Biwa hōshi

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Biwa hōshi (Japanese: 琵琶法師), also known as "lute priests" were travelling performers in the era of Japanese history preceding the Meiji period. They earned their income by reciting vocal literature to the accompaniment of biwa music. Often blind, they adopted the shaved heads and robes common to Buddhist monks. This occupation likely had its origin in China and India, where blind Buddhist lay-priest performers were once common.

Their musical style is referred to as 平曲 (heikyoku), which literally means “Heike music.” Although these performers existed well before the events, they eventually became famous for narrating. Before biwa hoshi sang heikyoku, they were entertainers and ritual performers. They took on a broad range of roles, including poetry and song, plague prevention, and spiritual purification; actually, it was probably because of their ritualistic duties that they became the caretakers of the Heike Monogatari (平家物語).

The biwa hoshi are considered the first performers of the Tale of the Heike (平家物語), which is one of Japan`s most famous epics. It details battles between two powerful clans, the Minamoto and the Taira around the 12th century. The Taira were eventually annihilated by the Minamoto (sometimes called the Genji), who systematically killed every male descendant of the Taira. Religion in Japan at the time incorporated many native animistic (Shinto) beliefs into its Buddhist theological framework, leading many court nobles and religious leaders to worry about angry Taira spirits disrupting the peace.[citation needed] The Great Earthquake around 1185 C.E. contributed to this sentiment. Since their rituals included placating spirits and preventing plagues, Heike music became a vehicle for placating lingering, resentful Heike spirits.[1] Heikyoku and biwa hoshi became immensely popular for the next several hundred years.


Biwa hoshi (琵琶法師) literally means "lute priest". Hoshi (法師) is derived from buppo no kyoshi, which translates as a teacher who explains Buddhist precepts. The two characters 法 and 師 mean Buddhist doctrine and teacher. It referred to blind priests who played the heike-biwa to accompany their songs about legends, wars, histories, and mythologies. Eventually, 法師 referred to non-blind and blind performers and was also used as a suffix to a series of other types of people (e.g. 田楽法師 (dancing musicians)、散楽法師 (Chinese-style entertainer)、絵取り法師 (outcast artists), and 三条法師 (men from Sanjo/men from temporary quarters).[2] Biwa hoshi are referred to in Japanese iconography that dates back to the late Heian period (794-1185 C.E.). They are also referred to in the Shin-sarugaku-ki, written by Fujiwara Akihira (989-1066).[3]


Origins and proliferation[edit]

Shobutsu, a Buddhist monk of the Tendai-shu was, according to tradition, the first biwa-hoshi to sing the Heike monogatari in around the year 1220.[4] Subsequently, two different factions of biwa-hoshi were formed. These were the Ichikata school, founded by Akashi Kyoichi, and the Yasaka School, founded by Yasaka Kigen.[5] Ranks were assigned to biwa-hoshi on the basis of skill, the highest being Kengyo, followed by koto, betto and zato.

The proliferation of the Yasaka and Ichikata factions heightened with the contributions of Akashi Kakuichi (1300–1371). A noted biwa-hoshi, Kakuichi’s Heikyoku narration is currently accepted as the definitive version of the Heike.[6] A documented reason for this is that Kakuichi was largely responsible for forming the Ichikata guild. This preceded the formation of the Todo, a self-governing guild of biwa-hoshi that received income in two ways. First, the guild was reared by the Kyoto aristocracy and military – this will be discussed below. Second, the Todo held a monopoly over the teaching and transmission of heikyoku. To be accepted as a disciple, an aspiring student would have to pay a fee, after which the study of each new piece of music required payment. By the 13th and 14th centuries, biwa hoshi performed for the military elite and the aristocracy, including the regional daimyo feudal lords. Public performances were also given during Buddhist temple services. The general population had the further option of attending Kanjin performances, for which they were required to pay a fee to see.[citation needed]

Sengoku to Edo Period[edit]

The Onin no Ran (1467), or the Onin Disturbance, proved a trying occurrence for the proliferation of the biwa hoshi. The war instigated the Sengoku Period (15th - 17th centuries), an era of civil war and political/military conflict that lasted for near two centuries. In this time, many heike musicians turned their attention to the joruri or the shamisen three-stringed lute. Therefore, not only did the conflict cause a loss of performers, but also a decline in the number of listeners to the heikyoku.[7]

However, the complete demise of the biwa hoshi was prevented by a daimyo who favored the art of heike performance named Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was he who ultimately reunified the country by establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate, where he became a fervent patron of the Heike.

During the Edo Period (1600–1868), the Tokugawa Shogunate provided the Todo with special privileges and substantial financing, which the Todo then distributed to members according to rank. The Edo Period also marks the era in which the Shogunate designated heike as one of its official ceremonial forms of music.

Accordingly, new schools of heike appeared, many of which were influenced by the newly introduced shamisen style. The two predominant schools that came about during the Edo period were the Maeda-ryu founded by Maeda Kyuichi, and the Hatano-ryu founded by Hatano Koichi. Both figures were members of the Shido-ha, which was the most active branch of the older Ichikata school.[8] Collaborations were formed between amateur aficionados of the heike who, over the course of the Edo Period, made small revisions to the musical notation of the Heike score. The ceremonial form of the Heike performed for the Shogunate became increasingly solemn and refined to meet the standards of the intellectual class. Moreover, to ensure the development of the Heike score, improvisation notably declined.

Meiji Period to present[edit]

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration heralded the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This ultimately contributed to the abolition of the Todo, which undermined social privileges for the musicians and reduced the availability of avenues for performance. The Hatano-ryu, in particular, underwent a debilitating decline in popularity, so much so that it struggled to survive in Kyoto until the middle of the 20th century.[9] In addition, the shamisen, which accompanied the contemporary idiom of songs and narratives, made the ancient tales of the Heike appear antiquated. And by the end of the Edo period, the koto had in fact replaced the biwa as the most common instrument used among blind musicians.

The Heike tradition persisted, however, through the Tsugaru lineage (transmitted by sighted performers) and the Nagoya lineage (transmitted by professional blind musicians of the Todo tradition), both of which belonged to the Maeda-ryu.[10] The Tsugaru lineage consisted of Kusumi Taiso (1815–1882), who learned the heike of Edo Maeda-ryu, as well as his sons Tateyama Zennoshin and Tateyama Kogo, both of whom lamented the decline of heike in the late years of Meiji and sought to foster a number of pupils. And in Nagoya, a city which had been a thriving nucleus for Heike performance, a small faction of blind male players continued to transmit Heike alongside other mediums of music of growing popularity, such as the koto and shamisen. Differences exist between these lineages due to geographical separation and changes that have occurred uniquely in time. For example, the Nagoya lineage relied almost entirely on oral transmission. Nevertheless, the Nagoya heike and Tsugaru heike were both nominated by the Japanese government as “Intangible Cultural Property (Mukei Bunkazai) that should be recorded and preserved”: Nagoya in 1955 and Tsugara in 1959.[10] Those nominated Nagoya performers continue their transmission; by name, they are Inokawa Koji, Doizaki Masatomi and Mishina Masayasu).

The libretto notation on which remaining heikyoku performance is based today in Nagoya is called Heike Shosetsu. It was composed by Ogino Tomoichi (1732–1801), initially a disciple in the Hatano-ryu faction, before acquiring the post of Kengyo in the Kyoto branch of the Maeda-ryu school.[11] He had great knowledge of both major schools as a hatano-ryu disciple master. As such, he played a fundamental role in the revival of the Biwa Hoshi.

Toru Takemitsu saved the biwa from extinction by collaborating with Western composers. Takemitsu, and several composers before him, recognized that Japanese music was quickly becoming obsolete. Interest in Japanese music was almost nonexistent. Studies in music theory and music composition almost entirely consisted in Western theory and instruction. Some of these composers began to incorporate Japanese music and Japanese instruments into their compositions. Yet, these composers focused on those Japanese instruments most similar to Western ones; for example, Michio Miyagi’s utilization of the koto. Takemitsu, on the other hand, collaborated with Western composers and compositions to include the distinctly Asian biwa. His well-received compositions have revitalized interest in the biwa and saved it from becoming obsolete.

