The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōichi

MORE than seven hundred years ago there was fought at Dan-no-ura, in the Straits of Shimonoséki, the last battle of the long contest between the Heiké, or Taira clan, and the Genji, or Minamoto clan. Then the Heiké perished utterly, with their women and children, and their infant emperor likewise, now remembered as Antoku Tenno. And, ever since, that shore and sea have been haunted. Elsewhere I told you about the strange crabs found there, called Heiké crabs, which have human faces on their backs, and are said to be the spirits of Heiké warriors.1

But there are other strange sights to be witnessed along that coast. On dark nights, thousands of ghostly fires hover about the beach, or flit above the waves, — pale wandering lights which the fishers call Oni-bi, or “ Demon-fires; ” and, whenever the winds are up, a sound of great shouting comes from the sea, like a clamor of battle.

In other years the Heiké were much more restless than now. They would rise about ships passing in the night, and try to sink them; and at all times they would watch for swimmers, to pull them down. It was in order to appease those dead that the Buddhist temple, called Amidaji, was built at Akamagaséki.2

A cemetery also was made close by –near the beach; and within it were set up monuments inscribed with the names of the drowned emperor, and of his great vassals ; and Buddhist services were performed there, on behalf of their spirits. After the temple had been built, and the memorial tombs erected, the Heike gave less trouble than before; but they continued to do, at intervals, tilings showing that they had not found the perfect peace.

Several hundred years ago there lived in Akamagaséki a blind man named Hōichi, who was famous for his skill in recitative and in playing upon the biwa.3From his early childhood, he had been trained to recite and to play; and while still a mere lad he had surpassed his teachers. When he became a professional biwa-lioshi, he was known chiefly by bis recitations of the history of the Heikd and the Genji; and in the Japanese account of his life it is said that when he sang of the battle of Dan-noura “even the Kijin [goblins] could not refrain from tears.”

At the outset of his career, Hōichi was very poor; but he found a good friend to help him. The priest of the Amidaji was fond of music and poetry; and he often invited Hōichi to the temple to play for him. Afterwards, being greatly impressed by the blind youth’s wonderful skill, he proposed that Hōichi should make the temple his home; and this offer was gratefully accepted . Hōichi was given a room in the temple building, and, in return for food and lodging, he was required only to gratify the priest with a musical performance on certain evenings, when not otherwise engaged.

One summer night the priest was requested to perform a Buddhist service at the house of a dead parishioner; and he went there with his acolyte, leaving Hōichi alone in the temple. It was a very warm night, and the blind man sought the coolness of the veranda upon which his room opened. The veranda overlooked a small garden in the rear of the Amidaji. Hōïchi sat down there to wait for the priest’s return, and tried to relieve his solitude by practicing upon his biwa. Midnight passed; and the priest did not appear. But the night was too hot for comfort within doors; and Hōïchi still waited. At last he heard footsteps approaching from the back gate. Somebody crossed the garden, advanced to the veranda, and stopped directly in front of him, –but it was not the priest. A deep voice called him by name, –abruptly and unceremoniously, in the manner of a saumurai summoning an inferior:–

“Hōïchi! ”

For the moment, Hōïchi was too much startled to answer; and the voice again called, in a tone of harsh command: —

“Hōïchi! ”

Hai ! ” the biwa - hoshi then responded, frightened by the menace of the tone. “ I am blind ! I cannot know who calls me.”

“ There is nothing to fear, ” the stranger said, speaking more gently. “I am stopping near this temple, and have been sent to you with a message. My Lord, a person of exceedingly high rank, is now staying at Akamagaseki, with many noble attendants. He wished to view the scene of the battle of Danno-ura; and to-day he visited that place. Having heard of your great skill in reciting the story of the battle, he now desires to hear you, –so you will take your biwa, and come with me at once to the house where the august assembly is waiting.”

In those times the order of a saumurai was not to be lightly disobeyed. Ho’ichi donned his sandals, took his biwa, and went away with the retainer, who guided him deftly, but made him walk very fast. The hand that guided was iron; and the clank of the warrior’s stride proved him fully armed, –probably some palace-guard on duty. Hōïchi’s first alarm was over : he began to think himself in good luck, –for, remembering the retainer’s assurance about “a person of exceedingly high rank, ” he supposed that the lord who wished to hear the recitation could not be less than a daimyo of the first class. Presently the saumurai halted ; and Hōïchi became aware that he had arrived at a large gateway, –and he wondered, for he did not know of any large gateway in that part of the town, except the main gate of the temple. “ Kaimon !4 the saumurai called ; and there was a sound of unbarring; and the two passed on.

