Japanese photographer Hashimoto Shoko looks back to 50 years ago, to his time spent with the Goze

Nearly lost today, the Goze is a historic part of Japanese culture which sees a group of blind female musicians travel across Japan to make a living.

17 February 2020
Reading Time
3 minute read

In the early 1970s, Hashimoto Shoko photographed a group of blind female musicians, touring and traveling across the rural planes of Japan. Historically, these women are known as Goze, meaning ‘blind’ and ‘woman’, deriving from the kanji 盲御前, also meaning ‘blind woman.’ Dating back to the Edo period (1600-1868), these women are part of a long, traveling tradition and are integral to a number of cultural ceremonies. But by the time the renowned Ishinomaki-born photographer came to document this unique art form, the tradition of the Goze was nearly lost.

In the latter half of the 20th century, rapid industrial and urban development saw Japan’s rural inhabitants flock to the cities. The agricultural populations declined, directly impacting the Goze’s line of work and in turn, their livelihoods. Documenting this pivotal turning point through emotive black and white photography, Hashimoto recorded the ins and outs of the Goze in three articles originally published in the weekly pictorial magazine, Asahi Graph. Running from 1923 to 2000, the Japanese publication paid tribute to the Goze through Hashimoto’s moving works from 1970-73.

Now, in a welcomed revival of these works, the Tokyo-based Zen Foto Gallery has reprinted the three articles in a new book titled Goze Asahigraph Reprint, to coincide with its upcoming exhibition showing from 21 February to 4 April 2020. Complete with English translations and an additional essay by the writer Hasegawa Hiroshi, the extensive publication highlights the beauty of vintage Japanese graphic design, not to mention the story of these extraordinary women with exceptional musical talents, traveling around fearlessly despite their visual impairments.

In an exclusive interview with the acclaimed photographer, Hashimoto tells It’s Nice That of how he first came to see the goze. “In 1969, after receiving information that the Goze from Nagaoka were traveling, I went to find them in December, but had to return to Tokyo without meeting them due to heavy snow.” Refusing to give up, he returned to the area in 1970, then again a year later in 1971, exploring Nagaoka and questioning its people in an attempt to locate the group of musicians. Finally, he came across the contact information for one of the Goze’s homes. “When I called them,” continues Hashimoto, “they told me their first trip was on 10 March 1972 and they agreed to be photographed. So on that day, I went to their home to see them immediately.”


Hashimoto Soko: Goze Asahi Graph Reprint, images courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

He first photographed them on this trip from Iwata Station to Zao Bridge by bus. When they got there, the Goze told the photographer, “We will stay here, goodbye,” and told him he could meet them again on the first day of April in Izumozaki. “If we were linked by fate,” Hashimoto continues, “I would see them again there.” And luckily for him, when it came to that momentous day, he met with the Goze once again, but this time, he stayed for three days, photographing the ins and outs of their daily routines and forming a deep connection which would last for three years.

“When I first went to see the Goze, it was on the 10 March 1972,” Hashimoto recalls. “One of the Goze, Seki Kaneko, came to the front of the entrance to greet me and her face resembled my mother’s face,” he remembers poignantly. “Later on, I learnt that my mother died on that day,” and ever since, this memory has served as one of the most potent during the photographer’s time with the Goze. He goes on to reminisce about stories of their wit, joking with Hashimoto on how being able to see can be both an inconvenience and a convenience depending on how you look at a situation.

But fundamentally, after nearly half a century since his excursions with the Goze, this new work, Hashimoto hopes that “more people can know about this almost lost culture in Niigata where the Goze could overcome their disabilities of blindness through making their living with their shamisen instruments and songs.” Originally, the Niigata Prefecture was known as an area where many people were born blind or visually impaired, but becoming a Goze meant one could still make a living. “I hope everyone now could see how the Goze continues to live and survive by traveling around, earning small amounts of rice and money as they fight against wind, rain and snow,” says Hashimoto. He thinks back to his adventures with them in the 70s, remembering the warm heartedness of the villagers who would “always welcome” the groups of Goze; from village to village, and door to door.

GalleryHashimoto Soko: Goze Asahi Graph Reprint, images courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

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Hashimoto Soko: Goze Asahi Graph Reprint, images courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.


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