According to Hugh de Ferranti, modern, live performances of biwa narrative singing are rare, with almost all performers as “practitioners of chikuzenbiwa and satsumabiwa”.[12] Satsuma biwa “emerged from interaction between moso and the samurai class” in the Satsuma province, starting a period of popularity for “modern biwa” until the 1930s, while hikuzenbiwa had its origin in the 1890s in Japan’s Chikuzen region of Kyushu, drawing upon aspects of moso music, shamisen, and satsumabiwa technique.[12] These traditions enjoyed widespread appreciation during the early twentieth century for its “nationalist, militarist sentiments of late-Meiji imperialist ideology”.[12] In the post-war era, these traditions were considered “as refined classical pursuits,” resulting in their popularity beyond heikebiwa [13] The biwa itself is also depicted with the image of goddess Benzaiten at her shrines, and in images of the Seven Lucky Gods (shichi fukujin) in homes, shops, and offices".[13]

However, modern associations with biwa are mainly connected to the biwa hoshi, themselves linked to the Tale of Heike and the Mimi Nashi Joichi, well known works taught in schools and readapted for television series, manga, popular literature and other media.[12] As such, “most Japanese come to think of the biwa as a battered old string instrument played by a decrepit blind man who looks like a Buddhist priest and wanders about chanting old tales about war and ghosts”.[12] According to Hugh de Ferranti, “outside of the realms of scholarship and the few who are involved in learning and performing,” few Japanese civilians are familiar with the aural qualities of the biwa and cannot recognize its tones with references to ancient war-tales.[13] The instrument is viewed as antiquated, a relic of the past that “cannot be a thing of contemporary Japanese life and experience, but is tied forever to the world of the Tale of the Heike; a gloomy world of martial valour and samurai ghosts".[13]

Biwa and Biwa Hoshi in Society[edit]


For most of Japan’s recorded history, music along with narrative performance have been frequent professions for the blind, whose importance in most other major genres is also unavoidable, save for court and theatre music, from the thirteenth century until the nineteenth.[14] Folk and literature attest “invariably about blind biwa hoshi and zato,” and only in modern times do sighted musicians master such instruments like the biwa.[15]

According to De Ferranti, the act of playing lutes for alms by blind musicians finds its roots in Indian Buddhist culture during the first millennium AD.[16] As early as the fourth century, blind itinerants in South Asia, described by texts (such as the Asokavadana) as holy men, played lutes for alms.[16] A seventh-century text from China and Japan’s early twelfth-century Konjaku monogatari-shure count this story, while other “scattered accounts” of blind lute-laying priests can be found in Tang-period volumes from the Chinese mainland.[17] In the Shanbei region near Inner Mongolia, “blind beggars who recited tales and travelled with pipa accompanists were common,” prior to the 1949 revolution.[17] Under Mao, blind itinerants called shuoshude played a three-string lute in “household ritual contexts” using their narrative “as a potent force for social reform” by the Communist party.[18]

Prior to the spread of Buddhism during the sixth to ninth centuries, it was “generally acknowledged that in Japanese ritual life blind men and women [were] respected as shamanic celebrants who bore numinous power because of their separation from the world experienced by others”.[19] Historically, the blind performed healing rituals for curing illness and exorcising spirits.[20] For music, plucking or striking string instruments also have ritual meanings, and were tasks probably given to blind individuals to perform in belief of their shamanistic abilities.[19] The azusa yumi was utilized for summoning deities in a pre-Buddhist ritual, likely involving the blind. The role of early biwa hoshi in delivery the vocal performance of battle tales “to allay the fury of slain warriors’ ghosts” further implies a shamanistic qualification of the blind.[19] Historical references suggest biwa hoshi were involved in both divination but also in this fundamental role of placating aggravated spirits, especially those killed in battle.[21]

The intimate ties between the biwa and the blind in the todo and various regional groups for moso further cement this inseparable relationship. Blindness was a necessary condition for membership to these organizations, which looked over blind Heike-performers and professionals, and blind biwa ritualists, respectively.[22] For todo, Heke performers came to control the guild, and thus the lives of many Japanese blind persons. Also, according to the legends of these institutions, “the lineage of blind biwa layers ultimately is traced to… a blind disciple of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, called Ganjutsu Sonja”.[23]

