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Tsugaru Shamisen

What's Tsugaru Shamisen? (1)


A tsugaru shamisen

The shamisen is an instrument that's been around for a long time in Japan. It's about 1 meter (3 feet) long and has three strings that are played using a large pick called a bachi. The tsugaru shamisen is a kind of shamisen whose unique style of play gives performers room to improvise. A lot of people say it's similar to jazz in that way. "Tsugaru shamisen is the jazz of Japan," claims Chisato Yamada, one of the top artists in the genre. Mr. Yamada, in fact, has often performed with jazz bands both in Japan and other countries.

The shamisen first came to Japan from China by way of Okinawa (which was then called the Ryukyu Kingdom). People in Japan began developing their own way of playing it, such as the use of the bachi. In the Edo period (1603-1868), it was used as background music for kabuki theater. Its popularity soared as a result, and it evolved into one of the most important instruments in Japan's classical music.


Chisato Yamada plays on the Yamauta stage.

The shamisen is basically made up of the body and neck. There are three main types, differentiated by the thickness of the neck. The thickest, or futozao, produces a booming, powerful sound, while the thinnest, hosozao, has a very gentle and delicate sound. The type used for tsugaru shamisen is even bigger than the futozao, and the strings are a little fatter as well. The bachi is used not just to pluck the strings; it is sometimes used to strike them with force. The sound, therefore, is very loud - almost too loud if you're listening up close.


Yusaku Shibutani practises the tsugaru shamisen.

The tsugaru shamisen, as the name suggests, developed in the Tsugaru district - the western half of Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Honshu, Japan's main island. Tsugaru is usually covered in snow from the end of November to early April, and is one of the snowiest regions in the country.