Biwa-Hoshi On The Tokaido Road Near Maisaka (woodcut c. 1854)
Fifteen years ago, when I first arrived in Japan, I didn’t know anything about
disability in Japanese culture. I didn’t see many people with disabilities on
the streets of Tokyo. Disability was not very public. I was told most people
with disabilities were hidden away, a combination of lack of access and family
shame. However, as I began to discover, disability has been an important, one
might even say crucial, part of Japanese culture for a very long time.
When I arrived in Tokyo, I was told by a disability studies colleague about the
work of Hanada Shuncho. Hanada-sensei had written about the centrality of
disability to Japanese culture, especially the disability of Ebisu, one of the
shichifukjin, the seven lucky gods. My colleague referred me to a website called
“Ebisu Mandala,” but when I loaded the page all I received was an error message.
During my first stay in Japan, I had difficulty finding what I was looking for.
But when I returned three years later things had changed. Not only were more
people talking about including students with disabilities in “mainstream”
schools but I also saw more people with disabilities on the streets of Tokyo.
And I finally met with Hanada-sensei. By the time of our meeting I had found
more disability in things Japanese, especially the blind biwa hoshi.
During the early history of Japan, blindness, often caused by disease, farming
accidents, or poor nutrition, was very common. By the eighth century, blind
storytellers roamed Japan, chanting narratives in exchange for alms.
Accompanying themselves on the four-stringed fretted lute called a biwa, the
biwa hōshi (lute priests) spread news, popular songs, and local legends.
In preparation for meeting Hanada-sensei, I asked my research assistant to
translate “History Is Being Created,” Hanada-sensei’s article, in which he
relates a Japanese creation myth: After giving birth to the sun and the moon,
Izanagino-ko and Izanamino- mikoto, the Japanese version of Adam of Eve, bore a
baby whose lower body was paralyzed. He could not speak a word. This child was
called Hiru-ko, alluding to Hiru, a leech that roamed the rice paddies and
sucked the blood of humans and animals. After Hiru-ko was three years old, still
unable to stand upright, he was set to sea on a small boat. His parents
abandoned their child; they devoted their life to nation building. The child was
never given the name of Mikoto as proof of his divinity. At the places where
this boat is said to have arrived to shore are shrines that use the kanji for
Hiru and Ko. These kanji are now read as Ebisu. By the middle of the Edo period,
Ebisu became the most popular of the seven lucky gods, the shichifukujin.
The shichifukujin appear in early collections of senryu, short poems consisting
of seventeen syllables. In one senryu, it is written that six of the
shichifukujin are all katawa, which means incomplete but can also mean distorted
or disabled. Thus, the gods who are supposed to bring about fuku, fortune, are
the gods with fugu, distortion and disability. Fortunate distortion. A good
description of my experience of Japan.
According to Hanada-sensei, Ebisu, the deity of prosperity in one’s job has
cerebral palsy; Hotei, the deity of prosperity and happiness, is abnormally
obese; both Jurojin, deity of happiness, prosperity and longevity, and
Fukurokuju, deity of happiness, prosperity, longevity and wisdom, have
hydroencephalytic heads; Bishamonten, deity of prosperity has skin and bone
structure issues; Daikokuten, the deity who in India fought the evil spirits,
and in the 9th century merged with the Shinto deity Okuninushi-no- mikoto to
become another Japanese deity of prosperity, has an intellectual disability; and
Benten, diety of prosperity and the only female among the shichifukujin, has a
sexual abnormality that Handa-sensei said he was too embarrassed to mention in
I met with Hanada-sensei at the offices of the Japan Society for the
Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities (JSRPD). He was accompanied by
Aeio-san, a graduate student who was familiar with his teacher’s unique speech.
During our meeting, Aeio-san served as Hanada-sensei’s interpreter. There was
also an interpreter to translate into English from Japanese.
Hanada-sensei was born in 1945 with cerebral palsy. Sitting across from me in
his wheelchair, he seemed frail. His large-framed glasses accentuated his thin
face. His arms were akimbo, each loosely bent over each arm of his wheelchair.
Hanada-sensei’s languid speech initially sounded as if it is a recording playing
in slow motion. But after a short while, I easily recognized its musical rhythm,
which was often interrupted by bursts of laughter.
I asked Hanada-sensei, “Do people realize that when they pray to Ebisu, they are
praying to a disabled god?”
