Earless Hoichi: A Japanese Ghost Story

The following is yet another of my favorite stories from the 19th-century collection of Japanese ghost stories called Kaidan (怪談, old spelling Kwaidan) written by Greco-Irish author Lafcadio Hearn. This story relates to the ancient, climactic sea battle of Dan-no-ura which ended the Genpei War in the 12th century. In this battle, the infant emperor Antoku was drowned with his nursemaid as the Heike clan (a.k.a. Taira clan) faced annihilation. Also, yes, Heike Crabs are a real species.

As this is Obon Season in Japan, it’s a great time to enjoy a scary story or two…


More than seven hundred years ago, at Dan-no-ura, in the Straits of
Shimonoseki, was fought the last battle of the long contest between the
Heike, or Taira clan, and the Genji, or Minamoto clan. There the Heike
perished utterly, with their women and children, and their infant
emperor likewise--now remembered as Antoku Tenno. And that sea and
shore have been haunted for seven hundred years... Elsewhere I told you
about the strange crabs found there, called Heike crabs, which have
human faces on their backs, and are said to be the spirits of the Heike
warriors [1].  But there are many strange things to be seen and heard
along that coast. On dark nights thousands of ghostly fires hover about
the beach, or flit above the waves,--pale lights which the fishermen
call Oni-bi, or demon-fires; and, whenever the winds are up, a sound of
great shouting comes from that sea, like a clamor of battle.

In former years the Heike were much more restless than they now are.
They would rise about ships passing in the night, and try to sink them;
and at all times they would watch for swimmers, to pull them down. It
was in order to appease those dead that the Buddhist temple, Amidaji,
was built at Akamagaseki [2]. A cemetery also was made close by, near
the beach; and within it were set up monuments inscribed with the names
of the drowned emperor and of his great vassals; and Buddhist services
were regularly performed there, on behalf of the spirits of them. After
the temple had been built, and the tombs erected, the Heike gave less
trouble than before; but they continued to do queer things at
intervals,--proving that they had not found the perfect peace.

Some centuries ago there lived at Akamagaseki a blind man named Hoichi,
who was famed for his skill in recitation and in playing upon the biwa
[3]. From childhood he had been trained to recite and to play; and
while yet a lad he had surpassed his teachers. As a professional
biwa-hoshi he became famous chiefly by his recitations of the history
of the Heike and the Genji; and it is said that when he sang the song
of the battle of Dan-no-ura "even the goblins [kijin] could not refrain
from tears."

At the outset of his career, Hoichi was very poor; but he found a good
friend to help him. The priest of the Amidaji was fond of poetry and
music; and he often invited Hoichi to the temple, to play and recite.
Afterwards, being much impressed by the wonderful skill of the lad, the
priest proposed that Hoichi should make the temple his home; and this
offer was gratefully accepted. Hoichi was given a room in the
temple-building; and, in return for food and lodging, he was required
only to gratify the priest with a musical performance on certain
evenings, when otherwise disengaged.

One summer night the priest was called away, to perform a Buddhist
service at the house of a dead parishioner; and he went there with his
acolyte, leaving Hoichi alone in the temple. It was a hot night; and
the blind man sought to cool himself on the verandah before his
sleeping-room. The verandah overlooked a small garden in the rear of
the Amidaji.  There Hoichi waited for the priest's return, and tried to
relieve his solitude by practicing upon his biwa. Midnight passed; and
the priest did not appear. But the atmosphere was still too warm for
comfort within doors; and Hoichi remained outside. At last he heard
steps approaching from the back gate. Somebody crossed the garden,
advanced to the verandah, and halted directly in front of him--but it
was not the priest. A deep voice called the blind man's name--abruptly
and unceremoniously, in the manner of a samurai summoning an inferior:--


"Hai!" (1) answered the blind man, frightened by the menace in the
voice,--"I am blind!--I cannot know who calls!"

"There is nothing to fear," the stranger exclaimed, speaking more
gently. "I am stopping near this temple, and have been sent to you with
a message. My present lord, a person of exceedingly high rank, is now
staying in Akamagaseki, with many noble attendants. He wished to view
the scene of the battle of Dan-no-ura; and to-day he visited that
place. Having heard of your skill in reciting the story of the battle,
he now desires to hear your performance: so you will take your biwa and
come with me at once to the house where the august assembly is waiting."