They traversed a space of garden, and halted again before some entrance, where the retainer cried in a loud voice: “Within there! I have brought Ho’ichi. ” Then came sounds of feet hurrying, and screens sliding, and rain-doors opening, and women’s voices in converse. By the language of the women Hoichi knew that they were domestics in some very noble household; but he could not imagine to what place he had been conducted. Little time, however, was allowed him for conjecture. After he had been helped to mount several steps, upon the last of which he was told to doff his foot-gear, a woman’s hand guided him along interminable reaches of smooth planking, and around pillared angles too many to remember, and over widths amazing of matted floor, –until some vast apartment was readied. There he thought that many people were assembled, for the sound of the rustling of silk was like the whispering of leaves in a wood. And there was likewise a great humming of voices ; –and the speech was the speech of courts.

Hōïchi was told to make himself at ease; and he found a kneeling-cushion ready for him. After having taken his place, and tuned his instrument, the voice of a woman –whom he divined to be the Rōjo, or matron in charge of the female service –addressed him, saying: —

“It is required that the history of the Heiké be now recited, to the accompaniment of the biwa.”

Now the entire history could have been recited only in a time of many successive nights: therefore Hoōïchi ventured to suggest that a choice be made, saying:—

“As the whole of the story is not soon to be told, what portion is it augustly desired that I now recite ? ”

The woman’s voice made answer:–

“Recite the story of the battle of Dan-no-ura, –for the pity of it is the most deep.”

Then Hōïchi lifted up his voice, and chanted the chant of the wild fight on the bitter sea, –wonderfully making his biwa to sound like the straining of oars and the rushing of ships, the whir and the hissing of arrows, the shouting and trampling of men, the crashing of steel upon helmets, the plunging of slain in the flood. And in the pauses of his playing he could hear, to left and right of him, voices of men and women murmuring wonder and praise : “ How marvelous an artist! ” “Never was playing like this heard in our own province! “Not in all the empire is there another such singer as Hōïchi.” Then fresh courage came to him, and he played and chanted even better than before ; and a hush of amazement deepened about him. But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and the helpless, –the piteous perishing of the women and children, and the leap of Nu-no-Ama into the waves with the imperial boy, –then all suddenly uttered one long, long shuddering outcry of anguish; and thereafter they wailed and wept, so loudly and so wildly, that the blind musician was frightened by the violence of the grief which his story had aroused. For much time the sobbing and the wailing continued. But gradually the sounds of lamentation ceased; and, in the great stillness that followed, Hōïchi again heard himself addressed by the voice of the woman whom he thought to be the Rōjo.

She said : —

“Although we had been assured that you were a very skillful player upon the biwa, we did not think that any one could be so skillful as you have proved yourself to-night. Our Lord has been pleased to say that he intends to bestow upon you a fitting reward. But he desires that you shall perform before him once every night during the next six nights, –after which time he will probably make his august return journey. To-morrow night, therefore, you are to come here, at the same hour. The retainer who conducted you to-night will again be sent for you.

“There is another thing about which I have been ordered to speak to you. It is required that you shall tell no person of your visits here, during the time of our Lord’s sojourn at Akamagaséki. As he is traveling incognito,5 he commands that no mention of this matter be made. . . . You are now free to go back to the temple.”

After Hōïchi had duly prostrated himself in thanks, he was led, by a woman’s hand, to the entrance, where the same retainer who had brought him to the house was waiting to guide him home. The retainer conducted him to the veranda at the rear of the temple, and there bade him good-night.

It was a little before dawn when the blind man returned; but his absence from the temple had not been observed,

–as the priest, coming back at a very late hour, had supposed him asleep. During the day he was able to take rest; and he said no word of his strange adventure. In the middle of the following night the saumurai again came for him, and led him to the august assembly, where he gave another recitation with the same success that had attended his previous performance. But during this second visit, his absence from the temple was accidentally discovered ; and after his return in the morning, the priest called him, and said, in a tone of kindly reproach,–

“We have been very anxious about you, friend Ho’ichi. To go out, blind and alone, at so late an hour, is dangerous. Why did you go without telling us ? I could have ordered a servant to accompany you. And where have you been ? ”

Hōïchi answered evasively,–

“Pardon me, kind friend! I had to attend to a little private business; and I could not arrange the in after at any other hour.” . . .

