Blindness and Birthdays

Hey all!

I’m pleased to say that my energy levels have improved a bit since last week. I’m still not at 100%, but all things considered I managed to get a lot done in the space of seven days!

On Tuesday, I caught up with Frank Mondelli, a dear friend who’s currently working on his PhD at Stanford. Frank will come to Japan this fall to conduct research for his dissertation, which investigates the development of assistive technologies for persons with deafness over the last one-hundred years. After concluding my conversation with Frank, I sat down to work my way through the historical archives of three Japanese newspapers: the Mainichi Shinbun, the Asahi Shinbun, and the Yomiuri Shinbun. Scouring each archive for articles with references to ‘blindness’ and ‘visual impairment’ that came out between 1868 and 1945, I refined the narrative that I laid out in last week’s blog post.

In fact, I found some really interesting materials, which I began to incorporate into the first chapter of my dissertation on Wednesday afternoon. For instance, an article about the first national meeting for the blind in Japan, which took place on January 22, 1905. As always, writing for my dissertation took a lot out of me, and I was only able to string together a few paragraphs despite putting in a full day’s effort. Even so, I felt as if I had accomplished a significant feat, battling back the fatigue that had prevented me from writing for more than a week. I was content to take a small victory, especially when the path forward seemed to write itself. Indeed, I’m still basking in that contentment, secure in the knowledge that I just have to “fill in the blanks” before I can move on to my next chapter!

Now, the fact that I’m still enjoying the fruits of Wednesday’s labor has probably led some of you to wonder why I haven’t made any additional progress on my dissertation. The answer is simple: I spent the day at the Kabukiza theater in Ginza on Thursday, celebrated my birthday on Friday, went out with some friends for a second celebration on Saturday, and took the day off today (Sunday) to recuperate!

I’ve written a detailed article about my time at the Kabukiza theater for Accessible Japan. That article, “Accessing Kabuki, Accessing Japan: An Immersive Encyclopedia” features an in-depth walkthrough of the days events and plenty of photos. What it doesn’t include is a description of two of the three plays that I saw on Thursday afternoon: “The Black Mound on Adachi Plain (Kurozuka)” and “The Two Yugiri (Ninin Yugiri).” Therefore, I’d like to devote part of my blog entry this week to discussing those plays in some detail.

“The Black Mound on Adachi Plain” was a story about a group of itinerant monks who stumbled across a fearsome demon. Borne of the spite and malice of a woman scorned by her husband, the demon secluded itself on the wild moors of the Adachi Plain, where it preyed upon unsuspecting travelers. When the demon first encountered the monks, it assumed the form of an old woman and its sins were masked from their gaze. The monks asked the disguised demon if they could stay at its home, to which the demon said yes, so long as they daren’t look inside its hut (where the remains of its victims had been stashed). The demon went out to collect firewood for the monks, but not before rejoicing in their assurances that any being – no matter how wretched – could achieve awakening by praying to the Buddha. Here was redemption at last! Or so the demon thought. As it turns out, the porter who guided the monks to the demon’s abode couldn’t resist the urge to look inside her house. After witnessing the carnage within he told the monks of his discovery, leading the monks to confront the demon beneath the full moon. A fierce battle ensued, and although the demon transformed into a bloodthirsty monster, the monks were eventually victorious: their prayers (nenbutsu) vanquished the beast.

As a scholar with some training in Religious Studies, there’s a lot that I could say about “The Black Mound on Adachi Plain.” Perhaps the most striking element of the story to non-familiar readers is its misogynistic undertones: that women’s wickedness leads them to commit horrible sins and require exorcistic interventions. Such misogyny was (and arguably still is) not uncommon in many strains of Buddhist thought, which identify certain bodies and minds as being more or less capable of achieving awakening. Indeed, Buddhist practitioners have not only characterized women as being particularly susceptible to negative influences (i.e. defilement and pollution) but also other marginal demographics including persons with disabilities. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere, but purification rituals designed to afford practitioners access to key sites of socioeconomic exchange (temples, shrines, the imperial palace, etc.) have often entailed the chanting of mantra and/or shaping of mudra, which impaired persons simply cannot reproduce. As a result, those individuals have been forced to rely on their communities and kin, creating complex webs of affect and economy that resonate throughout history.

If any of my readers would like to chat about “The Black Mound on Adachi Plain” and my thoughts regarding its implications in greater detail, feel free to reach out to me anytime. For now, I’d like to shift gears and focus on the final play that I saw on Thursday, “The Tale of Two Yugiri.” The tale focused on the story of Izaemon, the son of a wealthy Osaka merchant who was disowned by his parents. Izaemon fell in love with a high-ranking courtesan named Yugiri, who passed away (or so we are told) shortly after their affair. By the start of the play, Izaemon had already started living with a new courtesan wife whose name was also Yugiri. As if a contemporary soap opera, the old Yugiri blunders in and finds her lover remarried despite her long absence (for she was not dead, but hiding from a man who sought to make her his wife). She starts wreaking havoc and causing trouble for Izaemon and his new bride, but is eventually pacified by the wise owner of a local teahouse, Okisa. Okisa convinces the two courtesans not to quarrel with their husband, and the three live happily ever after.

To attach a morale to or conduct a heady academic analysis of “The Tale of Two Yugiris” seems somewhat inappropriate. After all, its the tale’s drama and conflict that makes it fun to watch. So I won’t dive down any rabbit holes here. Instead, I’ll simply recommend that anyone interested in Japanese aesthetics go out and read more about it!

And with that said, I’m going to sign off for this week. As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to giving everyone another update next week! Cheers.

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Birthday Dinner in Odaiba

2 thoughts on “Blindness and Birthdays

  1. I really appreciate your article about the Kabuki experience. I would love to see this if I get to Japan. The long flight is my difficulty as I live in Massachusetts. My son is especially interested in traveling there, so if we can persuade my husband to visit there, it could happen. I use a power chair, Permobil.

    Like

    1. mbookm01

      I do hope you can make it! I also use a Permobil (Corpus F3). It’s a bit large for the cramped corridors of Tokyo, but there are very few barriers that cannot be overcome. There’s also a Permobil dealer in the middle of the city, so any problems can be quickly addressed. 🙂

      Like

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