In those times, the order of a samurai was not to be lightly disobeyed.
Hoichi donned his sandals, took his biwa, and went away with the
stranger, who guided him deftly, but obliged him to walk very fast. The
hand that guided was iron; and the clank of the warrior's stride proved
him fully armed,--probably some palace-guard on duty. Hoichi's first
alarm was over: he began to imagine himself in good luck;--for,
remembering the retainer's assurance about a "person of exceedingly
high rank," he thought that the lord who wished to hear the recitation
could not be less than a daimyo of the first class. Presently the
samurai halted; and Hoichi became aware that they had arrived at a
large gateway;--and he wondered, for he could not remember any large
gate in that part of the town, except the main gate of the Amidaji.
"Kaimon!" [4] the samurai called,--and there was a sound of unbarring;
and the twain passed on. They traversed a space of garden, and halted
again before some entrance; and the retainer cried in a loud voice,
"Within there! I have brought Hoichi." Then came sounds of feet
hurrying, and screens sliding, and rain-doors opening, and voices of
women in converse. By the language of the women Hoichi knew them to be
domestics in some noble household; but he could not imagine to what
place he had been conducted. Little time was allowed him for
conjecture. After he had been helped to mount several stone steps, upon
the last of which he was told to leave his sandals, a woman's hand
guided him along interminable reaches of polished planking, and round
pillared angles too many to remember, and over widths amazing of matted
floor,--into the middle of some vast apartment. There he thought that
many great people were assembled: the sound of the rustling of silk was
like the sound of leaves in a forest. He heard also a great humming of
voices,--talking in undertones; and the speech was the speech of courts.

Hoichi was told to put himself at ease, and he found a kneeling-cushion
ready for him. After having taken his place upon it, and tuned his
instrument, the voice of a woman--whom he divined to be the Rojo, or
matron in charge of the female service--addressed him, saying,--

"It is now required that the history of the Heike be recited, to the
accompaniment of the biwa."

Now the entire recital would have required a time of many nights:
therefore Hoichi ventured a question:--

"As the whole of the story is not soon told, what portion is it
augustly desired that I now recite?"

The woman's voice made answer:--

"Recite the story of the battle at Dan-no-ura,--for the pity of it is
the most deep." [5]

Then Hoichi lifted up his voice, and chanted the chant of the fight on
the bitter sea,--wonderfully making his biwa to sound like the
straining of oars and the rushing of ships, the whirr and the hissing
of arrows, the shouting and trampling of men, the crashing of steel
upon helmets, the plunging of slain in the flood. And to left and right
of him, in the pauses of his playing, he could hear voices murmuring
praise: "How marvelous an artist!"--"Never in our own province was
playing heard like this!"--"Not in all the empire is there another
singer like Hoichi!" Then fresh courage came to him, and he played and
sang yet better than before; and a hush of wonder deepened about him.
But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and
helpless,--the piteous perishing of the women and children,--and the
death-leap of Nii-no-Ama, with the imperial infant in her arms,--then
all the listeners uttered together one long, long shuddering cry of
anguish; and thereafter they wept and wailed so loudly and so wildly
that the blind man was frightened by the violence and grief that he had
made. For much time the sobbing and the wailing continued. But
gradually the sounds of lamentation died away; and again, in the great
stillness that followed, Hoichi heard the voice of the woman whom he
supposed to be the Rojo.

She said:--

"Although we had been assured that you were a very skillful player upon
the biwa, and without an equal in recitative, we did not know that any
one could be so skillful as you have proved yourself to-night. Our lord
has been pleased to say that he intends to bestow upon you a fitting
reward. But he desires that you shall perform before him once every
night for the next six nights--after which time he will probably make
his august return-journey. To-morrow night, therefore, you are to come
here at the same hour. The retainer who to-night conducted you will be
sent for you... There is another matter about which I have been ordered
to inform you. It is required that you shall speak to no one of your
visits here, during the time of our lord's august sojourn at
Akamagaseki. As he is traveling incognito, [6] he commands that no
mention of these things be made... You are now free to go back to your

After Hoichi had duly expressed his thanks, a woman's hand conducted
him to the entrance of the house, where the same retainer, who had
before guided him, was waiting to take him home. The retainer led him
to the verandah at the rear of the temple, and there bade him farewell.

It was almost dawn when Hoichi returned; but his absence from the
temple had not been observed,--as the priest, coming back at a very
late hour, had supposed him asleep. During the day Hoichi was able to
take some rest; and he said nothing about his strange adventure. In the
middle of the following night the samurai again came for him, and led
him to the august assembly, where he gave another recitation with the
same success that had attended his previous performance. But during
this second visit his absence from the temple was accidentally
discovered; and after his return in the morning he was summoned to the
presence of the priest, who said to him, in a tone of kindly reproach:--

"We have been very anxious about you, friend Hoichi. To go out, blind
and alone, at so late an hour, is dangerous. Why did you go without
telling us? I could have ordered a servant to accompany you. And where
have you been?"

