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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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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!