Hoichi The Earless: The Japanese Legend Of The Blind Lute Priest, Demons & The Genpei War

A famous Japanese legend tells the tale of a blind lute priest known as Hoichi the Earless who had his ears ripped off by a Samurai while performing for demons in the Dan-no-Ura cemetery following the Genpei War.

The Genpei war was a brutal conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans
The Genpei war was a brutal conflict between the Taira and Minamoto clans

The tale of the Taira clan has been told for centuries in Japan. The Genpei War, and its final battle in the straits of Shimonoseki off the coast of Dan-no-Ura, has been immortalized in verse in the Tale of the Heike, which was spread orally by the Biwa Hoshi, or "lute priests." These lute-playing bards told the tale for many years before it was finally dictated in 1371 by the Japanese bard Kakuichi. From there, the story became standardized and the epic spread. Near the coastline in Dan-no-Ura is a cemetery believed to be haunted by the last emperor from the Taira clan, his family, and many of the samurai warriors who died trying to protect him on April 24, 1185. The story behind the ghosts is even more saddening than the spirits who may still wander the area.

The Genpei War was born during the Taira's rise to power. In 1180, the warrior Taira Kiyomori, whose actions helped his clan conquer their enemies, was sent to eliminate a thorn in the side of the royal court. The thorn was Minamoto Yoshitomo, a warrior from the powerful Minamoto clan. Taira Kiyomori brought the battle to Minamoto Yoshitomo on the sea - where the Minamoto clan was not used to fighting - and Taira Kiyomori proved to be the victor. Kiyomori spared the lives of Yoshitomo's three young sons - boys who would grow up to be powerful warriors and leaders in the Minamoto clan and who would harbour a powerful grudge against the clan that killed their father.

After the battle, the Emperor rewarded Kiyomori with land in western Japan. The Taira clan ran a highly profitable trade with China and quickly grew wealthy and powerful, but the jealousy and hatred from the Minamoto grew stronger each year. When the call to the Genpei War was sounded in May 1180, the Minamoto quickly answered.

Wars are fought for many reasons but land, wealth, and power (often the three are synonymous) are always near the top of the list. The Taira were the ruling clan and had the power; the Minamoto were no longer content with their little corner of the empire. The Taira were slow to respond to the Minamoto uprising because they didn't take the grumbling and minor skirmishes as anything more than the occasional venting of frustration. The Taira felt the people in the empire were content for the most part and didn't want a war. But as the violence escalated, this opinion changed.

A year after the fighting had begun, the Minamoto presented an offer to Taira: split the land in half and have each family clan control their own part. But this offer was waved off, angering the Minamoto further. Between 1182 and 1183, a truce was forced as a poor harvest brought disease and starvation to the land; but battles picked up again in 1183. In the coming years, the Minamoto chipped away at the armies and land of the Taira, forcing them to retreat and regroup. Thousands were dying on the front lines of both sides. Minamoto pushed Taira to the sea, and in 1185 the final battle lines were being drawn.

The Taira set sail for Shido harbour with 500 boats. In one vessel was Antoku, the Taira child emperor, his grandmother, and guards. Both sides sensed a final battle was near. If the Taira lost, they would be decimated, and if they won, they would only live to fight another day.

When the sun rose on April 24, 1185, the Minamoto set sail with 850 boats on the hunt for the Taira fleet. The two met at Dan-no-Ura. The battle began with a volley of arrows and both sides fought with determination. The Taira, though outnumbered, had the tide in their favour and were seeing success in the battle - enemy ships were being sunk, and their samurai were fighting valiantly. But their hopes were soon dashed when one of their own switched sides during the battle. A Taira warrior named Taguchi Shigeyoshi made his way to one of the Minamoto boats who now took aim at the emperor's vessel. The Taira samurai saw the overwhelming force headed their way and chose to drown before allowing themselves to be taken, prisoner. Armoured men jumped into the chilly waters and allowed the weight of their protective gear to carry them to the bottom. Others threw the ship's anchors overboard and held onto the weight to speed their own trip to the ocean floor.

