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5 Things You Need To Know About: The Shamisen

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What do you know about the Japanese instrument called the shamisen? In honor of the series of upcoming performances at the Japan Society, we bring you "5 Things You Need to Know About -- The Shamisen." So watch and learn about this instrument that has evolved over the years!

1. What is a Shamisen?
A shamisen is a plucked instrument with three strings that is similar to the banjo. The body, dou, is a hollow and square box made of rosewood. The neck, sao, goes through the body and is typically made of red sandalwood or rosewood. The other side of the neck has a curved tail called the tenjin, a Japanese god. Right under the tenjin are the tuning pegs that are usually made of ivory or ebony. They are placed inside the peg box. There is a special mechanism called the sawari under the peg box; this is what gives the shamisen its rich sounds. The strings are made of silk and dyed with turmeric. The bridge of the shamisen is removable and made of ivory, water buffalo horn, tortoise shell, or bamboo.

2. How do you to play the shamisen?
To play the percussive sound on a shamisen a plectrum called bachi is used. The bachi is made out of similar materials to the bridge. The bachi resembles the ginko tree leaves. Using the index, middle, and ring finger on the left hand, you hold down the strings. When you pluck the string it is called hajiki, and when you slide you finger down it's called suri. With the right hand you hold the bachi and strum the strings up and down (sukui).

3.What is the history of the shamisen?
The shamisen is said to have come from China based on the three stringed lute sanxian. It was imported into the Ryukyu Kingdom (present day Okinawa) in the late 14th century. The instrument developed into the sanshin, which was used in traditional Japanese folksongs and court music. In the mid-16th century the sanshin traveled to Osaka City and was remodeled by the players of the heike biwa (Japanese lute) into the shamisen that we know today. The popularity of the shamisen increased during the Edo period from the 17th century to the 19th century. It was used to accompany stories told by blind storytellers and traditional folk songs played with shakuhachi and koto at the daimyo's salons.

4. What types of shamisen music styles are there?
There are many types of shamisen music, including jiuta, nagauta, gidaiyu-bushi (gidaiyu melody), and many more. They are played in different situation and have different timbres. Jiuta is performed with shakuhachi and koto and a middle neck type of shamisen is used. Nagauta is mostly heard in kabuki theatre and a thin neck type of shamisen is used. Kabuki also uses tokiwazu-bushi and kiyomoto-bushi styles as well but use the middle neck type shamisen. In Japanese puppet theatre (bunraku) gidaiyu-bushi is played using the thick neck type shamisen. It is also played in Kabuki but under then name "takemoto". Tsugaru-shamisen is another type of playing style that was developed in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture at the end of the 19th century. It is a very popular style among the young people as it incorporates improvisation, march, and dynamic rhythm. There are many more such as shinnai-bushi, icchu-bushi, kato-bushi, miyazono-bushi, ogie-bushi, kouta, hauta, utazawa, zokkyoku, folk song (minyou), rokyoku, etc.

5. Where can one hear shamisen music today?
You can hear shamisen music in kabuki, bunraku, variety halls, concert halls, and geisha quarters. Shamisen is taught in music and education departments in universities in Japan. You can listen to shamisen in concerts held by these departments.

So those are 5 things you need to know about the shamisen! For those interested in learning more, there are numerous teachers and retailers of shamisens across the United States. So please check them out!

If you are in the city, please check out upcoming shamisen concerts at Japan Society. More information can be found below.


Thanks for watching! Stay tuned for more things you need to know!

Music credit:
Yumiko Tanaka
ドキュメンタリー - Documentary
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