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Learning to play the Shamisen in Japan

Back in 2016, I was an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) on the JET Program working at three different schools in Kesennuma. One fateful day at Jonan Junior High, I was helping the other teachers move some stuff into the gym to setup for the school’s culture festival. At one point, Abe-sensei (the school’s Japanese teacher) and I were tasked with moving koto (a 13-string instrument which is considered the national instrument of Japan). After we had finished lugging the instruments around, he turned and asked me: “What do you think about traditional Japanese music?”

The question caught me off-guard. I hadn’t ever really given Japanese music any consideration beyond what I had seen on TV or heard on the radio. I thought for a bit, and remembered the first time I heard what I then considered “traditional” Japanese music. It was a song called “Kodo,” by the Yoshida Brothers, used in this commercial for the Nintendo Wii, way back in 2006.

The Yoshida Brothers jammin’ out

So I told Abe-sensei that I thought the Yoshida Brothers’ music was pretty cool, and he told I should try and take up the opportunity to learn the shamisen. I said, “Maybe I will,” and didn’t think much of it after that.

When I went to Jonan again the next week, Abe-sensei told me that he had informed his shamisen teacher that I would be coming along for the next lesson. (When you’re living abroad, there are some decisions you make, and others that are made for you… haha) Well, I figured if he was so enthusiastic about getting me to give it a try, it would be a shame to turn down the chance! And the rest is history! It’s been 2 years since then, and this month was my first time performing on stage with our group, “Fujimoto.”

The Fujimoto crew

Starting out with the shamisen immediately comes with a number of challenges you wouldn’t face when attempting to play a Western string instrument. Firstly, the traditional-style shamisen (not tsugaru-jamisen) is played sitting in seiza.  While sitting on your knees, the instrument is balanced on the outside of your thigh and angled slightly inward.

Sitting in seiza for long periods of time can be pretty painful, and your legs are pretty much guaranteed to fall asleep.

The second challenge is figuring out where each note is. Unlike a guitar, the shamisen has no frets, so the musician has no choice but to approximate the notes by distance. The distance between the notes also gets smaller as you go down the neck. 

The stings are made of silk not nylon, so how they sound on any given day can be dependent on anything from the humidity to how much time you’ve spent stretching them out at the beginning of your session. And they’re delicate, so they always manage to break at the worst possible times…

Challenges aside, once you start to get the hang of playing, it’s a lot of fun. There’s really no other instrument which sounds quite like the shamisen. 

There’s something about that echoing twang that makes you feel like you’ve traveled 300 years back in time to Edo Japan. Each strum of the bachi connects you to that historic legacy. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Nishant Annuさん(@nishantannu)がシェアした投稿

We won’t be playing at a kabuki theater anytime soon, but the crazy amount of practice we put in before the City Culture Festival every year always seems worth it when we’ve finished. (Note: the video below is from last year’s performance, so I’m not in it!)

If you ever have the chance to give the shamisen a try, I’d definitely recommend it!

 

3 Comments

  1. Mayuumi Dan Negishi Mayuumi Dan Negishi

    Nishant-san!
    How nice to see you playing the shamisen and describing it with much humor!
    I missed you in November when I was in Kesennnuma with other two researchers, but look forward to seeing you next time!
    Mayumi

    • Nishant Nishant

      Dear Mayumi-san,

      Thank you for your message! Please let me know the next time you’re in town! I’d love to see you 🙂

  2. Surinder Bisht Surinder Bisht

    Dear Nishant san…Good Evening..This is Surinder Bisht from Japan Airlines who has meet you on Travelwell seminar. I will be sending you Facebook request hence please accept it. Hope to see you soon. Warm Regards / Bisht

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