In Blind in Early Modern Japan: Disability, Medicine, and Identity, Wei Yu Wayne Tan considers what it meant to be blind in Tokugawa Japan (from 1600 to 1868), including how a strong guild structure provided professional opportunities for many blind people during the period. This engaging, accessible book demonstrates how disability studies approaches can shed new light on historical experiences of disability, writes Sarah Dauncey.
Blind in Early Modern Japan: Disability, Medicine, and Identity. Wei Yu Wayne Tan. University of Michigan Press. 2022.
One of the greatest challenges for historians of disability in many contexts around the world is that the stories of disabled people are often difficult to find. The available sources are most often partial accounts of what non-disabled people thought about disabled people and their impairments, rather than what disabled people themselves experienced and thought in their respective communities. Any attempt to uncover the history of disability and impairment, therefore, must be done with particular care and attention to whose voices we are hearing and how we are listening to and interpreting them.
For historians of disability in many contexts around the world […] the stories of disabled people are often difficult to find.
Wei Yu Wayne Tan’s thought-provoking new monograph on blindness in early modern Japan is a study that attempts to traverse this potentially perilous landscape. This is an ambitious project given its aim to uncover what it meant to be blind in Tokugawa Japan, a period that stretched from 1600 to1868. But this is clearly a book of many years in the making and one that requires familiarity with an impressively wide range of primary sources in Japanese, Chinese and English.
From the start, Tan acknowledges the relative vulnerability of people with visual impairments in Japan at the time, but his interest lies more in understanding the ways in which they were able to assert a “disabled identity” to their advantage. “Blindness was disabling,” he argues, “because it was construed and experienced as impaired vision” (2). Given the numerous Japanese terms used at the time to refer to the wide spectrum of eye diseases and conditions that would have created vision impairment and blindness, one initially questions the extent to which blindness as a particular “identity” was even possible, but this is the task Tan sets himself.
Tan acknowledges the relative vulnerability of people with visual impairments in Japan at the time, but his interest lies more in understanding the ways in which they were able to assert a “disabled identity” to their advantage.
His exploration starts with a look at the foundations of Japanese ophthalmology; this is important given the fact that there was no fixed definition of blindness at the time and no standard for evaluating vision loss either. What is interesting here is that meetings with European thought (and Dutch empirical-style learning in particular) from the 17th century onwards appeared to offer new analytical languages and practices without challenging the fundamental frameworks for understanding blindness. Instead, Buddhist medical learning from China continued to provide both the knowledge of eye diseases and framework for its dissemination through a secretive and prestigious medical lineage system.
The following chapter moves to discuss the ways in which popular medical culture and the new print culture of the 18th and 19th centuries allowed, encouraged even, the notion of patients as “consumers” who might search out remedies and wonder drugs for their eye conditions. Where once this information had been the preserve of those medical lineages, the vernacularisation of medical knowledge through self-help manuals, travel literature and commercial entrepreneurship, Tan argues, could “save ailing family members from becoming physically impaired – or, literally, from becoming ‘handicapped’ and ‘useless’” (57).
The Tokugawa shogunate created a unique […] category for blind people overseen through its own ‘guild’
The main thrust of Tan’s argument in the remaining chapters elucidates how the Tokugawa shogunate created a unique (in the fact that no other impairment group was represented in such a way) category for blind people overseen through its own “guild” (tōdō/tōdōza). Both directly and indirectly, this guild, which was founded in Kyoto and formed part of the more general status-based rule system, “had power over anyone who claimed to be blind” (9). While knowledge of the ways in which the Kyoto guild defined status and occupations (primarily music and the Heike genre in particular) for men with visual impairments through its strict, expensive and hierarchical membership system is not new – earlier works by Katō Yasuaki and Gerald Groemer, for example, lay strong foundations for this particular exploration – Tan focuses more on the socio-political meaning of blindness in order to draw comparison between those living, and often benefiting from, prestigious membership, with those living beyond its direct influence.
Tan reveals a dynamic environment in which some men were drawn in to the activities and influence of the guild (which continually attempted to assert its authority through innovative means, such as the making of “model” blind people and “ideal” behaviours, when membership numbers began to decline and new professions, such as acupuncture and massage, began to overtake Heike music as the dominant vocation), and the ways in which other men, and in many instances women who were excluded from the guild on account of their gender, developed their own groups that provided much-needed kinship-style support.
Tan draws attention to the ways in which society and its institutions empowered some people and offered them the opportunities and tools to excel and thrive, yet also significantly disempowered others without finance or connections. He concludes that, “In Tokugawa society, the lives of blind people – how they were supported, how they chose to live, and how their lives were disabled and enabled – were torn by tensions between enablement and exploitation in a social and political system unlike any seen in other societies” (186-7).
Tan draws attention to the ways in which society and its institutions empowered some people and offered them the opportunities and tools to excel and thrive, yet also significantly disempowered others without finance or connections.
Whether this study needed the disability studies approach adopted by Tan, however, is likely one of the areas some readers might wish to debate. Even this reader (whose own research explores disability in modern Chinese history and society through the prism of disability studies) felt as though some of the analytical framing sat a little awkwardly among the historical readings. Tan does, of course, acknowledge the difficulties of applying modern medical model perspectives to a society that did not have them. He argues, however, that the social model offers a way to understand disability through its social and political meanings, and with an eye to the value of medical perspectives of the time and place. The outcome of this means that he is more attentive to those tensions between empowerment and disempowerment, and such an approach is to be commended. However, that we leave the book with a relatively positive image of what it might have meant to be blind in Tokugawa Japan, while the broader and likely more challenging experience of people with visual impairments, those whose lives fell beyond the purview of the often partial and privileged historical sources studied here, remain hidden.
The book is written in an engaging manner and is wonderfully illustrated with contemporary paintings, prints and photographs. As such, it remains accessible to readers who might not be familiar with either blindness, Japan, or this early modern history, even when exploring the rich array of sources with their plethora of Japanese and Chinese terms. Ironically, more attention to some terminologies in English would have avoided some of the more unfortunate turns of phrase that appear throughout, “suffering from blindness” (2) and “crippling blow” (118) being two of the most egregious examples. That said, this is a book I will certainly revisit and recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of disability and Japanese society or the ways in which disability studies approaches have the potential to shed new light on experiences of disability beyond the global North and the present day.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.
Main Image: “House cleaning in preparation for the New Year” by Kitagawa Utamaro, colour woodblock print circa 1797/99. Credit: The Clarence Buckingham Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago.