the online database of Japanese folkore

Miminashi Hōichi

耳なし芳一
みみなしほういち

Translation: earless Hōichi

Appearance: Hōichi was a blind biwa master who resided at Amidaji, a Buddhist temple in Shimonoseki. He was renowned for his skill at performing The Tale of the Heike–particularly his rendition of the Battle of Dan no ura and the death of the child emperor Antoku. His playing was said to be so splendid that he could even make ghosts and demons cry.

Origin: Hōichi’s story is famous even outside of Japan thanks to Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. Hearn’s version was based on Isseki Sanjin’s telling of the story in Gayū kidan, published in 1782. Although this version is the most famous, there are other versions with variations in details such as location (one takes place in Tokushima, another in Nagano), the name of the main character (Dan’ichi in one version, Un’ichi in another), and so on.

Hōichi’s story may be originally based on a real life 14th century priest named Akashi Kakuichi. Kakuichi became a blind later in life and took up the biwa. He soon surpassed his own master, and he became one of the most influential biwa masters in Japan. His version of The Tale of the Heike is considered the standard to this day.

Hōichi’s temple, Amidaji in Shimonoseki is now known as Akama jingū, a shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Antoku. Its grounds contain a small shrine dedicated to Hōichi, and a gravesite of fourteen Heike members. Every so often, there are reports of restless Heike ghosts sighted in and around the shrine grounds.

Legends: One night a samurai visited Hōichi and demanded he perform for his lord. The samurai led the blind Hōichi to the place where his lord and court were gathered. It seemed that a large number of people were in attendance. A voice commanded him to play the Battle of Dan no ura from the Tale of the Heike.

Hōichi played, and was surprised at the dramatic reaction to his performance. At the climax of the story, when he told of the defeat of the Heike and the drowning of the young emperor, every one began weeping loudly. When he was finished, they praised his skill. A voice asked him to return again the following night. Then the samurai escorted Hōichi back to his temple. The samurai commaned Hōichi to tell nobody what had happened.

The next evening, the samurai returned for Hōichi. Once again, Hōichi played, moving his audience to tears. The high priest of Amidaji noticed that Hōichi had been leaving at night and not returning until morning. When he asked Hōichi where he was going, Hōichi refused to tell. The priest was worried, and ordered his servants to follow Hōichi.

That night, the samurai once again came for Hōichi. The temple servants followed Hōichi to an old Heike family graveyard. Hōichi sat down before the grave of Emperor Antok. As he passionately played his biwa, orbs of ghostly fire flared up and danced in the air around him. The servants realized that Hōichi was in terrible danger. They dragged him away from the graves and back to the temple and told the high priest what had happened.

The high priest explained to Hōichi that nobles he had encountered were in truth vengeful ghosts who had perished at the Battle of Dan no ura. They would not be satisfied with his performance; they would kill him and take his soul. The ghosts would surely return for Hōichi the following night. The priest painted the words of the Heart Sutra all over Hōichi’s body so that the ghosts would not be able to see him. They could still hear him, so the priest warned Hōichi not to make any sound.

The samurai returned the next evening. He called out to Hōichi, but Hōichi remained silent. The ghost called out again. “Why do you not answer? I see your biwa, so I know you are there.” Hōichi heard the heavy boots and grumbling of the ghost as it searched his room. “Ah, now I see why you do not answer. Your mouth and body have been taken away. Only your ears remain! Well then, I will take the ears to my lord as proof that I did everything I could.” The ghost took hold of Hōichi’s ears and tore them right off body. Hot blood poured down the sides of Hōichi’s face and body, but he did not cry out. The ghost left, taking Hōichi’s ears with him.

In the morning, the temple servants found Hōichi lying unconscious in a pool of blood. When they saw what had happened, the high priest realized his mistake. He had painted the sutra all over Hōichi, except for on his ears. Thus Hōichi’s ears remained visible to the ghost. He apologized to Hōichi and tended to his wounds. The ghosts never returned. Hōichi was saved, his story traveled far and wide, and he grew more famous than ever. People came from all around to hear the earless biwa master whose music had the power to make ghosts cry.

Alphabetical list of yōkai