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Submitted By Steven Godfrey

Original Art by Suehiro Maruo

Hoichi the Earless

I’m rather fond of Japanese myths and legends, particularly their ghost stories. This is a personal favorite.

On April 25 th, in 1185, the battle of Dan-no-ura took place between the Minamoto Clan or the Genji, and the Taira Clan, or the Heike. This was a sea battle, which occurred off the Straits of Shimonoseki. The Heike, despite ruling Japan for several decades, were badly outnumbered. To boost morale, the Heike brought their young emperor and his retainers dressed in full Imperial regalia. Unfortunately, the tides (literally) were against the Taira Clan, and they defeated. Rather than be captured, the royal family, along with the six-year-old emperor, leapt into the water to drown.

“The Tale of the Heike” or “Heike Monokotari” was compiled as an Epic poem first written down sometime around 1330 but existed an oral tradition for some time prior to that.

The story of Hoichi the Earless (Mimi nashi Hoichi) concerns one such teller of the story. Hoichi was a blind minstrel, trained from childhood to sing, recite stories, and play the biwa (a stringed instrument). Even as a boy, he surpassed his master's and became famous for his skill at performing the tale of Heike Monokatari. He was said to be so skillful in singing the battle song of Dan-no-ura, that it could bring Yokai (demons) to tears.

Hoichi lived at Amidaji, a Buddhist temple, at Akamagaseki, which is near the Straights of Shimonoseki. The temple was built on the shores there to bring peace to the dead of the battle from centuries before.

One summer night the chief priest, and his attendants, were called away to perform funeral rites at a parishioner's house. It was a hot night, so blind Hoichi went to sit on the front porch of the temple, with his biwa, to cool off. Hoichi sat there practicing the biwa to keep himself company, as it was past midnight, and the monks had not returned yet.

Eventually, he heard footsteps approaching and a commanding voice called out; “Hoichi!”. Not recognizing the voice and being surprised by the stern tone Hoichi did not answer. The stranger called again; “Hoichi!!!”. “Yes”, the blind man cringed at the harsh tone, “I’m sorry, I cannot see and do not know who is speaking to me”. The stranger softened his tone somewhat and said, “There is nothing to be afraid of, my lord is a powerful Daimyo, and is staying near here as he wished to see where the battle of Dan-no-ura took place. He has heard of your skill in the telling of that tale and wishes for you to perform in for him. You are to accompany me to his court.” With those words, the stranger stepped closer to Hoichi, who could now hear the rattle of armour as he walked. Realizing that he was in the presence of a samurai, Hoichi held out his arm, which was then taken in firm grip and was then guided away from the temple some distance away to the visiting lord’s court.

Once at the court, Hoichi could hear the rustling of silken robes, like autumn leaves, and the whispers of the noble ladies. Hoichi thought that quite a number of people had gathered here. He felt that a woman had placed her hand on his arm, and she spoke gently; “Please, be at ease, I will guide you to your seat”. He removed his sandals before entering the building and was then ushered to a pillow where seated himself carefully upon it. She then stated that her lord wishes to have him tell the full story of the Heike Monokotari. He replied that “This telling will take several nights; do you wish me here so long?”. She affirmed that this was her lord’s desire.

Hoichi raised his voice and sang about the naval battle. So great was his say that the audience could hear the sounds of arrows, the shouts of the warriors, the sounds of blades hitting helmets, the bodies of the wounded falling into the sea. Once he was done, the audience sat in stunned silence. He then heard the shuffling steps of a women approach. The same woman as before spoke to him, saying; “My lord is beyond pleased with your performance and wishes to express his full gratitude to you. The same servant who summoned you before will return tomorrow night to bring you here again. It is my lord's wish that while he is staying in Akamagaseki, you will not tell anyone about your coming to this palace, sine he is travelling in secret. Now, you may return to your lord’s temple.”.

After Hoichi expressed his gratitude, the woman took him by the hand and led him to the entrance of the house The same servant who guided him to the palace was waiting and took him home. The samurai brought Hoichi to the porch at the back of the temple, where they said goodbye.

It was dawn when Hoichi returned, but no one had noticed. The priest had come back from the funeral so late that he’d thought Hoichi was asleep. He rested until late afternoon, but still woke exhausted. He did not say a word to anyone about the previous evening’s activities. Later that night, the samurai again appeared and escorted him to the gathering of the nobles. Hoichi’s recitation and performance received the same acclaim as the previously evening.

It was discovered that night that Hoichi was missing from the temple. Upon his return the chief priest approached Hoichi and in a soft, but scolding tone he asked; “Why did you go out so late without telling anyone? Even though the darkness isn’t a problem for you it was still dangerous!” Hoichi responded; “Please forgive me Osho-san (chief priest)! I had some personal business to attend to that couldn’t be handled at any other time”.

The chief priest was both surprised and worried when Hoichi remained silent as to his whereabouts. He felt that this was unnatural and that there was something more to the situation. The priest feared that the blind boy had been possessed by a demon or had been deceived by some ill-intentioned person. So, while the priest didn't ask him anything more, he resolved to secretly keep an eye on Hoichi's actions, including telling the temple servants to watch for him to leave the temple grounds after dark.