The emperor's grandmother scooped up Antoku, who didn't understand what was happening. She held him close to her chest as she carried him to the rail of the ship and told the child that a happier empire waited below the water. She jumped to both of their dooms. The Taira were completely defeated and the dawn of a new era of military leadership had begun.

The legend of Hoichi the Earless is embedded in Japanese folklore
The legend of Hoichi the Earless is embedded in Japanese folklore

With such a massive loss of life and a complete change in the region's leadership, it is no surprise the area of Dan-no-Ura is both revered and haunted. There is a great challenge in separating real ghost legends and folklore from the influence popular fiction has had on this area and tale. The Tale of the Haike has influenced many novels, films, theatrical works, and art. So many modern bards have put their own spin on this story that the real facts and the fiction based on the legends have become intertwined. But both deserve some degree of attention.

One popular legend is that of Hoichi the Earless - a blind Biwa Hoshi (lute-playing priest) who came to the Akama-Jingu Temple, which is dedicated to Emperor Antoku, to learn The Tale of the Heike. To learn the tale, Hoichi knew he needed to know about the Taira, and there could be no better places to learn than the area where the battle was fought and at the temple dedicated to the child emperor. Hoichi's skills at playing and singing the epic tale grew. One night around midnight, Hoichi heard the approach of what he could only assume was a samurai, (considering the clink-clank of armour and the gruff way in which the warrior called out Hoichi's name). The samurai told Hoichi that his lord had requested Hoichi to perform for him that night. The blind minstrel was happy to oblige and was led into town and to the shore. Hoichi heard the ocean waters and couldn't understand why a nobleman would be staying near the coast. But soon he heard large doors open and he was led into a room full of people. The lute priest heard the swish of silk gowns and the mumbles of the aristocracy.

Hoichi sat down and played the performance of his life. His audience was moved to tears upon hearing the climax of the battle when so many samurai and the young emperor himself dove to their deaths in a last stand for honour. At the conclusion of his son,. Hoichi was told he would come back the next two evenings, but that he should speak of this to no one. After the third performance, he was promised a great reward. The samurai then returned the minstrel to the temple.

What Hoichi didn't realize was that the priest who oversaw the temple came back later that evening and discovered Hoichi was missing. The next morning when he found Hoichi sleeping he woke him up and asked him where he had been - the old priest was worried about his young friend, Hoichi told the priest he simply went out and couldn't say anything more.

That day the priest in charge of the temple asked one of his monks to sit outside and watch for Hoichi to leave when midnight came, this servant watched Hoichi pick up his biwa, appear to take the arm of some unseen person, and walk out of the temple gate. The servant ran through town searching the alleys and streets but found no trace. As the servant drew closer to the shore, he heard Hoichi's inspired biwa playing. He followed the noise and found the blind minstrel sitting in the middle of the cemetery singing The Tale of the Heike. The servant said they were surrounded by hundreds of demons. After much protest, Hoichi had no choice but to be dragged back. When they returned to the temple, Hoichi told the old priest everything that had happened.

The priest was frightened for his young friend, and he told Hoichi that if he returned the third night, he would be devoured by demons for all eternity. The priest also knew they could not stand against this spirit warrior, but he did have a plan. He wrote scripture all over the body of Hoichi and told him this would make him invisible to the ghostly samurai so long as he stayed perfectly still. That night at midnight, the samurai came again, saw Hoichi's biwa, but not the minstrel. He did, however, see two ears that had no writing on them at all. The samurai grabbed Hoichi's ears and tore them off so he could follow his lord's orders and bring back the only part of Hoichi he could find.

With the spell broken, the now disfigured Hoichi became a very sought-after performer who became wealthy and famous for his telling of The Tale of Heike.

The Akama-Jingu Temple is still standing today and is a popular tourist destination in the industrial town of Shimonoseki, whose coast was the site of Dan-no-Ura.

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