Blog: Professor Kojiro Hirose on the blind storytellers of medieval Japan

The UK's leading theatre company of visually impaired people Extant got chatting to Professor Kojiro Hirose about the fascinating Japanese traditional occupation of blind people as itinerant artists, working with them on Flight Paths, and jerk chicken.

Tell us a little bit about you and your work

My name is Kojiro Hirose; I'm totally blind and come from Japan. I'm 50 years old... Quite old! I work at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. I began working there in 2001 so I've been there for 18 years now. Chiefly, I'm a historian with a particular interest in the history of blind people in Japan.

Give us a brief history of the biwa hōshi

The biwa hōshi are first mentioned in historical documents dating back to the 10th Century. They were seen not only as entertainers but as shamans: persons regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits. Their practice incorporated both storytelling and singing.

The biwa hōshi are believed to be the first performers of the Tale of Heike, one of Japan's most famous epics and a cornerstone of oral literature. Their activities peaked in the 14th Century thanks largely to the popularity of the epic. Along with the biwa, a Japanese short-necked fretted lute, the tale became synonymous with the biwa hōshi.

From the 15th Century, their role as entertainers began to eclipse their shamanic function. Around this time most biwa hōshi exchanged the biwa for the shamisen, a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese sanxian. By the 19th Century, they continued to perform in the far north and south of Japan, with some performers living and working right up until the latter part of the 20th Century.

The goze were visually-impaired Japanese women, most of whom worked as musicians. Did the biwa hōshi lead directly to the goze, or did they develop in isolation?

The term 'biwa hōshi' emerged in the 10th Century to specifically describe a blind male storyteller. The goze, meanwhile, appear in literature dating to the 15th Century. While I believe that the female goze of course inspired by the practices and structure of the biwa hoshi the centuries between the two suggest that there is no direct relationship.

You join us at an early stage in the development Flight Paths. Have you been made aware of specific connections between your work and that of Extant?

Both mine and Extant's work expands the cultural life of blind and partially sighted people. I work in a museum where I have introduced touch tours to many exhibits. Like Extant my work, in turn, has a positive impact on the cultural life of sighted people. I believe that touching an artefact allows both sighted and visually impaired visitors to the museum to fully appreciate it.

The idea that life can and should be lived using other senses is a one I learned through studying the biwa hōshi. My main aim in keeping the story of the biwa hōshi alive through my work is to inspire the independence and resilience they had in blind and partially sighted people today.

My work and Extant's run in parallel towards the same goal: exploring how to live, how to carry on, not by depending on sight, but by using all the other senses. Their work resonates so much with me. I was honoured to contribute to Flight Paths. Though it focuses on the lives of blind and partially sighted people, the show is for everyone. This is what I have sought to achieve at the museum.

Today you had jerk chicken for lunch, was this your first time and what did you think of it?

I recognise that the commonly held belief is that British food isn't so... delicious. However, during my visit, I've realised that London offers cuisine from all over the world and plenty of delicious, tasty things do exist here. That was a nice surprise and when I go back to Japan I'll be telling everyone that they can get nice food in England! And of course the jerk chicken was very delicious and, yes, it was my first time.

Flight Paths

Two blind women take centre stage sometimes on aerial silks, sometimes with their feet firmly on the ground but always surrounded by voices, music, stories and ghosts.

Fri 8 - Sat 9 Feb
Book now >>

Flight Paths

Fri 8 - Sat 9 Feb
Book now >>