How This Beautiful Japanese Instrument is Making a Comeback

Toshimana, a Kyoto Geiko, plays the shamisen
Toshimana, a Kyoto Geiko, plays the shamisen | © kyoto flowertourism / Flickr
The shamisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument, produces a unique sound that is one of the most versatile and beautiful in the world. Though it has been used to entertain the public in geisha performances and bunraka theatre for centuries, the popularity of the shamisen shows no sign of waning.

First introduced to Japan from China in the form of the sanxian in the 16th century, the shamisen originally became popular in the Osaka area as an accompaniment for bunraku and kabuki performances. The development of bunraku puppet theatre and the proliferation of the shamisen go hand-in-hand. Still performed today at Osaka’s National Bunraku Theatre, bunraku is Japan’s very sophisticated take on the good old puppet show, in which lavishly dressed wooden puppets (ningyō) are used to tell tales (often love stories) from popular literature. Chapters from Murasaki Shikibu’s masterpiece, The Tale of Genji, are very common choices.

A photograph of a Tokyo geisha playing the shamisen, from around 1870 © Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

Bunraku was founded in the early Edo period (17th century) by popular playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon and talented musician Takemoto Gidayū, who used chanting and shamisen music to narrate the puppets’ performances. The distinct sound of the shamisen’s strings lends itself very well to storytelling and when several are played in unison, the sound can really convey a variety of emotions and atmospheres, from sultry romance to dramatic cliff-hangers. Gidayū was not only skilled in manipulating the shamisen’s rather unwieldy sound to suit any story Monzaemon’s puppets were performing, but was also famous for his superb chanting, which acted as narration and dialogue. A similar musical accompaniment was also used in kabuki performances, in which stories were told through dance and song, and so a wide variety of audiences were exposed to the shamisen during the Edo period.

Until the 19th century, mastery of the shamisen was largely limited to male players. However during the late Edo and early Meiji periods (1868-1912), it became very popular among geishas and maiko. To this day, playing the shamisen is considered one of the fundamental skills that a young geisha must perfect. Just as the ‘young ladies’ of Victorian England were often encouraged to learn the piano as a sign of refinement, mastery of the notoriously difficult shamisen is considered vital for any accomplished geisha. Japanese schools of performing arts (okeiko) continue to train young women and men in the skills of shamisen and chanting today, and if you visit a bunraku or kabuki theatre now you are probably more likely to see female musicians than male ones.

Two geishas practise the shamisen in traditional dress © Joi Ito / Flickr

Japan’s love of combining the traditional with the cutting edge means the music of the shamisen is still very much alive and kicking. Bunraku performances in both Osaka and Tokyo are still well attended and welcome foreigners, although the storylines can be hard to follow. Perhaps one of the most spectacular showcases of shamisen playing can be seen at Kyoto’s Kitano Odori, a vibrant annual celebration of the beginning of spring with song and dance. Performers wear fabulously decorated, colourful kimonos and dance in front of cherry blossom backdrops to the music of the shamisen. It is a must-see for anyone making a trip to Kyoto this season.

Perhaps surprisingly, the shamisen’s role in modern society is not limited to bunraku and kabuki; its unique sound has also found a place in pop music. Based on its appearance, one might expect the shamisen to sound similar to the Western ukulele or banjo, but the reality is that it’s a much more difficult instrument to listen to for the inexperienced ear. With a body made from thick cat leather (cat skin is used even today) and highly strung, thick silk strings, the resonant twanging is quite unlike the sound of any Western instrument. In an age where popular music is becoming more and more experimental, with groups such as Alt-J and Superorganism finding success, the sound of the shamisen fits right in.

Tourists enjoy a shamisen experience in Kyoto © M Yoshifumi

The Yoshida Brothers, for example, is a Japanese duo who uses the traditional shamisen skills the musicians were taught as children to bring the instrument into the 21st century. The band’s 1999 debut album, Ibuki, sold more than 100,000 copies upon its initial release, which was unprecedented for a shamisen album. Since then, the brothers’ upbeat, catchy rhythms and onstage charisma have made them a hit worldwide; they have not only toured Japan but also given international performances and released seven additional albums. Their recent incorporation of synthesisers and drums into their tracks has also done wonders for the ‘street cred’ of the shamisen, dispelling the preconception that it is just an upper class pastime of geisha girls and kabuki masters. The Yoshida Brothers have even begun holding shamisen workshops and releasing YouTube videos to get young people interested in this ancient instrument.

However, the Yoshida Brothers are not the only example of the shamisen’s flourishing popularity in modern Japan. Shamisen music can be heard in the background of recent Nintendo games and television commercials. The instrument even played a leading role in the soundtrack of the 2016 animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Charlize Theron. It is safe to say that Japan is adamant about not letting the tradition of the shamisen fade away.

The shamisen is at the forefront of Japanese culture’s fusion of old and new. Since the Meiji restoration of 1868, Japan has been searching for the perfect mixture of tradition and innovation, and music is undoubtedly one of the country’s success stories. Whether you are transported back to the Edo period by the emotive storytelling of bunraku puppet theatre or enthralled by the funky finger work of the Yoshida Brothers, there are still plenty of ways for everyone to get involved with the shamisen.