Shamisen: the sound of a nation

Sounds of the shamisen.

The Japanese shamisen (in Japanese: 荳牙袖邱・ meaning literally ‘three flavors of strings’ is, on the international stage perhaps the most famous musical instrument in Japan.

Like so much else in the culture of these islands, the shamisen has its origins on the Chinese mainland, came in through the southern Okinawa Islands, and although similar in appearance to the guitar and various stringed instruments popular in the west, is a world apart in terms of its role in the culture of the nation, the way it is played, and perhaps above all, the way it is studied.

Many folk who learn the shamisen do so having been influenced by older family members also interested in the instrument, and along the way are themselves often subject to the same disciplined hours of care for their shamisen, and to eventually master the instrument, long periods sat bolt upright in the traditional and often painful ‘seiza’ position plucking away at notes learnt by repetition; the markers so often seen (or felt) on the strings of a guitar missing entirely from the silk strings of a shamisen.

A traditional musical score for shamisen.

The bachi is the most obvious difference with musical tools beyond Japanese shores; a form of oversized plectrum many times heavier than anything similar used for any other form of musical instrument, and is made of ivory – traditionally – or more often in recent years, of plastic and is not unlike a large flat plastic, spatula in shape.

The body of the shamisen is almost square in appearance and is produced using the hides of cats, sometimes dogs – still today. Look closely and you may even see the nipples of the animals on the main body of the instrument. Traditionalists prefer these materials although some people are now using various forms of paper.

Even the music, as it appears on paper is in unusual form given that it uses numbers that correlate to the position of the hands on the neck of the shamisen rather than traditional musical notes. The string to be plucked with the bachi is shown by the position of the numbers on the three lines of the shamisen score.

Want to learn how to play the shamisen?
To study the instrument in modern Tokyo, as traditional, and potentially expensive as it may appear is not that difficult a goal to achieve, with several schools out there offering low cost classes for groups. Some classes are even conducted in English, with the make-up of the room geared more towards comfort than tradition – chairs replacing seiza sitting styles the most obvious difference.

One particularly recommended teacher, fluent in English and a licensed performer with several years of experience in teaching non-Japanese is to be found in the downtown Ueno area of Tokyo, not far from the main JR and subway lines station. Known as the Shamisen Sensei, Kumiya Fujimoto, still in her late 20s, teaches in one-to-one and group format and has helped many students through their initial fear of tacking a foreign art form so different yet, as becomes apparent after a little time in Fujimoto’s presence, so approachable, so interesting, and so welcoming of effort that even beginners are able to acquire a sense of achievement after a relatively short time.

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