The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

Yesterday, I had to act as an usher for a school performance by a visiting artist sponsored by the academic department I work for. Lest you think I’m complaining, I assure you I’m not; what this meant was that I stood in the cold for maybe as many as 10 minutes instructing middle schoolers on where to sit once they got into the auditorium, and then I got to enjoy a free performance for the next two hours. I suspect I enjoyed it a great deal more than the 7th graders.

The performance was given by a Japanese biwa player, telling a legend about The Tale of the Heike. For the middle school students, she chose the story of Hoichi the Earless, which is, appropriately for October, a ghost story. Since the actual singing/story telling is in Japanese, she gave the students a background explanation and an unsung version of the story in English. So here’s a ghost story for you all. (Note that I am retelling it from my memory of how the artist recited it, and am not looking up the official version, despite the lure of the internet.)

Background: Many years ago, in the days of the samurai warrior in Japan, there was a war between two clans, the Heike and the Genji. A decisive sea battle came at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, as the Genji fleet defeated the Heike. To protect the infant Heike emperor from the shame of defeat, his (grand?)mother took him in her arms and jumped over the side of the ship, drowning them both. Many other Heike warriors also jumped into the sea, and many more died in the battle. The beach forever after was haunted by their spirits (which are said to have taken physical form in the Heike crab, whose shell resembles a samurai’s face.)

The story:

Years later, there was a blind biwa player named Hoichi. He was extremely talented, especially in his rendition of The Tale of the Heike, and word spread about his skill. Because he was blind and could not care for himself, the priest of the local temple had taken him into his care.

One night, as Hoichi sat in the garden, he heard footsteps. “Hello, who is it? I am blind, I cannot see you, please tell me who you are.”

“I have come on the behalf of my master, who has heard of your skill on the biwa, and has traveled in secret to hear you play. Please come with me. I will lead you to the audience chamber.”

Hoichi was taken by the mysterious servant to what he believed was an audience chamber. He knelt before the servant’s master, and asked what they wished to hear. From a sad, wavering voice he heard, “Play the passage of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, for it is the most sorrowful of them all.” So he played, sitting in the graveyard before the infant emperor’s tomb, surrounded by floating points of fire in the darkness, as the ghosts wept.

At the end of his performance, he was taken back to the temple and asked if he would come back the next night. Hoichi agreed. But the priest of the temple heard of the performance in the graveyard, and became concerned for Hoichi’s safety, believing that the spirits meant to steal Hoichi into the next world. To protect him, the priest wrote sutras all over Hoichi’s body, from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. This made Hoichi invisible to the ghosts, except for where the priest forgot to write any sutras, on his ears.

When the ghost warrior came that evening to escort Hoichi to the graveyard, he could see nothing but two ears, floating in space. Angered, he ripped the ears off and carried them back with him to the graveyard. Forever after, Hoichi became known as Hoichi the Earless.

-posted by Dana


3 Responses to The Tale of Hoichi the Earless

  1. Alex Rudnick says:

    That is officially awesome. Thank you for sharing!

    Do you get the impression that there’s a moral lesson to be learned? Or does this story typically have something that you’re supposed to take away?

  2. Dana says:

    Interesting question. Maybe the lesson is, as with sunscreen, “Never forget your ears”?

    I didn’t get the impression there was a real lesson to take away in the end, though. It seemed more like just a ghost story. It was apparently first translated into English by Lafcadio Hearn, (who Wikipedia tells me was of Irish descent, born in the Greek Isles, and gained Japanese citizenship as an adult,) who gathered a bunch of tales of the occult from his Japanese wife and put them in a book.

  3. Sonetka says:

    That’s really cool – if we’re looking for parallels, it reminds me of those Celtic stories (usually midwives) being taken into fairy country and having their eyes anointed afterwards so they couldn’t see the fairies subsequently. Those don’t really have any moral either, except perhaps “Watch your step when you’re dealing with the Otherworldly”. And hey, there’s worse advice out there …

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