However, according to Hugh de Ferranti, not all blind biwa players of antiquity “were completely lacking the sense of vision and knowledge of music”.[16] Indeed, many people called blind were likely “only impaired in their vision,” evidenced by the denotation of words in the style of mojin, sato, and mekura.[16] Also, many blind individuals gain the ailment gradually, resulting from aging, illness, or accident, meaning literacy may have been acquired earlier in life.[16] Hugh de Ferranti contends that notable numbers of biwa performers “were sighted and in some cases literate,” evidenced by records of the Jojuin moso tradition and historical membership of the Gensei Horyu.[16] Such individuals thus must be acknowledged for potential importance in producing written texts and in the “transmission of repertory".[16]

Religious significance[edit]

Buddhist iconography throughout East and South-East Asia depict short-necked lutes being played by celestial beings as well as the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who led such divine musicians. Avatars of Sarasvati, “the biwa-playing Hindu goddess of music, wisdom, and eloquence,” also play the lute in Tibetan and Chinese iconographic displays; such avatars correspond to Benzaiten, a Japanese deity known for holding a biwa in her benevolent arms.[24]

Japanese iconography indicates two female lute-playing deities: the aforementioned Benzaiten and Myoon Ten; their identities are often fused together, but both have their roots in the continental Asian tradition, and can be traced from Sarasvati through various forms.[25] Benzaiten represents eloquence while Myoon Ten epitomizes music itself.[25] As the bodhisattva named “Miraculous Sound,” Myoon Bosatsu is described in the Lotus Sutra and was important for biwa players in court society.[25] Her influence would spread beyond the court, integrating itself especially in the biwa hoshi tradition. After the early eighth century however, most sculptures and iconographic depictions show the pipa instead of the lute.[25]

Locations whose name contain the characters or sounds “biwa” also have sanctified lore. Lake Biwa is famous for Chikubushima, where Taira no Tsunemasa performs at the Benzaiten shrine, whose deity appears in the form of a white dragon.[26] Especially in Kyushu, there are biwa hills, valleys, ponds, and bridges throughout Japan, where performers supposedly buried or offered instruments to the locales’ waters.[26] Other legends of certain sects and accounts from ancient texts further the sacred associations of the biwa instrument.[26]


Despite the depiction of Benzaiten, the patron deity of music revered by biwa hoshi and moso, as a female entity and the existence of highly celebrated female biwa players in twentieth century, with the “exception of avocational performance by women in the court music tradition,” professional biwa players were men until the shamisen's use in the sixteenth century.[27][28] Along with blindness, maleness was a necessary condition for admission to the moso and todo.[27] However, it was common in Tang China for women to play pipa, as it was also common for courtly women from the Heian through Muromachi periods to learn biwa in childhood.[29] There are also a few rare references to both sighted and blind female entertainers who may have played biwa, though in the Edo period, some female enthusiasts learned from heikebiwa professionals as a recreational activity.[30]

Still, itinerant women performers did exist in Japan’s Middle Ages, though they are most frequently shown playing the tsuzumi drum.[31] In the Edo period, singers called goze often accompanied themselves on the shamisen or koto, the latter of which was played by “affluent blind women who taught it to the wives of samurai and merchants”.[30] The former along with its wooden imitation, gottan were played for performance to procure alms, house to house; this was called kadozuke.[31] In Kyushu, goze were not uncommon with such performers mentioned in the todo’s late-eighteenth-century accounts.[31] Although not bona fide members of the guild, goze held annual festivals, and this profession continued to be viable into the mid-1900s.[31]

Social status[edit]

Though blindness in Japanese society has historically been stigmatized, “as the result of a Buddhist interpretation of the condition as a form of karmic punishment,” other factors also led to the marginalization and discrimination of blind musicians.[32] In general, the blind were treated according to the restrictions of their societal rank.[33] In other words, commoner townsmen (chonin) and warrior-rank blind “were allowed to engage in the professions available to all of similar rank, within the constraints of their visuals impairment,” while those in agrarian households were excepted to contribute to the payment of land taxes via any means of labor possible.[33] However, the most common professions for all such peoples included music, massage, acupuncture and moxa therapy, while ritual work was common in specialized locations.[33]