The good priest was surprised, rather than hurt, by Hōïchi’s reticence: he felt it to be unnatural, and at once suspected something wrong. He feared that the blind man had been bewitched

–by goblins or demons. He asked no more questions; but he privately instructed the men-servants, in charge of the temple grounds, to keep watch upon Hōïchi’s movements, and to follow him in case that he should leave the temple again at night.

On the very next night Hōïchi was seen to leave the temple; and the attendants immediately lighted their lanterns, and followed after him. But it was a rainy night, and very dark; and, by the time that the temple-folk reached the roadway, Hōïchi had disappeared. Evidently he had walked very fast,– a strange thing, considering his blindness ; for the road was in a bad condition. The men hurried through the streets, making inquiries at every house which Hōïchi -was accustomed to visit; but no one could give them any information about him. At last, as they were returning to the temple by way of the beach, they were startled by the sound of a biwa, furiously played, in the cemetery of the Amidaji. Except for sundry ghost-fires, such as usually flitted there on moonless nights, all was black darkness in that direction. But the men hurried at once to the cemetery; and there, by the help of their lanterns, they discovered Hōïchi, seated alone in the rain before the memorial tomb of Antoku Tenno, making his biwa resound, and loudly chanting the chant of the battle of Dan-no-ura. And behind him, and about him, and everywhere above the tombs, the fires of the dead were burning like candles. Never before had so great a host of Oni-bi appeared in the sight of mortal man. . . .

“ Hōïchi - San! Hōïchi - San! ” the servants cried, –“you are bewitched!

. . . Hoichi-San 1 ” . . .

But the blind man did not seem to hear. Strenuously he made his biwa to ring and clash and clang; more and more wildly he chanted. They caught hold of him ; they shouted into his ear,–

“Ho’ichi-San! come home with us! w

Reprovingly he spoke to them: —

“Before this august assembly to interrupt me in such a manner will not be tolerated. ”

Whereat, in spite of the weirdness of the thing, the servants could not help laughing. Feeling sure that he had been bewitched, they seized him, and pulled him upon his feet, and by main force took him back to the temple, where he was at once relieved of his wet clothing, by order of the priest, and reclad, and made to eat and drink. Then the priest insisted upon a full explanation of his friend’s extraordinary behavior.

Hoichi at first hesitated to speak. But when he found that his conduct had really alarmed and angered the kind priest, he decided to abandon all reserve; and he related everything that had happened from the time of the first visit of the saumurai.

The priest then said : —

“Hōïchi, my poor friend, you are now in great danger! It is very unfortunate that you did not tell me all this before. Your wonderful skill in music has brought you into strange trouble. By this time you must be aware that you have not been visiting any house whatever, but have been passing your nights in the cemetery, among the tombs of the Heiké; — and it was before the memorial grave of Antoku Tenno that our people found you to-night, sitting in the rain. All that you have been imagining was illusion, –except the calling of the dead. By once obeying them, you have put yourself in their power. If you obey them again, after what has occurred, they will immediately destroy you; but, in any event, they would have destroyed you sooner or later. . . . Now I shall not be able to remain with you to-night: I am called away to perform another funeral service. But before I go it will be very necessary to protect your body by writing holy texts upon it.”

In the evening, before sundown, the priest and his acolyte stripped Hoichi: then, with their writing-brushes, they traced upon his breast and back, head and neck and face, limbs and hands and feet, –even upon the soles of his feet, and upon every part of his body, –the text of the holy Sutra called HannyaShin-Kyō.6 When this bad been done, the priest instructed Hōïchi, saying: —

“To-night, when I go away, you must seat yourself on the gallery, and wait. You will be called, as before. But, whatever may happen, do not answer, and do not move. Say nothing, and sit still –as if meditating. If you stir, or make any noise, you will be torn in pieces. Do not get frightened ; and do not think of calling for help– because no help could save you. If you do exactly as I tell you, the danger will pass, and you will have nothing more to fear.”

After dark the priest and his acolyte went out to perform their duty; and Hōïchi seated himself upon the veranda, according to the instructions given him. He laid his biwa on the planking near him, and, assuming the attitude of religious meditation, remained quite still, –taking care not to cough, or to clear his throat, or to breathe audibly. He stayed thus for several hours. Then, from the roadway, he heard the steps coming. They crossed the garden, approached the veranda, stopped –directly in front of him.

“Hōïchi!” the deep voice called. But the blind man held his breath, and sat motionless.

