Tanizaki’s Yaichi: A Japanese disabled character as hero, outcast, and metaphor

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish Kenny Fries’s account of a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, IN THE PROVINCE OF THE GODS. Here he comments on some of the “outtakes” from early drafts of the book.

Fifteen years ago, I first traveled to Japan to look at its historical and cultural relationship to otherness, to difference. More specifically, I wanted to learn about how the Japanese viewed and represented disability. During my first stay in Japan, much of this eluded me for reasons I write about in In the Province of Gods,

Three years later on my second trip, I found what I was looking for. But, as my book’s focus shifted, this research became more background than foreground. Though some of what I found in Japan about representation of disability remains in the book, much of it is now only in what I call the “outtakes.”

I did include in my book observations about the disability representation in Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro’s novel Portrait of Shunkin.  Most notably, I write about the way that Tanizaki’s story of Shunkin, a blind samisen singer, illuminates my meeting two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, the twenty-five hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) who traveled from Japan to the United States for medical treatment in 1955.

But another of Tanizaki’s blind characters is not represented in my own book. In A Blind Man’s Tale, Tanizaki tells the familiar story of the siege of Osaka Castle and historical figures Nobunaga and his successor Hideyoshi. He recounts this history through the voice of Yaichi, who like Shunkin is a blind samisen singer. Yaichi is also a masseur. (Samisen singer and masseur are traditional occupations for the blind in Japan.) Yaichi is in the service of Lady Oichi, sister of Nobunaga. She is married to Lord Nagamasa, an ally of Nobunaga until they have a falling out.

Many familiar tropes of blindness attend the tale of Yaichi, especially that of a blind man’s unrequited love. Because of his blindness, he goes unnoticed by the men but is taken into the confidence of a beautiful woman above his station. There is also the unfortunate metaphor of “blind devotion.” But what is singular about this tale comes at the story’s climactic moment.

During a siege of the castle, Yaichi entertains Lady Oichi along with a visitor, the warrior priest Choroken. As a master samisen player himself, Yaichi notices that Choroken’s playing includes embellishments of a tune with “queer phrases, twice-repeated.”   Yaichi informs us,

Now, there is a secret code that all of us blind samisen players know very well. Since each string of the samisen has sixteen stops, the three strings together have forty-eight: when you teach a beginner how to play the instrument you help him memorize these stops by marking them with the forty-eight characters of the alphabet.  Everyone who studies the samisen learns this system; but we blind musicians, since we can’t see the characters, have to learn it by heart, we associate each note with its proper letter quite automatically, as soon as we hear it.  So when blind musicians want to communicate secretly they can do it by playing on the samisen, using this system as a code.

Tanizaki Junichiro

Yaichi realizes Choroken’s “queer phrases” are communicating that the servant needs to save his mistress, and he perceives the plan Choroken is secretly transmitting. Yaichi’s blindness is a crucial asset in this covert exchange.

Tellingly, in the popular Kabuki theater version of the story, this original element is left out, leaving the story to emphasize the comparison between the “blind” love of Yaichi with that of those who court the widowed Lady Oichi and her beautiful daughter “whose voice sounded just the same” as her mother.  Lady Oichi affections are won over by Hideyoshi, even though he killed her family.  In the end of the Kabuki version, Yaichi is left on stage, remembering his Lady, who appears in the distance playing her koto.  She disappears, leaving Yaichi decidedly alone and crying.

In Tanizaki’s story we are shown how disability can, in certain contexts, be advantageous, as well as how the nondisabled use disability for their own purposes. But, as in much of Japanese culture, the story simultaneously conveys opposing ideas.  In A Blind Man’s Tale, we are given the blind man as hero, outcast, and metaphor.

Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,  and editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College and is the recipient of a prestigious Creative Capital grant. He lives in Berlin.

Author’s website: https://www.kennyfries.com/

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