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The Last Biwa Singer: A Blind Musician in History, Imagination and Performance (Winner of 2010 Tanabe Hisao Prize in Musicology)

143 Biwa Singer
Hugh de Ferranti
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2010 Winner, Tanabe Hisao Prize in Musicology

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This work is an exposition of the traditions of Japanese blind singers who accompanied themselves on the biwa, and of the complex identity of Yamashika Yoshiyuki (1901-1996), a man widely portrayed as the last such living relic of the medieval bards called biwa hoshi. The author draws upon approaches from Japanese historical and literature studies, performance studies and ethnomusicology in an examination of history, which yielded on the one hand images of blind singers that still circulate in Japan, and on the other a particular tradition of musical story-telling and rites in regional Kyushu, of representations of Yamashika in diverse media, of his experience training for and making a living as a professional performer and rituals from the 1920s on, and of the oral compositional process in performances made between 1989 and 1992. | 336 pages


  • List of Figures, Tables and Examples
  • Note on Conventions in the Text

Introduction The Setting: Kyushu and Kumanmoto | The Biwa Music Traditions Biwa and Biwa Hōshi in Modern-day Japan | The Biwa Hiki, Yamashika Yoshiyuki

1. Images and Histories

  • Characteristics of the Blind Biwa Traditions
  • The Social Status of Blind Musicians and Intinerant Performers
  • Biwa Hōshi and Mōsō: Entangled Musical, Literary and Religious Figures

2. Biwa Music of the Higo Region

  • Varieties of Mōsōbiwa in Kyushu
  • Performers' Consciousness of Tradition and Accounts of Origins
  • Repertories of the Kyushu Biwa Tradition

3. Imagining, Encountering and Documenting Yamashika

  • Documentation of "The Last Biwa Hōshi"
  • Yamashika and His Interlocutors
  • Kimura's Kikigaki
  • Life History of Yamashika

4. Tales in Performance 

  • Performance Contexts and Procedures
  • Formal Elements in Narrative Performance
  • Tales in Performance: The Oral Compositional Process

5. The Life of the Road: Yamashika Remembers

  • Becoming a Biwa Hiki
  • Participation in Local Biwa Hiki Groups and Acquisition of a Professional Name
  • Making a Living as a Biwa Hiki

6. Blind Biwa Singers Forgotten, Remembered and Rehabilitated 

  • Acknowledgments
  • Appendix 1: Map 1. Kyushu, showing prefectures and their approximate correclqtion with pre-Meiji provinces
  • Appendix 1: Map 2. Principal places in central Kyushu that are mentioned in the text.
  • Appendix 2: Transcription of the first shodan of Dojoji (Yamashika Yoshiyuki; performance of October 14, 1989)
  • Bibliography
  • Audiography and Videography
  • Index


  • "[T]his book gives an excellent ethnomusicological overview of these blind musicians, their situations, and the social, cultural, and historical contexts surrounding their work. Although de Ferranti mentions that the documents about them are scarce, he was able to gather enough detailed information to give, I believe, a pertinent idea of their life, particularly through the eyes of a unique musician." — Bruno Deschenes, Monumenta Nipponica Summer/Fall 2015 46:2
  • Scholarly Tribute to Last Biwa Singer, University of New England


  • Hugh DE FERRANTI is the author of many articles on the biwa traditions and has co-produced a collection of archive recordings of performances by Yamashika Yoshiyuki, with English and Japanese documentation (Rites and Tales with Biwa: Yamashika Yoshiyuki, Blind Musician of Kyushu, Japan Traditional Cultures Foundation 2007). He is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.

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