The ideographs for goze mean "blind" and "woman." The ideographs are, however, read in this manner because the word goze already existed. In fact, it probably derived from the term mekura gozen 盲御前, which also means blind woman (gozen is a formal second-person pronoun). Although the term goze can be found in medieval records, other terms such as mōjo 盲女, jomō 女盲 and the like were also in use (especially in written records) until the modern era. In the spoken language, the term goze was usually suffixed by an honorific: goze-san, goze-sa, goze-don, and the like.
From the Edo period (1600-1868) goze organized themselves in a number of ways. Few large-scale organizations have been found in urban areas, though during the nineteenth century some documents speak of a goze association in the city of Edo. In Osaka and some regional towns goze were sometimes informally linked to the pleasure quarters, where they were called to perform their songs at parties and the like.
Goze organizations developed most in rural areas and continued to exist in Niigata (once known as Echigo) and Nagano prefectures well into the twentieth century (the last important active goze, Haru Kobayashi (小林ハル Kobayashi Haru?), died in 2005, age 105).
From the Edo period onward, other goze groups were found from Kyushu in the south to approximately Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures in the north. Farther north blind women tended to become shamans (known as itako, waka, miko or the like) rather than goze. Large and important groups were especially active in the Kantō and surrounding areas, in what are today Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Shizuoka, Yamanashi, Tokyo-to. Other groups were formed in Nagano and Gifu prefectures, and somewhat farther south, in Aichi prefecture. In addition to the well-known groups of Niigata prefecture, groups existed in other areas along the western seaboard, including Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui prefectures.
Suzuki Shōei (1996 and elsewhere) divides the organizations of Echigo goze into three main types.
- Goze organizations such as the one in Takada (today the city of Jōetsu), in which a limited number of goze houses (in early twentieth-century Takada 17) were concentrated in the city and in which each house was led by a master teacher who passed on the rights to her position and property to her top (or favorite) student after her death. Girls who wished to become goze had to move to the city and enter the house (fictitious family) of the goze teacher. Sometimes they were adopted by the teacher as a daughter.
- Organizations such as the one centered on Nagaoka, in which goze remained in the countryside, often their own home, after completing their apprenticeship with a goze elsewhere. These goze teachers were loosely linked to one another by their relation to the goze head in Nagaoka (a position assumed by a goze who, after becoming the head, assumed the name Yamamoto Goi). Once each year the goze of the Nagaoka group assembled at their headquarters, the house of Yamamoto Goi, to celebrate a ceremony known as myōonkō (妙音講) in which their history and the rules of their organization was read out loud. A this they deliberated on what to do about members who had broken rules, ate a celebratory meal, and performed for one another.
- Organizations such as the one found in Iida (Nagano prefecture), in which the position of head rotated among members.
Goze organizations existed to allow blind women a degree of independence in pursuing their careers as musicians (or in some cases massage). The rules that governed Echigo goze were said to have been decreed by ancient emperors, but no copy of these rules earlier than the late seventeenth century have been found. The central rules governing goze behavior was to obey teachers, to be humble towards donors, and not engage in activities that might contravene the morality of the feudal society in which goze operated. Although not stipulated in detail, perhaps the most important rule was, as was expected of nuns, not to have a lover, marry, or produce offspring. If such an offense was detected, it easily resulted in the expulsion of a goze from the group.
Such rules were necessary in part because many goze spent a good part of the year on the road, touring from village to village and depending on farmers to allow them to spend the night and use their houses as makeshift concert halls. Reputation and recognition as an officially sanctioned, upright occupation was thus of great importance in making the career of the goze possible. In addition, because Edo-period society was rife with discrimination against women, itinerants, musicians, and anyone with a visual disability, membership in an association that was recognized as legitimate and honorable provided an important tool in fighting the deep-seated prejudice that any woman not firmly in the grips of a male-dominated family was likely to be a dubious vagabond or even prostitute.
The repertory of most goze has been lost, but songs of goze from Niigata, Nagano, Saitama, and Kagoshima prefectures have been recorded. The vast majority of these recordings are from what is today Niigata prefecture.
The repertory of Niigata (Echigo) goze can be divided into several distinct categories:
- Saimon matsusaka 祭文松坂. Long strophic songs in a 7-5 syllable meter, often based on archaic tales, sometimes with a Buddhist message. The melody to which these texts are sung were probably a variant of the Echigo folk song "Matsusaka bushi." These songs were probably created during the eighteenth century, though elements of the texts are no doubt far older. They were usually only transmitted from one goze to another.
- Kudoki 口説. Long strophic songs in a 7-7- syllable meter. Texts usually feature double love-suicides or some other melodramatic and sometimes newsworthy theme. The melody to which these texts were sung is a variant of the Echigo folk song "Shinpo kōdaiji" 新保広大寺. "Kudoki" did not appear until the mid-nineteenth century. Although they were a highly typical goze song, they were sometimes also sung by other types of performers.
- "Songs performed before doorways" (kadozuke uta 門付け唄). A functional designation applying to any song used by goze as they made their way from door to door collecting donations. Goze usually sang whatever inhabitants of a given area wished to hear, but in the Niigata goze repertory some unique songs were used exclusively for such purposes.
- Folk songs (min'yō 民謡). Rural songs, usually with no known composer, learned by the populace informally. Many types of folk songs constituted an important part of the goze repertory, and were especially useful in livening up parties when goze were summoned to perform.
- "Classical" or "semi-classical" songs. Besides the genres listed above, most goze also knew a songs belonging to genres such as nagauta, jōruri, hauta, or kouta. Such songs were often learned from professional musicians outside the goze community.
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- Fritsch, Ingrid. “Blind Female Musicians on the Road: The Social Organization of ‘Goze’ in Japan,” Chime Journal, 5 (Spring) 1992: pp. 58-64.
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