Traditional Crafts of TokyoTraditional Crafts of Tokyo 東京の伝統工芸品

Tokyo Shamisen

(Three-Stringed Musical Instrument)

Tokyo Shamisen Photo

The tone is created by the ensemble made of a player and a craftsman.
Shamisen (three-stringed musical instrument) is a Japanese traditional musical instrument having over 400 years of history, and classified mainly into three types according to its applications and sizes. These include Hosozao (slim neck) type, typically used for Nagauta (literally a long song), possibly an original type, Chuzao (medium neck) type, typically used for Minyo (folk song) and Jiuta (country songs of Kyoto and Osaka regions) played with Koto (thirteen-stringed musical instrument), and Futozao (thick neck) type,used for Tsugaru-jamisen (Tsugaru-shamisen) and Gidayu (a dramatic or narrative vocal style) traditions: the neck is important for tone in anyways. While Shamisen neck is manufactured as division of labor in the Kansai region, only one craftsman is engaged from the neck manufacturing up to finishing for Tokyo Shamisen. This is in order to face each player and to manufacture the best-suiting Shamisen for every player. The highest-grade material for the neck is red sandalwood from India, and its hard wooden quality creates a good sound. However, considerable skills are necessary to create an ideal sound on the hard neck. A craftsman selects appropriate materials after understanding the player’s ability and manufactures a specific piece of Shamisen that needs repair but can be used for a lifetime, considering the best way for the player to obtain an ideal sound. Their tailor-made finishing is highly trusted from players, and they are now active in making beginner’s Shamisen at a reasonable price by repairing and reproducing old ones.
Main Areas of Manufacture Chuo Ward, Taito Ward, Toshima Ward
Designation/ Certification Date August 9th, 1990 (Tokyo Certification)
Traditionally Used Raw Materials Redwood, red sandalwood, oak, rosewood (karin), mulberry, skin (cat, dog), raw silk.

Traditional Technologies and Techniques

  1. A Tokyo Shamisen is comprised of three major components. These are joined together by tenon and mortise joints.
  2. Ayasugibori (the carving of wavy resonance patterns) occurs after the instrument's stop has been cut. The backside of the wood used to make the body of the instrument is chiseled away. A namazori (spear-shaped chisel) is then used to further shave down the back side of these pieces. Using yet another chisel carefully creates the distinctive ayasugi patterns. During this process, extreme care is taken in order to prevent even a single error occurring.
  3. After the four pieces that will make the body of the instrument have undergone ayasugibori, they are joined together using nikawa glue. Being created from hardwood and fashioned in ellipse shapes, these pieces are affixed together using only glue with no metal fittings. Thus, the glued contact surfaces of the pieces must be precise.
  4. The skin stretched to cover the instrument's sound hole is especially prepared. To moisten the skin, it is wrapped in a damp cloth that has been thoroughly wrung out in advance to remove excess water. Special clips called kisen are then used to mount the skin on a stretching device called a haridai. Chords are then slowly tightened to stretch the skin over the sound hole.

History and Characteristics

The ancestor of the Japanese shamisen is the Chinese three-stringed shamisen. The three-stringed shamisen was created in China, it coming to be known as the snake-skin shamisen when passing to the Kingdom of the Ryukyus (modern Okinawa Prefecture) at the end of the 14th century as snake skin was subsequently used in its manufacture.

It is believed that the first shamisen examples appearing in mainland Japan were landed at the Port of Sakaino after being traded from the Ryukyus. This event occurred during the Eiroku Era (1558-1570) as the Muromachi Period (1337-1573) drew to a close.

At around that time, when players of the biwa (the Japanese lute) played snake-skin shamisen in accompaniment to kouta (ballads) and dances, they encountered the problem of snake skins tearing. After trying a number of different skins as possible replacements for snake skin, these musicians decided to use cat skin.

Thus came about the development of a unique Japanese shamisen that was strummed using the pick of the biwa.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) at around the time of the Kanei Era (1624-1643), master shamisen craftsmen such as Kanda Harumitsu and Ishimura Omi began to appear on the scene. The appearance of such craftsmen contributed to the development of musical styles such as nagauta (epic Kabuki songs), gidayu (puppet theater recitations), icchubushi (dramatic recitations accompanied by shamisen), tokiwatsu (a kabuki narrative), kiyomotobushi and shinnaibushi (narrative pieces). These styles represent the basis of the modern shamisen musical repertoire. The manufacturing of shamisen also flourished at this time.

When a shamisen string is plucked, it leaves behind a distinctive sound (resonance) called a sawari. The musical effect of the sawari has linkages to the ethnic identity of the Japanese.

In that Japanese people tend to prefer intermediate colors rather than primary ones, it also seems that they prefer complex sounds that contain overtones rather than simple ones. Traditional materials used in the neck of shamisen include (Indian) redwood, oak, rosewood and mulberry, while cat and dog skin is also used to cover the sound hole of the instrument.

Contact Details

Manufacturing Area Cooperative Name Tokyo Japanese Musical Instruments Association
Address Mukouyama Gakki Store, 4-1-17 Hirai, Edogawa Ward, Tokyo 132-0035
TEL 03-5836-5663