As for itinerant performers, the most affluent could “make a living during the Edo period as teachers and performers based at their homes,” while the rest (representing the majority of zato and goze) relied on kadozuke, regarded as a form of begging, despite its ritual associations.[33] Door-to-door performances delivered by professionals associated to shrines and temples also occurred in the historical practice of seasonal rites and celebrations for farming areas; by the middle ags though, they were considered to be of low status and were affiliated with the sanjo districts “for the discriminated classes”.[33] However, folk beliefs in the visits of kami during such harvest festivals to rid villagers of impurity upon receiving gifts from householders may have provided a socio-cultural basis for the willingness to offer food and money to itinerant performers; further, kadozuke was seen as an act of merit.[34]

According to Hugh de Ferranti, iconographic and literary sources generally portray biwa hoshi as solitary and pitiable figures, though wealthy and powerful individuals also exist in such representations.[34] Sometimes they are depicted as mysterious, frightening, and potentially dangerous individuals while in other sources, they are “ridiculous” characters “to be made fun of, at times with unbridled cruelty”.[34] Folklore links biwa hoshi to ghosts through their placation of wronged spirits and the chinkon ritual performance, accounts for their fearful quality.[35] However, kyogen plays called zatomono features deliberate tricking of a blind zato so that he becomes lost and disoriented, or suffers losses and misunderstanding.[36] Such action is provoked by sighted individuals for pure amusement, as in the stories of Saru zato and Tsukimi zato.[35][36] Picture scrolls marry this “similar sense of biwa hoshi as bizarre, somewhat frightening figures who can nevertheless be taunted”.[36][37] In these images, people “look out from their houses at the biwa players and appear to be laughing or jeering at them,” while children run away from and dogs bark at them.[37]

Development of the Heike Style[edit]

The present trend of scholarly analysis is to consider the Heike’s origin as having arisen first as a biwa recitation for the purpose of spreading Buddhism.[38] According to the Tsurezuregusa, the Essays in Idleness, Yukinaga of the Gotaba-in reign, in charge of the household of Fujiwara Kanezane, the chief advisor to the Emperor, Yukinaga had often exchanged poems with the imperial court.[38] He was invited to an imperial discourse on poems, and unable to recall two of the seven virtues, was thus named the Jack of Five Virtues.[39] Embarrassed, he gave up on learning poetry and took the tonsure, and became a monk under Jichin Jaso of the Tendai sect.[39] Jichin was known to gather talent at Shorenin on Higashiyama in Kyoto to discuss ways of spreading the Tendai faith.[39] Many here were biwa-hoshi. It is in this way that Yukinaga legendarily wrote the script of the Tale of the Heike, and taught it to a mosobiwa from eastern Japan, named Shobutsu, renowned for his impressive narrative delivery and extensive knowledge of warriors, bows, and horses.[39]

According to George Gish, there were five essential ingredients for the development of the Heike:[40]

  1. Chinese popular sermons designed to appeal to the masses known as zokko
  2. epic ballad narration entitled wasan, later revised by into a new style of shomyo called Rokudo-koshiki, which refers to six worlds of Buddhism (Heaven through Hell); it was the chief model for the singing
  3. shodo style of Buddhist preaching with melody, a style favored by Jichin
  4. Moso-biwa influence from the Kyoto-moso school from which idea of accompanying narration with biwa derives
  5. the Heike story itself chronicling the Taira/Genji Heian period, oft interpreted as one phase of Buddhism’s six worlds. The story is treated as a shodo, or sermon with the purpose of enlightenment.