The very next night, seeing Hoichi fleeing from the temple, the servants immediately lit lanterns and followed him. However, it was a rainy night and there was little visibility. Hoichi had disappeared before the servants could get out onto the road. Indeed, Hoichi walked very quickly, which is strange considering his blindness, for the road was bad. The servants milled thought the town, but with no success. Finally, when the men returned to the temple from the road along the beach, they were all surprised to hear the loud sound of the biwa being played in the cemetery of Amidaji Temple. It was pitch black on that side, except for two or three ghost lights, which are usually seen flickering there on dark nights. But the men at once hurried to the cemetery, and by the light of the lanterns they carried they found Hoichi there sitting alone in the rain before the memorial tomb of Emperor Antoku, He played the biwa and recited the song about the Battle of Dan-no-ura. There, the spiritual fires of the dead were burning like candles everywhere on the graves.

“Hoichi-san!, Hoichi-san, what are you doing?” the servants called out to him. Hoichi seemed to not hear but kept playing and singing as fervently as before. The men then grabbed Hoichi and began dragging him away shouting; “Hoichi-san! Hoichi-san! You must come back to the temple with us now!”. Hoichi scolded them saying; I cannot forgive you for treating me in such a way before this noble court!”. They dragged up and his instrument back to the temple. Once back at the temple, the chief priest had Hoichi change into dry robes and saw that he was fed. Once this one done the chief priest then urged Hoichi to fully explain the circumstances of his behavior.
Hoichi hesitated to talk about it for a long time. But when he finally realized that his actions had disrespected and angered his master, he resolved to break his silence, and then explained everything that had happened since the samurai's arrival.

Then the chief priest said; “how unfortunate that you failed to inform me about this earlier! “Your life is in great danger right now! Your musical skill has entangled you in an otherworldly ordeal. By now you must understand that you were not visiting a noble house, but were spending the night among the Heike's graves in the cemetery! The servants saw you sitting in the rain, in front of Emperor Antoku's memorial tomb. Everything you experienced was an illusion created by the dead. If you listen to what they say again, after what has happened before, you will be torn to pieces by those spirits. To protect you from them, I must write the Heart Sutra on your entire body.”

Before sunset, the temple priests stripped Hoichi naked, and with brushes, they wrote the Heart Sutra Hoichi's body. On his chest, back, head, face, neck, hands and feet covering his entire body, even on the soles of his feet. The only thing that was missed was his two ears. When this was done, the chief priest told Hoichi;
“Tonight, we will stay in the temple and pray, you will sit on the porch and wait. When the spirit comes to collect you, don't respond or move. No matter what happens sit silently, if you move or make any noise, you will be cut down. Even if you call for help, you won't be saved. If you do exactly as I say, the threat will pass, and you will no longer be in danger.''

After sunset, the priests and temple servants took their places inside the tempe, and Hoichi sat down on the verandah as instructed He placed his biwa on the board beside him, assumed a meditative posture, and remained still and quiet - careful not to cough or breathe audibly. He waited like this for hours. Then he heard footsteps coming from the road. The sound passed through the gate, crossed the garden, approached the verandah, and stopped--right in front of Hoichi.
“Hoichi!” called out a deep voice. But the blind man held his breath and sat motionless.
“Hoichi!!” cried the frightening voice again. Then three times - in a fierce voice - `
“Hoichi'!!!” The blind minstrel remained quiet and still as a stone.
Then in a complaining voice he heard;“No answer! This is unacceptable! I need to see where he is.''

There was the sound of heavy footsteps coming up to the verandah. The sound of feet slowly approached and stopped next to Hoichi. The moments stretched into an eternity, Hoichi felt his whole-body tremble with the pounding of his heart in his chest, while the night around him completely silent. Finally, right next to him, the voice said, “There is a biwa here, but the biwa master is missing, the only thing I see of him is his two ears! This is very strange, but the only thing I can do is take his ears with me as proof to my lord that I did as he asked!”.

At that moment, Hoichi felt iron-like fingers grab both of his ears and tear them off! The pain was excruciating, but he still did not raise his voice. The heavy treads retreated across the verandah, down into the garden, towards the road, and faded into the night. Hoichi felt something thick and warm dripping from both sides of his head. But he did not dare to raise his hands...

The chief priest returned before sunrise. He hurried quickly to the back porch, where he stepped on something sticky and slipped. Horrified, he cried out, because by the light of the lantern he saw that the sticky substance was blood. However, the chief priest noticed that Hoichi was sitting there in a posture of meditative meditation, blood still dripping from his wounds.
“Poor Hoichi! '' cried the chief priest surprised by what he saw and raised his voice. ” What's wrong... are you hurt?'' Hearing the priest's voice, the blind man felt relieved. Hoichi suddenly burst into tears. He tearfully narrated the events of that night. “Poor, poor Hoichi!” exclaimed the chief priest “It's all my fault! This was a horrible oversight on my part. I wrote sutras all over your body but somehow neglected your ears “We'll heal those wounds healed as soon as possible. It was a terrible price, but you will never have to be bothered by a visitor like that again.''

With the help of an earnest doctor, Hoichi's injuries soon healed. The story of this mysterious incident spread throughout the country, and Hoichi quickly became famous. Many noble people went to Akamagaseki and listened to Hoichi's recitation. Over time, there were so many visitors that Hoichi became rich. However, from the time of this incident, this man was known only by the name Hoichi Miminashi or Hoichi the Earless.

Here is a side note to the story, make of it what you will. There is a species of crab, called Heikegani (Heike Crab) Heikeopsis japonica, native to Japan with a shell that has a pattern resembling a human face. The face very much looks like an angry samurai, and in fact, the species has the nickname of “samurai crab”. As in the beginning of this story, the crabs are named after the Taira Clan which dominated medieval Japan, commonly known as the Heike. The locals believe the crabs are the reincarnated warriors of the naval Battle of Dan-no-ura, as told in the Tale of the Heike. The crabs are edible but are not typically eaten by the Japanese.