The Shamisen: A short introduction

Yoko Shioya, the artistic director at the Japan Society of NYC says that: “Shamisen is Japan.”

A little bit about the background and history of the Shamisen…

The shamisen is a remodeled version of the snake-skin covered sanshin or jabisen which came to Japan from the Ryukyu islands in the Muromachi period. In ancient Egypt there was a three-string skin-covered instrument called the “nefer” or “nofer.” This developed into the three-string setaru in Persia (present day Iran). In the language of Iran, “se” means “three” and “taru” means “strings,” making the meaning the same as the word “sanshin.” In Yuan dynasty China, a snake-skin covered three-string instrument was developed and around 1390, this instrument was introduced into the Ryukyu kingdom from China. This was during the Ming dynasty and it is said that the instrument was brought to the Ryukyus by people from the Konan province in China.


Some one hundred years later, a great genius in the Ryukyus named Akainko improved the instrument and composed many pieces, establishing the foundation of Ryukyu sanshin music. Around 1562, the instrument was introduced into Japan by trade ships. At that time, the instrument entered into two geographical areas, in Kansai, in the cities of Sakai and Osaka and in the port of Hakata in Kyushu. In Kyushu, the instrument was played by blind priests.

Since snakeskin is hard to get in Japan, in Sakai the instrument was covered with either dog or cat skin. After some thirty years of experiments and improvements, by the beginning of the Azuchi period, the basic shape of the modern shamisen was established.

The oldest shamisen in existence today is called Yodo and was made by an artisan in Kyoto on the orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Although in the early days of kabuki the music ensemble was virtually identical to the Noh ensemble with no shamisen, soon the shamisen became an indispensable part of kabuki and of almost all music in the Edo period. There are several different types of shamisen, with different types of plectrums and bridges to create a wide range of sounds in a very wide range of different styles of music.


*Even though these Shamisen Sessions series ended in December 2014, we still can enjoy this beautiful music online and you can also go to this website (here) to check out future performances.


Relaxing Shamisen music (approximate one hour each.) Enjoy!

*Images 1, 2, 3

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