Heikoyu musically is influenced by Buddhist chant, and the koshiki and shomyo traditions of the biwa from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[41] Indeed, it is a combination of the monogatari style practiced by gakybiwa mosobiwa and somyo narrative.[41] Author Yukinaga brought elements of the court tradition, while Jichin offered shomyo aspects (Gish 139). Shobutsu as a kyotomoso and a biwa hoshi brought unique perspectives as well.[41]

The Heike biwa instrument itself is a combination of gaku and moso biwa predecessors.[41] Indeed, the relative average distance between the frets is equal to that of heike biwa, as are the relative height of the frets.[41] From Shobutsu, two schools emerged, the Yasaka-ryu School, led by Jogen, and Ichikata-ryu School, headed by Nyoichi.[42] Askahi Kakuichi was Nyoichi’s disciple and a favorite of shogun Ashikaga Takauji, possibly due to blood relations.[42] Kakuichi soon gained the rank of kengyo, the head of guild for the blind, which was known as the shoku-yashiki; he died in 1371, the peak of heike-biwa.[42]

Musically, development continued with the Ichikata-ryu, with it spreading into four separate branches.[42] Now, during the Edo period, the main branches spilt further with the influence by shamisen style.[42] The main schools were Hatano-ryu and Maeda-ryu,named after their respective founders; intense rivalry between the schools, compounded by changes in music world at large, contributed to the decline of the Heike tradition.[42]

The growing utilization of the shamisen by the mid 16th century had precipitated new innovations for popular music.[42] Some of the earliest innovations were carried out by some Heike-players during this musical tradition.[42] They would use a biwa type plectrum on the shamisen to emulate the biwa buzzing effect and sounds.[42]

Yet, the shamisen resulted in alluring new creative opportunities, attracting musicians, and their patrons and listeners along with them.[43] The new idiom of song made the old styles of heikoyu antiquated, especially with the koto as new instrument.[43]

See also[edit]

Blind musicians


  1. ^ Tokita 61
  2. ^ Ishi 293
  3. ^ Tokita 60
  4. ^ Japan Encyclopedia: 78.
  5. ^ The Asiatic Society of Japan: 4,
  6. ^ Ashgate: 78.
  7. ^ The Biwa in History: 143.
  8. ^ The Biwa in History: 142.
  9. ^ Musical Narrative: 81.
  10. ^ a b Ashgate: 82.
  11. ^ The Biwa in History: 144.
  12. ^ a b c d e De Ferranti: 13
  13. ^ a b c d De Ferranti: 14.
  14. ^ De Ferranti: 20.
  15. ^ De Ferranti 20-1.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g De Ferranti 21.
  17. ^ a b De Ferranti 22.
  18. ^ De Ferranti 22-3.
  19. ^ a b c De Ferranti 24-5.
  20. ^ De Ferranti: 24.
  21. ^ De Ferranti: 25.
  22. ^ De Ferranti: 26.
  23. ^ De Ferranti: 26-7.
  24. ^ De Ferranti: 29
  25. ^ a b c d De Ferranti: 30-2.
  26. ^ a b c De Ferranti: 33.
  27. ^ a b De Ferranti: 36.
  28. ^ De Ferranti: 39.
  29. ^ De Ferranti: 37.
  30. ^ a b De Ferranti: 37-8
  31. ^ a b c d De Ferranti: 38
  32. ^ De Ferranti: 42
  33. ^ a b c d e De Ferranti: 43
  34. ^ a b c De Ferranti: 44.
  35. ^ a b De Ferranti: 45.
  36. ^ a b c De Ferranti: 46.
  37. ^ a b De Ferranti: 47.
  38. ^ a b Gish: 135.
  39. ^ a b c d Gish: 136.
  40. ^ Gish: 137-8.
  41. ^ a b c d e Gish: 139.
  42. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gish 140-2.
  43. ^ a b Gish: 143


De Ferranti, Hugh. The Last Biwa Singer: a Blind Musician in History, Imagination, and Performance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2009.

Frederic, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia. Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2008.

Gish, George W. The Biwa in History, Its Origins and Development in Japan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1967.

History of Japanese Traditional Music. Japanese Traditional Music. Columbia Music Entertainment, 2002. Web. 04 Apr 2011. < >.

The Asiatic Society of Japan. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. University of Oregon Libraries. University of Oregon, 1918. Web. 04 Apr 2011.

Tokita, Alison, and David W. Hughes. The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2008.


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[16] Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard Dictionary of Music. (339)

[17] [The International Shakuhachi Society, 2011]


[19] [Garfias, Gradual Modifications of the Gagaku Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1960, ページ: 16]

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[31] [Tokita, 2008, ページ: 60]

[32] [Tokita, 2008, ページ: 61]