Hoichi answered, evasively,--

"Pardon me kind friend! I had to attend to some private business; and I
could not arrange the matter at any other hour."

The priest was surprised, rather than pained, by Hoichi's reticence: he
felt it to be unnatural, and suspected something wrong. He feared that
the blind lad had been bewitched or deluded by some evil spirits. He
did not ask any more questions; but he privately instructed the
men-servants of the temple to keep watch upon Hoichi's movements, and
to follow him in case that he should again leave the temple after dark.

On the very next night, Hoichi was seen to leave the temple; and the
servants immediately lighted their lanterns, and followed after him.
But it was a rainy night, and very dark; and before the temple-folks
could get to the roadway, Hoichi had disappeared. Evidently he had
walked very fast,--a strange thing, considering his blindness; for the
road was in a bad condition. The men hurried through the streets,
making inquiries at every house which Hoichi was accustomed to visit;
but nobody could give them any news of him. At last, as they were
returning to the temple by way of the shore, they were startled by the
sound of a biwa, furiously played, in the cemetery of the Amidaji.
Except for some ghostly fires--such as usually flitted there on dark
nights--all was blackness in that direction. But the men at once
hastened to the cemetery; and there, by the help of their lanterns,
they discovered Hoichi,--sitting alone in the rain before the memorial
tomb of Antoku Tenno, making his biwa resound, and loudly chanting the
chant of the battle of Dan-no-ura. And behind him, and about him, and
everywhere above the tombs, the fires of the dead were burning, like
candles. Never before had so great a host of Oni-bi appeared in the
sight of mortal man...

"Hoichi San!--Hoichi San!" the servants cried,--"you are bewitched!...
Hoichi San!"

But the blind man did not seem to hear. Strenuously he made his biwa to
rattle and ring and clang;--more and more wildly he chanted the chant
of the battle of Dan-no-ura. They caught hold of him;--they shouted
into his ear,--

"Hoichi San!--Hoichi San!--come home with us at once!"

Reprovingly he spoke to them:--

"To interrupt me in such a manner, before this august assembly, will
not be tolerated."

Whereat, in spite of the weirdness of the thing, the servants could not
help laughing. Sure that he had been bewitched, they now seized him,
and pulled him up on his feet, and by main force hurried him back to
the temple,--where he was immediately relieved of his wet clothes, by
order of the priest. Then the priest insisted upon a full explanation
of his friend's astonishing behavior.

Hoichi long hesitated to speak. But at last, finding that his conduct
had really alarmed and angered the good priest, he decided to abandon
his reserve; and he related everything that had happened from the time
of first visit of the samurai.

The priest said:--

"Hoichi, my poor friend, you are now in great danger! How unfortunate
that you did not tell me all this before! Your wonderful skill in music
has indeed brought you into strange trouble. By this time you must be
aware that you have not been visiting any house whatever, but have been
passing your nights in the cemetery, among the tombs of the Heike;--and
it was before the memorial-tomb of Antoku Tenno that our people
to-night found you, sitting in the rain. All that you have been
imagining was illusion--except the calling of the dead. By once obeying
them, you have put yourself in their power. If you obey them again,
after what has already occurred, they will tear you in pieces. But they
would have destroyed you, sooner or later, in any event... Now I shall
not be able to remain with you to-night: I am called away to perform
another service. But, before I go, it will be necessary to protect your
body by writing holy texts upon it."

Before sundown the priest and his acolyte stripped Hoichi: then, with
their writing-brushes, they traced upon his breast and back, head and
face and neck, limbs and hands and feet,--even upon the soles of his
feet, and upon all parts of his body,--the text of the holy sutra
called Hannya-Shin-Kyo. [7] When this had been done, the priest
instructed Hoichi, saying:--

"To-night, as soon as I go away, you must seat yourself on the
verandah, and wait. You will be called. But, whatever may happen, do
not answer, and do not move. Say nothing and sit still--as if
meditating. If you stir, or make any noise, you will be torn asunder.
Do not get frightened; and do not think of calling for help--because no
help could save you. If you do exactly as I tell you, the danger will
pass, and you will have nothing more to fear."

After dark the priest and the acolyte went away; and Hoichi seated
himself on the verandah, according to the instructions given him. He
laid his biwa on the planking beside him, and, assuming the attitude of
meditation, remained quite still,--taking care not to cough, or to
breathe audibly. For hours he stayed thus.

