Lafcadio Hearn made his first home in Japan here in Matsue, and stemming from this, there was a statue of Mimi-nashi Hoichi put in place in a park on the northern shore of Lake Shinji. And if you look at the picture closely, faithful to the story, he has no ears. So now, if you come across a statue like this, think of poor Hoichi, who got his ears torn off for his lute playing talent!

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