“Most of the statues of Ebisu show him holding a fishing rod and usually show
him sitting not quite right, neither standing nor walking. The lesson I learned
from Ebisu, from Ebisu fishing without moving, is that it’s better not to move.”
“Do you think everybody gets that lesson from Ebisu or just you?”
“Ebisu is holding the fish. But he has a disability in his legs. Maybe he is
paralyzed, so in order to fish he should stay in one place.”
By now, I’ve become accustomed to these kinds of indirect answers.
“In the Edo era, the thirteenth shogun, Iesada, had CP [cerebral palsy]. Also,
the Maeda family, the strong power, had a disabled son. The Date family warrior,
Date Masamoe, was called Dokuganju, the one-eyed dragon. And the Toyotomi clan
has Utani Yoshitsugu with leprosy. Historically, Japan has been an agricultural
society. The basic lifestyle is living in the community. People who are
“This is also the case with bakemono,” Hanada-sensei continued, using a word for
which the closest English equivalent is ghost or monster. “In Japan the border
between the present world and the bakemono world is not so big. There is much
interaction between the present world and the bakemono world. Tree is tree, but
in this tree, the bakemono is living, the place where gods and the souls live.
Everyday goods are also where the gods, the souls, are living. Shamoji, the rice
scoop when you eat rice—in that kitchen tool there is also living the soul.”
“Why are most of the biwa hōshi blind?”
“This goes back to Semimaru, one of the great one hundred poets. In Japan there
has been a structure where people do the same thing for their entire life. One
of the jobs for disabled people has been artistic, like playing a musical
instrument. As in the Heike monogatari, the disabled have created the Japanese
A blind Biwa Hōshi, c.1501
Hearing this, I thought of the Noh drama Semimaru, which is set at the Osaka
Barrier, an old toll station on Osaka Pass, between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. All
travelers to and from the eastern provinces had to pass this way; the spot
became popular in poetry and tales of ordinary life. Among the beggar-
entertainers who frequented the Osaka Barrier, one line of blind, roaming
musicians claimed Semimaru as a founder and patron. As these blind biwa singers
sang their alluringly lyrical tales throughout Japan, they not only provided
access to a common national story, but also helped establish the national
Later, these musicians elevated Semimaru into a prince. Whether actual or
mythic, Semimaru eventually became a godlike figure to many musicians,
especially blind performers. He was honored in a shrine near the Osaka Barrier.
“How did you come to learn all this?” I asked Hanada-sensei.
“I was thinking what people with disabilities don’t do. I was thinking there are
very few people who are studying disability. I was thinking to become an expert
in some area. I was born disabled. I don’t know any other life. What I can do is
limited, but I can concentrate on what I do. Speech. Communication is difficult.
I have a speech difficulty. It is difficult to communicate. That might be the
I waited until I was sure Hanada-sensei had finished and all his words were
translated before I told him, “I often ask myself why someone who is not
disabled should care about any of this. Your work shows that disability, even
when unseen or unacknowledged, is a part of life, part of everything. You tie
disability to so many aspects of life, it’s so much more than disability. And to
find that here in Japan is very special to me.”
After meeting Hanada-sensei, I discovered other historical figures with
disabilities. During the great Japanese civil wars, the Shingen Takeda family
employed Yamamoto, a military general once widely known in Japan. He was ugly,
blind in one eye, and had a crippled leg and no fingers. His body was full of
scars. Yamamoto’s shrewd military tactics and ability to analyze information was
legendary; he could visualize detailed geography, the shape of a castle, the
situation of the castle town, and movements of people as if all of this was
happening right in front of him. He was able to create a three-dimensional world
based on what he gleaned from books and stories.
However, the official books by the Takeda family do not mention Yamamoto
Kansuke. Nor does any book by the family’s vassals. He is no longer depicted as
the brilliant military general he actually was.
In Japanese history, as society moved from an imperial society to a warrior
society, those deemed physically different disappear.
Cover of "In the Province of the Gods", featuring the author, title, and a photo
of lit candles.
«Meeting Hanada Shuncho: In Search of Disability in Things Japanese» is an adapted excerpt from Kenny Fries’s 'In the Province of the Gods', which
received the Creative Capital literature grant and will be published this month.
His other books include The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s
Theory and Body, Remember: A Memoir. He edited Staring Back: The Disability
Experience from the Inside Out. He received the Creative Arts Fellowship from
the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, and
has twice been a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany). He teaches in the MFA in
Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.
Maria José Alegre