Blind in Early Modern Japan

Disability, Medicine, and Identity
Wei Yu Wayne Tan
A history of the blind in Japan that challenges contemporary notions of disability


While the loss of sight—whether in early modern Japan or now—may be understood as a disability, blind people in the Tokugawa period (1600–1868) could thrive because of disability. The blind of the era were prominent across a wide range of professions, and through a strong guild structure were able to exert contractual monopolies over certain trades. Blind in Early Modern Japan illustrates the breadth and depth of those occupations, the power and respect that accrued to the guild members, and the lasting legacy of the Tokugawa guilds into the current moment.

The book illustrates why disability must be assessed within a particular society’s social, political, and medical context, and also the importance of bringing medical history into conversation with cultural history. A Euro-American-centric disability studies perspective that focuses on disability and oppression, the author contends, risks overlooking the unique situation in a non-Western society like Japan in which disability was constructed to enhance blind people’s power. He explores what it meant to be blind in Japan at that time, and what it says about current frameworks for understanding disability. 

Wei Yu Wayne Tan is Associate Professor of History at Hope College.

Praise / Awards

  • "A thoughtful, deeply researched contribution to disability studies."
    Kirkus Reviews
  • “One of the most significant new works in Japan disability studies in the past ten years . . . this history of the feudal guild structure of the blind in Tokugawa Japan has the potential to up-end how we think about blindness.”
    —Karen Nakamura, University of California, Berkeley

  • "...Tan’s book is an excellent opening for the history of blindness in Japan during its early modern period. Its theoretical frameworks, the power of lineages, and the background of consumer culture are excellent jumping-off points for historians of Japanese disabilities and non-European scholars who might follow."
    Isis (A Journal of the History of Science Society)
  • "Highly recommended." 

News, Reviews, Interviews

Listen: Interview with New Books Network | 11/30/2022

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 266pp.
  • 16 illustrations, 2 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2022
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07548-5

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  • $75.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2022
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05548-7

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  • $29.95 U.S.

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  • Disability history; disability studies; disability in Japan; Tokugawa period; Edo period; early modern Japan; Japanese history; blindness; visual impairment; vision loss; poor vision; blind people; blind men; blind women; blind in Japan; history of medicine; ophthalmology; eye diseases; Japanese medical history; Chinese medical history; Japanese medicine; Chinese medicine; massage; acupuncture; medical lineages; Sugiyama Wa'ichi (Waichi); Ogino Chiichi; Hanawa Hokiichi (Hokinoichi); popular culture; print culture; Japanese religions; status rule; government; Kyoto guild; guild (todoza); Japanese literature; The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari); biwa; shamisen; koto; goze; zato; musical performance; performance history; textual history; musical history; musical lineages; Japanese culture