Then, from the roadway, he heard the steps coming. They passed the
gate, crossed the garden, approached the verandah, stopped--directly in
front of him.

"Hoichi!" the deep voice called. But the blind man held his breath, and
sat motionless.

"Hoichi!" grimly called the voice a second time. Then a third


Hoichi remained as still as a stone,--and the voice grumbled:--

"No answer!--that won't do!... Must see where the fellow is."...

There was a noise of heavy feet mounting upon the verandah. The feet
approached deliberately,--halted beside him. Then, for long
minutes,--during which Hoichi felt his whole body shake to the beating
of his heart,--there was dead silence.

At last the gruff voice muttered close to him:--

"Here is the biwa; but of the biwa-player I see--only two ears!... So
that explains why he did not answer: he had no mouth to answer
with--there is nothing left of him but his ears... Now to my lord those
ears I will take--in proof that the august commands have been obeyed,
so far as was possible"...

At that instant Hoichi felt his ears gripped by fingers of iron, and
torn off! Great as the pain was, he gave no cry. The heavy footfalls
receded along the verandah,--descended into the garden,--passed out to
the roadway,--ceased. From either side of his head, the blind man felt
a thick warm trickling; but he dared not lift his hands...

Before sunrise the priest came back. He hastened at once to the
verandah in the rear, stepped and slipped upon something clammy, and
uttered a cry of horror;--for he saw, by the light of his lantern, that
the clamminess was blood. But he perceived Hoichi sitting there, in the
attitude of meditation--with the blood still oozing from his wounds.

"My poor Hoichi!" cried the startled priest,--"what is this?... You
have been hurt?"

At the sound of his friend's voice, the blind man felt safe. He burst
out sobbing, and tearfully told his adventure of the night.

"Poor, poor Hoichi!" the priest exclaimed,--"all my fault!--my very
grievous fault!... Everywhere upon your body the holy texts had been
written--except upon your ears! I trusted my acolyte to do that part of
the work; and it was very, very wrong of me not to have made sure that
he had done it!... Well, the matter cannot now be helped;--we can only
try to heal your hurts as soon as possible... Cheer up, friend!--the
danger is now well over. You will never again be troubled by those

With the aid of a good doctor, Hoichi soon recovered from his injuries.
The story of his strange adventure spread far and wide, and soon made
him famous. Many noble persons went to Akamagaseki to hear him recite;
and large presents of money were given to him,--so that he became a
wealthy man... But from the time of his adventure, he was known only by
the appellation of Mimi-nashi-Hoichi: "Hoichi-the-Earless."


[1] See my Kotto, for a description of these curious crabs. 

[2] Or, Shimonoseki. The town is also known by the name of Bakkan. 

[3] The biwa, a kind of four-stringed lute, is chiefly used in musical recitative. Formerly the professional minstrels who recited the Heike-Monogatari, and other tragical histories, were called biwa-hoshi, or "lute-priests." The origin of this appellation is not clear; but it is possible that it may have been suggested by the fact that "lute-priests" as well as blind shampooers, had their heads shaven, like Buddhist priests. The biwa is played with a kind of plectrum, called bachi, usually made of horn. 

(1) A response to show that one has heard and is listening attentively. 

[4] A respectful term, signifying the opening of a gate. It was used by samurai when calling to the guards on duty at a lord's gate for admission. 

[5] Or the phrase might be rendered, "for the pity of that part is the deepest." The Japanese word for pity in the original text is "aware." 

[6] "Traveling incognito" is at least the meaning of the original phrase,--"making a disguised august-journey" (shinobi no go-ryoko). 

[7] The Smaller Pragna-Paramita-Hridaya-Sutra is thus called in Japanese. Both the smaller and larger sutras called Pragna-Paramita ("Transcendent Wisdom") have been translated by the late Professor Max Muller, and can be found in volume xlix. of the Sacred Books of the East ("Buddhist Mahayana Sutras").--Apropos of the magical use of the text, as described in this story, it is worth remarking that the subject of the sutra is the Doctrine of the Emptiness of Forms,--that is to say, of the unreal character of all phenomena or noumena... "Form is emptiness; and emptiness is form. Emptiness is not different from form; form is not different from emptiness. What is form--that is emptiness. What is emptiness--that is form... Perception, name, concept, and knowledge, are also emptiness... There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind... But when the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he [the seeker] becomes free from all fear, and beyond the reach of change, enjoying final Nirvana."

Special thanks to Project Gutenberg for posting this book online, which I copied this chapter verbatim.

Note: This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever.  You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net

P.S. This is a hilarious remake of this story available on Youtube (Japanese only, sorry):

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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