For Goze artists, music was a life of servitude

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

Walking in a line, hands gently touching the person in front and guided by someone able-sighted, blind female entertainers, known as Goze, would travel up and down Japan, come rain or snow, to play the shamisen and perform jōruri narrative music. Walking in unimaginable conditions these women shared an ethical code and moral commitment that has been captured by Shoko Hashimoto in 36 black-and-white photographs currently on display at Zeit-Foto Salon.

Born in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture in 1939, Hashimoto graduated from Tokyo’s famous photographic department of the Fine Arts Faculty of Nippon University in 1964, alongside the well-known Takuma Nakahira and Kazuo Kitai. As his career then began, the Goze were slowly disappearing. Their life was illustrated at its pinnacle by Utagawa Hiroshige’s Ukiyo-e woodblock series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido: Customs of the Road” (1845-46), which depicts traveling monks and Goze on the road, sustaining the spiritual and social welfare of Edo-period Japan.

Blindness, the result of measles and cataracts then common among children, led to girls as young as 8-years-old being brought into Goze apprenticeship — an apprenticeship that would last long into adulthood. Goze groups, managed by prefectorial guilds, equated professionalism to a tortuous life of travel, during which they had to take care that they didn’t also become victims of prostitution and abuse along the way.

It was the late ’60s, at a time when Goze public presence was waning, when Hashimoto gained the trust of several remaining groups. From beaches and coastlines in the summer to inland villages during heavy winters, he followed the groups observing connections between people and their landscapes inspired by each Goze performance.

In March 1970, he ventured to Takada in Niigata Prefecture to photograph a group led by 73-year-old Living National Treasure Kukui Sugimoto with her adopted daughter Shizu and their guide Kotomi Nanba, both aged 56. Between 1972 and ’73, still in Niigata, he photographed Misao and Seki Kaneko, both 60, along with their 61-year-old guide Hana Sekiya — all three of whom were from Koshiji and Mishima, villages that later merged becoming outlying areas of Nagaoka.

In the city of Shibata in 1974, Hashimoto documented Misu Tsuchida, a women who had successfully “strayed” from Goze to start a family of her own. However, after the tragic loss of both her husband and their child, she had returned to perform solo. The final photographs of the show capture her alone and hungry as she adjusts to life without the aid of others.

Along with those at a Zen Foto Gallery show last year, these images are the rawest form of social document imaginable. They are part of recent social history that remains almost unnoticed. This new show at Zeit-foto Salon aims to counter this and keep Goze in the public consciousness.

Hashimoto may not have received the same attention as his contemporaries Nakahira and Kitai. Yet his photographs, despite their theme of continued loss, maintain a vitality that is immediately apparent. Thankfully, this show serves as a record and reminder that any continued loss will at least no longer go unrecognized.

“Shoko Hashimoto: Goze” at Zeit-Foto Salon runs till April 12; open 10:30 a.m.- 6:30 p.m. (Sat till 5:30 pm.). Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. and holidays. www.zeit-foto.com