“ Hōïchi! ” the voice called a second time, grimly. Then a third time, savagely,–

“Hōïchi! ”

Hōïchi remained still as a stone ; and the voice grumbled,–

“ No answer ? –that is strange ! . . . Must see where the fellow is.” . . .

There was a noise of heavy feet mounting on the veranda. The feet approached deliberately, –halted beside him. Then, for long minutes,– during which Hōïchi felt his body shaken like a drum at every beat of his heart, –there was dead silence.

At last the gruff voice muttered above him,–

“Here is the biwa; but of the biwa player I see –only two ears! ... So that explains why he did not answer: he had no mouth to answer with; there is nothing left of him but his ears. . . . To my Lord those ears I will take– in proof that the august commands were obeyed, so far as was possible.” . . .

At the same instant Hōïchi felt his ears gripped by fingers of iron, and torn off. Great as the pain was, he gave no cry. The heavy footfalls receded along the veranda–descended into the garden,– passed to the roadway, –ceased. From either side of his head the blind man felt a thick warm trickling; but he dared not lift his hands. . . .

Before sunrise the priest returned. He hastened immediately to the veranda in the rear of the temple, stepped and slipped upon something clammy, and uttered a cry of horror ; for he saw, by the light of his lantern, that the clamminess was blood. But he also perceived Hōïchi sitting there, in the attitude of religious meditation, with the blood still oozing from his wounds.

“ My poor Hōïchi! ” cried the startled priest, “what is this? . . . You have been hurt! ”

At the sound of his friend’s voice, the blind man felt safe. He burst out sobbing, and tearfully related his adventure of the night.

“Poor, poor Hōïchi! ” the priest exclaimed, –“all my fault! my very grievous fault! . . . Everywhere upon your body the holy texts had been written –except upon your ears! I trusted my acolyte to attend to that part of the work ; and it was very, very wrong of me not to have made sure that he had done so. . . . Well, the matter cannot now be helped; we can only try to heal your hurts as soon as possible. . . . Cheer up, friend! — the danger is well over. You will never again be troubled by those visitors.” . . .

With the aid of a skilled doctor, Hōïchi soon recovered from his injuries. The story of his strange experience spread far and wide, and made him famous. Many noble persons went to Akamagaséki to hear him recite; and large presents of money were given him, so that he soon found himself a wealthy man. . . . But from the time of that adventure he was known only by the appellation of Mimi-Nashi-Hōïclii,– “ Hōïchi-the-Earless. ”

Lafcadio Hearn,

  1. See my Kottb, for an illustrated paper upon these curious creatures.
  2. Or, Shimonoséki. The town is also known by the name of Bukan.
  3. The biwa, a kind of four-stringed lute, is chiefly used in musical recitative. Formerly the professional minstrels who recited the HeikéMonogatari, and other epical or tragical histories, to the accompaniment of the biwa, were called biwa-hōshi, or “ lute-priests.” The origin of the name is not clear; hut it is possible that the biwa-hōshi shaved their heads, like priests. Blind musicians, and blind shampooers also, used to so shave their heads. The biwa is played with a sort of plectrum, called bachi, usually made of horn.
  4. A resnectful term, signifying the opening of a gate. It was used by saumurai, when calling to the guards on duty at a lord’s gate, for admission.
  5. “ Traveling incognito ” is at least the meaning of the Japanese statement that the lord is making a shinobi no go-ryokō (disguised augustjourney).
  6. The smaller Pragña-Pâramitâ-Hridaya-Sûtra is thus called iu Japanese. Both the smaller and larger Sutras of this name, PraghaParamita, or “ Transcendent Wisdom,” have been translated by Professor Max Miiller, and can he found in vol. xlix. of the Sacred Books of the East (Buddhist Mahayana Shtras). The so-called “ Smaller ” is hut an epitome of the “ Larger; ” and both are very brief,— tlie longer occupying less than three pages of the book, and the shorter less than two. Apropos of the magical use of the text, as described in the story, it is worthy of notice that the subject of the Sutra is the doctrine of the Emptiness of Forms, — that is to say, the unreality of all phenomena, objective and snbjective. . . . “Form is emptiness; and emptiness is form. Emptiness is not different from form; form is not different from emptiness. What is form, that is emptiness ; what is emptiness, that is form. . . . Perception, name, concept, and knowledge are also emptiness. . . . There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. . . . But when the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he [the seeker] becomes free from all fear, and beyond the reach of change, enjoying final Nirvana.”