A Biwa

5 • A Biwa

Japan, Edo Period, 18th century
100 cm high; Isunoki wood, cherry wood, leather, silk strings

Every major city in Japan has a shrine or temple dedicated to the Japanese Goddess Benzaiten, one of Japanese mythology’s Shichi-Fuku-Jin (Seven Gods of Luck) and the patron goddess of literature and music, wealth, fortune and femininity. She is depicted as a beautiful woman, full of talent and grace; with a biwa in her hands to represent her mastery of the arts.

Distinguished by its graceful, tear-shaped body, the biwa is a relative of the Chinese pipa, thought to have arrived in Japan during the 8th century. It is played with a large plectrum called a bachi (see no.6), which often hits the instrument as well as the strings, so a protective strip called a bachimen is placed across the body of the instrument.

For those who have never heard the stirring sound of the biwa and the crack of its bachi, here is a fragment from The Story of Mimi-nashi-Hoichi – a tale from Japanese mythology about Hoichi, a blind biwa player:

‘Then Hôïchi 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…But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless – the piteous perishing of the women and children – 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 of the grief that he had made.’ (Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904)

Benzaiten, the goddess of music and good fortune, by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Japanese, Edo period, 17th century. Photograph © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Benzaiten, the goddess of music and good fortune, by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617–1691). Japanese, Edo period, 17th century. Photograph © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston