The History of the Shamisen

The history of the Shamisen


From Ancient China to the Ryukyu Kingdom (Present-day Okinawa)

The shamisen is known as a traditional Japanese instrument, but if we trace the roots it goes back to ancient China.

A stringed instrument known as the xintao existed in the Qin dynasty in the BC era.  In the Ming dynasty, the 13-14th century, this instrument came to be known as the sanxian.

As the name sanxian implies, “san” meaning three, there were three strings on this instrument decorated with snakeskin on the body. It was mainly used as an accompaniment of songs and rarely would have been played alone.

At the end of the 14th century, the three-stringed sanxian entered the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa) and evolved into what isknown as the “sanshin”. The sanshin has been popular with the Okinawans from the 15th century all the way up to today.


The Birth of the Shamisen

The sanshin made its way into Japan from the Ryukyu Kingdom around the 16th century. Once in Japan, the sanshin evolved even further.  In about half a century, the shamisen as we know it today was born.

 Compared with the koto, a traditional instrument with a history of 1,300 years, the shamisen is only about 500 years old. Therefore, it is a relatively new instrument among traditional Japanese instruments.

 Unlike the sanxian and the sanshin, the shamisen used cat and dog skin, as it was the easiest to obtain in Japan at that time. The oldest shamisen in existence is a shamisen called “Yodo” made around 1596. Since this time, the shape has not changed much to the shamisen as we know it today. The final evolution to the shamisen happened around the 17th century during the Edo period. 


The Trend of The Shamisen and The Culture of That Time

During the Edo period, the shamisen rose in popularity. At first, it became popular with the city-dwelling, upper class, and eventually spreading to commoners and even rural areas, where they developed their own style.

 At the time, it was said that if one could play the shamisen, they would become popular with the opposite sex, so it was a favored skill to learn. Especially women who excelled in the art of the shamisen would marry into the house of the upper class.

 It is thought that the blind contributed greatly to the development of the cultural formation and trend of the shamisen.

 The real founder of the shamisen is said to be Ishimura Kengyo (-1642) and the term “Kengyo” is the title given to the highest-ranking blind officer.

From the Kamakura period, blind people made a living by playing musical instruments.

The shamisen was often played by the blind to make a living, so the ability to play shamisen well became very important, especially to be successful as a blind officer.

 From the saying “Kaze ga fukeba okeya ga moukaru” – The barrel tradesmen will be profitable when the wind blows (Note. 1), one can get a sense of the deep relationship of the blind and shamisen at that time.


The Decline of Shamisen

In the latter half of the Edo era, the foreigners introduce the shamisen as the most popular instrument in Japan and it reached its heyday in the Meiji era around the 19th century.

However, the shamisen gradually disappeared over time.

Still, up until around the 1970s, approximately 18,000 units were produced annually, but in 2017 only 3,400 units were produced. The main factors of the downward trend are due to western music and musical instruments, such as guitars, and the difficulty of procuring raw materials without a high cost.


The Birth of the SHAMIKO

“It is a great shame that the shamisen, a precious tradition of the Japanese culture to be disappearing as it is. There are many reasons why many people are distancing themselves from the shamisen. The size, cost, use of cats and dog skin. What do we need to do?”

 We have pondered on this question and through trial and error, have devised the “SHAMIKO”.

It is more compact than the shamisen and much cheaper. Above all, the big difference is that it uses special paper instead of animal skin.

We aim to re-expand the shamisen culture in these modern times with the SHAMIKO.

We hope that not only the Japanese but people from all over the world will one day pick up the SHAMIKO and make their music.


Note 1

“Kaze ga fukeba okeya ga moukaru” – The barrel tradesmen will be profitable when the wind blows

 When the wind blows, dust gets in the eyes → If the dust gets in the eyes the number of blind increase → The demand for cat skin increase, since the blind live on the shamisen → If the cat population decrease, mouse population increase → If the mouse population increase, they will chew on the barrel → The owner of the chewed barrel will buy a new one.

A proverb that there is an unexpected surprise from something that seems to have nothing to with it at first glance.

2月 27, 2020