Disabled people and musicians in Tokyo in 1805

Kidai Shōran (煕代勝覧) depicted several disabled people in the City of Edo (present Tokyo) in the early 19th century.

In the Edo period (1603-1867) when knowledge on nutrition was lacking, considerable number of Japanese suffered from beriberi, or kakke (脚気) in Japanese. Beriberi is a nervous system ailment caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 in the diet. Since wealthy people used to eat white rice lacking vitamin B1 as a staple food, beriberi was more rampant among them rather than among poor people, who used to eat brown rice. Symptoms of beriberi include weakness and pain in the legs, and those who suffer from them are unable to walk on their own. One such person is depicted in Kidai Shōran.

A man on a wheeled board is rowing it with sticks in his hands. It seems that the wheeled board was a common device for disabled people in pre-modern Japan; I have seen an another painting scroll, which was painted in the 15-16th century, that depicted a person on a similar vehicle. The decent clothes of the man in the illustration suggest that he is a relatively wealthy person - perhaps a retired merchant.

Another illness from which considerable number of people suffered was that of teeth. There were doctors who took care of teeth, but their remedy was basically just extracting the decayed teeth. How did those who lost teeth take their meal? Kidai Shoran depicts a solution for them - dentures. The scroll does not depict a denture itself but depicts a denture shop.

The sign on the shop reads from right to left, in accordance with Japanese writing custom at the period, "御入歯" (On-ireba), which means "denture" in English. Denture in the Edo period was wooden one as reported in the Japan Times last year. The following photo and quote is from the JT article.

A ditch in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, has yielded a common form of early false teeth — an 18th century set of wooden choppers, indicating Japan, like other parts of the world, turned to wood in the days before gold and ceramic crowns.

The highly sophisticated carved wooden dentures found in Yokkaichi indicate elderly people of that time, before modern dentistry, were able to overcome tooth loss and the subsequent difficulty in eating.

The partial plate includes eight life-size teeth. It was carved out of boxwood and measures some 6.2 cm wide, 2 cm high and 5.5 cm deep.

The quality compares favorably with similar wooden teeth discovered elsewhere, demonstrating that the Japanese dental artisans' wooden teeth were among the best in the world, experts say.
Loosing teeth is not so a serious problem as other disability that may affect one's survival. Loosing eyesight was one serious problem in pre-modern period when social security system was lacking. The following illustration shows a sightless person in the Edo period. He is carrying a biwa lute (琵琶) on his back.

Sightless people in the Edo period used to join an organization which were run by sightless people themselves, in which they learnt techniques of massage to earn their living as masseurs. Also taught in the organization was how to play music instruments such as biwa lute and koto harp (琴, which was also called (箏)). If one was found to be talented in playing music, he was trained to be a musician so that he could earn his living either as a biwa player or as a koto player. Since Tokugawa Shogunate gave sightless people privilege to monopolize the businesses of masseurs and the biwa/koto players, sightless people could have relatively good income to make their living, and many famous sightless musicians appeared in succession during the Edo period. This webpage has a good article on the history of koto music in Japan; it mentions several famous sightless musicians in the Edo period. (Yatsuhashi Kengyo, Ikuta Kengyo, Yamada Kengyo and Kitajima Kengyo mentioned in the article are all sightless people, although it is not clearly stated in the text.)

The following video clip shows a koto music, "Rokudan no Shirabe" (Melody of Six Movements), composed in the mid-17th century by a sightless koto master, Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685).

Koto players usually stayed in their home, and there they earned their living by playing koto or by teaching people how to play it. In contrast, biwa players wandered through the country carrying their biwa lutes, as shown in the illustration mentioned above. They were like Celtic bards. Their major repertoire was the Tale of Heike, a historical epic of the 12th-century Genpei War. They chanted the historic epic accompanying themselves on the biwa lute. Some records say that it took 90-120 hours to chant the whole story of the Tale of Heike. Since it was a hard task for both the players and audience, biwa players usually performed several climax parts of the epic in a performance. The following video clip is a performance of the Tale of Heike by Nobuko Kawashima. Editing of the clip is rather poor but you would see how biwa performance was like.

As anyone would guess, it required a good memory to remember the whole text of the Tale of Heike. Some sightless people in the Edo period, however, went further to remember tons of classic Japanese texts. The one staying on top of them is a sightless scholar, Hanawa Hoki-ichi (塙 保己一) (1746-1821), who finished a 670-volume compilation of Japanese old documents, Gunsho Ruiju (群書類従), in 1819. You can read a concise biography of Hanawa Hokiichi in this webpage. Motoori Haruniwa (1763-1828), a pioneer of Japanese linguistics, is also a famous sightless scholar in the Edo period.

Let's return to the subject of music. Kidai Shōran (煕代勝覧) depicts another kind of Edo musicians. The people in the following illustration are Buddhist monks playing shakuhachi flutes in front of an umbrella shop. They are wearing baskets on their head.

They look mysterious, don't they? They are komusō (虚無僧), who are monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism. Literal meaning of Komusō is "monks of nothingness". The following quote is from Wikipedia.
Komusō were characterised by the straw basket (a sedge or reed hood named a tengai) worn on the head, manifesting the absence of specific ego. They are also known for playing solo pieces on the shakuhachi (a type of Japanese bamboo flute). These pieces, called honkyoku ("original pieces") were played during a meditative practice called suizen, for alms and as a method of attaining enlightenment.
Since the Tokugawa shogunate granted komuso the privilege of traveling through Japan without hindrance, there were many komuso who were wandering throughout the country. It is believed that at least some of komuso were working as spies of the Tokugawa Shogunate seeking for intelligence of feudal lords who would possibly rebel against the Shogunate. In the late 1970s, NHK aired a TV drama series entitled "Naruto Hichō" (鳴門秘帖, or "Secret Note of Naruto"), main character of which was a komuso who were trying to get intelligence of a feudal lord who was trying to raise a rebellion against the Shogunate. I was totally absorbed in the drama when I was a child.

After the Meiji Restoration, Meiji Government banned the Fuke school of Buddhism suspecting possible connection of Komuso with the Tokugawa Shogunate. Later in 1888, however, a Buddhist temple for Komuso, Myōanji temple [Japanese], was allowed to be constructed in the ground of Tofukuji temple, which is a temple complex in Kyoto. So you can see Komuso in present Japan if you are lucky.

Japanese old instruments are not commonly practiced by the Japanese now, but there are some good players. The following video clip is from a performance by a biwa player Yukihiro Goto and a shakuhachi player Akihito Obama.

I will write about carts and vehicles depicted in Kidai Shoran in next update. The update will be slow as always. Please be patient!

Related Posts:
(1) Tokyo in 1805
(2) People in Tokyo in 1805
(3) Disabled people and musicians in Tokyo in 1805 (This post)


Jun Okumura said...

So beri-beri is the vegetarian version of gout? Fascinating.