Blind in Early Modern Japan

For Disability Pride Month, this week's review analyzes how blindness was understood socially in early modern Japan.

Blind in Early Modern Japan: Disability, Medicine, and Identity

Tan, Wei Yu Wayne. Michigan, 2022
266p bibl index, 9780472075485 $75.00, 9780472055487 $29.95, 9780472220434

Blind in Early Modern Japan: Disability, Medicine, and Identity book cover.

In this important contribution to disability studies in the East Asian context, Tan (Hope College) offers a landmark study of blindness in early modern Japan. Noting that physical impairments intersect with the historical evolution of scientific thought and also play a central role in shaping human identities, the author considers both the social and medical facets of blindness under Japan’s Tokugawa regime. Beginning with a medical overview of the history of ophthalmology in Japan, Tan devotes five of the book’s six chapters to readings of how blindness was socially constructed, lived, and interpreted during the early modern era, providing compelling accounts drawn from the lives of various prominent figures. Tan contends that blind people comprised a de facto social status group and supports this claim with an explication of the activities of one influential Kyoto-based guild of blind biwa hōshi musicians—traveling singers of tales who accompanied themselves on the lute, among other instruments. This group eventually came to lead a network of early modern subsidiary guilds that collectively oversaw a newly national community of blind “subjects,” shaping laws and defining blindness as an occupationally focused social status category that extended beyond musical recital to encompass healing practices such as massage and acupuncture.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and professionals. General readers.
M. Landeck, Austin College
Interdisciplinary Subjects: Asian and Asian American Studies
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Sociology
Choice Issue: Apr 2023

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