Mimi Nashi Hoichi

Mimi nashi Hoichi cut-paper art

Japan has its fair share of ghosts. The stories about them have been passed down through the generations, mesmerizing us with their mystery even as they scare a few years off our lives. Most are the stuff of oral legend, related to young children by an older sibling or friend (followed by a sleepless night). Like most oral traditions, much has been lost. It is lucky then, that Lafcadio Hearn collected so many tales of the weird in books such as "Kwaidan". Mimi Nashi Hoichi is one such story. The full story is online here. Below is a summary, but Hearn spins it so well that it deserves to be read in full.

Hoichi was a young, talented and poor biwa player. He was also blind. While staying with a local priest, Hoichi is summoned to play for a personage of great importance. He does, with great (and slightly odd) success, and is invited back to play again. It turns out that his audience are ghosts, and since he has already been tricked by them once, they have some power over him. Recognizing the danger, the monk instructs his acolytes to write the Hannya-shin-kuo (a Buddhist script) on Hoichi's body). They do so, and when the ghost comes to summon Hoichi that night, all he sees are Hoichi's ears. Which the ghost then takes, to prove to his master that he has done his duty. Unfortunately, the ears were still attached to Hoichi. The acolytes had forgotten to write anything on Hoichi's ears, rendering them visible to the ghost. Poor, blind Hoichi managed to keep quiet the whole time too. Good man.

Biwa players shaved their heads like monks, thus the baldness. This explains why, in the version of the story my astonishing wife heard as a child, Hoichi was a monk. Luckily, she was able to make up for this by supplying me with a copy of the Hannya-shin-kyo. The actual writing is a whole lot longer than what is shown here. It also reminded me why I rarely include text in my work. Even though it was a royal pain to cut out, I've got to admit that it sounds really cool when chanted. Now all I need to do is decide whether I like the red, or if a starker (and less gory) color scheme suits the tale better.