E91 Blind Bankers of Edo


Show Notes for episode 91 of our Podcast – Blind Bankers of Edo.

Story Notes

Blind Bankers of Edo

During the Edo Period, also known as the Tokugawa Period, there was a surprising amount of professions that were available to the blind or visually impaired. From acupuncture, to playing the koto, to even performing in kabuki and creating historical documents; the blind definitely were a big part of the Edo Period society. They even took a main role in reciting and creating the Tale of the Heike, an epic account of the Genpei War between the Clans of the Taira and Minamoto.

We see this group of people also being the retainers of shoguns, daimyo and wealthy families throughout their lives.

In the Edo Period a guild came into being known as the tōdō or tōdō-za (meaning in a sense ‘Our Way Guild) which was created to help with the economic and political activities of the blind and visually impaired. Where the headquarters of the guild itself were based in Kyoto, a large chuck of the guild did find themselves living in the city of Edo. 

But we are here today to look into the Blind Bankers that formed a part of this guild, just to dip our feet into this topic until we come back and look at them in its entirety.

So looking at the members of the Guild who turned into the moneylending business, first of all, it is a rather surprising turn of events that such a thing could even have occurred. As we know, and even to this day, Japan is still rather hierarchical in their thinking. There was in the past, and still to a degree today a group of people known as the hinin, which could translate as ‘non-human,’ people who fulfilled the roles of begging, street performances as the burial of executed people.

The blind were never classed as part of the hinin which therefore allowed them to in theory have some form of better role within society, though of course the prospect of moneylending was still seen as something reserved for the merchant class. So the question remains, how did they manage to get this role?

Blind Bankers of Edo
Tale of the Heike

In a way it all stems back to the initial creation of the members which performed the Tale of the Heike. The blind or visually impaired people had strong connections to the royal court and major clans such as the Minamoto, and they also cooked up a legend about how the first blind lute players were taught by a 9th century blind Imperial Prince, the Prince Saneyasu. So they were trying to link themselves to a high lineage. All of these things allowed them to ultimately ‘rise’ above their station as it could have been seen back then.

During the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate, of course the Emperor of Japan has become nothing more than a figurehead for Japan, but due to their associations with previous high ranking houses and their constant connection to the Imperial Family; who claimed descent from the Sun kami the Blind Guild somehow managed to argue successfully that they were answering to a higher power and authority in Japan. And it was this connection which allowed them to become exempt from the caste system still happening in Japan at the time. This allowed them to become bankers, but it even garnered them the bonus of immunity from any government debt amnesty.

So what exactly is meant by this?

In terms of the Blind Bankers Guild, at times the government would turn around during monetary disputes and wash their hands of the problem, in essence telling the parties involved they had to figure it out themselves. And if the parties involved included one of a higher rank, of course they would ultimately be the victor in the dispute even if they were in the wrong. The interesting thing here, like we said, was the immunity this guild had to debt amnesty, which meant that if you were in debt to this guild you had to pay and they would do anything to get their money back.

We have records stating that members of the guild would stand outside the homes of those that owed them money, throwing obscenities at you and telling everyone how you had a debt you would not pay back.

And it worked, with Japan being very linked still to honour and shame, the shame of being admonished publicly would always ensure they paid back what they owed. A good tactic, but of course one that wasn’t going to get the Blind Bankers many friends over the years. However, it was known that all money lending guilds would resort to such tactics, though it seemed it affected the Blind Bankers the most in terms of their bad image.

A group of blind men by Hokusai.

So why did people begin to need loans in the first place? Well, many of the warrior class were moved in the 17th century into urban areas and with currency being in short supply, coupled with a higher demands for good, monetary loans became a necessity for many people.

They became an extraordinarily powerful guild over the course of the Edo Period, to the point where the shogunate calm to be alarmed as they noticed they had begin to act more like a bank, lending out not just their own money but the money of others which had been deposited with them. So in 1712 the shogunate limited them somewhat in the loans they could give. One such rule was to not allow loans to be given to rōnin or townspeople who were falsely stating they wanted to have a loan to use the money to achieve a higher rank in society. In the 1770’s the problem had continued to rise to the point the Shogunate arrested some of the more notorious loan sharks, even sentencing some to banishment or death.

1778 sees some of the worst of it when it was learnt that a retainer by the name of Mori Chūemon and his son had fled Edo as they had no means of repaying what they owed to the Blind Bankers. This led to a string of arrests and the discovery that the normal interest rate of 30% was not always being followed. For some it was 60% and for some poor few it was 100%.

Such was the money making of this guild, many members became exceedingly rich, however, it did serve to tarnish the image of the blind or visually impaired community as a whole.

Some writing came to be published saying things such as ‘audacious and selfish, and especially cruel, thinking of nothing but how to trick and exploit people,’ as well as, ‘split a blind man’s chest and gold falls out.’

Such was the bad image now of this group of people, medical texts started to appear saying blindness was caused by immoral and immodest behaviour.

And so with an increasingly bad image, the guild finally found itself disbanded by the government during the Meiji Restoration.


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Heavenly Spear