Craftsmanship of the Shamisen
Known as the shamisen, a Japanese guitar with a history of approximately 500 years, it is constructed with Japanese artisanal craftsmanship.
We will introduce each part of the conventional shamisen and discover how it is created.
- Tenjin (Head)
Tenjin is the guitar head and it is called so as this is the dwelling place of the gods. (Ten meaning the heavens and Jin meaning gods.) The shape is unique in that it is warped like the tail of a shrimp.
It is the most beautiful part of the shamisen design and is the pride of the shamisen craftsmen.
The contours are a mixture of straight lines and curves which express the strength and the tension that firmly holds the string.
- Sao (Neck)
The neck is called the Sao and constructed so that it can be split into 3 or 4 pieces. The craftsman pays very close attention to how the hozo(protruding joint– male section) and the hozo holes (joint holes – female section) delicately and seamlessly connect.
Why is it constructed in several sections?
First, if the neck can be split, it becomes compact and more convenient when carrying around.
Second is to prevent the Sao from becoming unstable.
- Dou (Body)
The body that resonates the sound of the shamisen is called the dou.
The four carved panels are glued with nikawa, an adhesive made from animal collagen.
nikawa is sensitive to moisture and some may say this is inconvenient, but it allows for easy disassembly for repairs.
- Kawa (Skin)
The kawa, or the skin, is made from animals such as dogs or cats. The animal’s skin is pulled taut on the dou. This practice would now be open for international criticism, but at that time these skins were highly available.
Using a special instrument to taut the skin, it is glued to the dou.
The more the skin is pulled taut the better the sound, but there is a risk of breakage.
As a craftsman, it is important to be able to pull the skin to its limit.
The adhesive used is a paste called kanbaiko made from glutinous rice.
Both the kanbaiko and the nikawa are sensitive to moisture but have the advantage of being able to easily be re-skinned and for generalmaintenance.
- Gen (Strings)
The predecessor of the shamisen is the three-stringed sanxian from China.
Having three strings is the origin of the name of the shamisen.
On the shamisen, yellow strings are commonly used.
Since ancient times the strings were made of silk thread, but the raw materials of the silk thread are white, so one may ask why are the strings on the shamisen yellow?
Yellow silkworm cocoons have existed since ancient times and it is from the yellow silkworm that the white silkworm that we know today was created.
Keeping with tradition, the white silk thread is dyed yellow with turmeric.
The stringing process is the final stage of the shamisen production. New strings take a long time to be broken in and to prevent the sound from becoming unstable, the craftsman will stretch the strings as they are being placed into position.
The production is complete when the shamisen is finely tuned, and its tone confirmed.
One can appreciate the high level of skill of the craftsman in creating the conventional shamisen.
The SHAMIKO, inheriting the DNA of the shamisen, has further evolved with improvements to make it easier for the modern person to become familiar with it.