Shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma performs a concert. (Toshiba EMI)

Traditional Stringed Instrument Enjoys Resurgence
March 25, 2002

It comes from the northern part of the country, has a dark sound, and is usually used by a performer in kimono to accompany folk songs and enka (a traditional type of Japanese popular music). Until recently this was the image that most people had of the tsugaru shamisen, but lately this image has undergone a rapid transformation in most people's minds. The ranks of tsugaru shamisen players now range from veterans that have been working to promote the instrument for decades to popular young stars. Classes that teach how to play the instrument have also become popular.

The tsugaru shamisen is atypical of traditional Japanese music in a number of ways: Its performances are rich in improvisation, it is played at a quick tempo, and its sound and rhythm are forceful enough that it resembles a percussion instrument. These characteristics have led many to reevaluate its appropriateness as a modern instrument. While other types of shamisen were used as accompaniments in chamber music, performers of the tsugaru shamisen would go door to door in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and play their music in the hopes of receiving money. Because they wanted to attract attention, a unique and lively style of music evolved.

Rising Popularity of Concerts and CDs
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Trends in Japan Home
For the past two or three years, tsugaru shamisen concerts have been held all over Japan, and the number of people attending has skyrocketed. Awareness of this music among the general public is growing. Record companies have also begun making an effort to sell albums by performers who use Japanese instruments. In September 2001 Toshiba EMI released the debut album of Hiromitsu Agatsuma (site is Japanese only), titled Agatsuma, and it has already sold about 30,000 copies. Agatsuma is attracting quite a lot of notice and has even appeared in TV commercials. Avex, a record company that handles such top-selling acts as Ayumi Hamasaki, set up a new unit called Avex Io last fall that aims to take traditional Japanese music to a new level. Tsugaru shamisen player Shinichi Kinoshita (site is Japanese only) released two albums on this label in November 2001, titled "Den: King of Tsugaru" and "Kai: Tsugaru Fusion," and has already sold 10,000 copies. Meanwhile, the Yoshida Brothers, a young duo, are as popular as ever and have even appeared in TV commercials for the well-known Uniqlo brand of clothing.

In addition to the classes offered at places like community centers, Kyushu Joshi High School in Fukuoka has become the first school in Japan to form a tsugaru shamisen appreciation circle. The base for this music appears likely to continue to grow. Even though the tsugaru shamisen is a Japanese instrument, its tone is rather exotic to most of today's youth and has the same sort of freshness as music from overseas.

Gateway to Success
Every May in Aomori Prefecture, the birthplace of the tsugaru shamisen, a national competition is held. This event has opened doors for most of the performers active today and is seen as a tremendous opportunity for young people. The competition was begun in 1985 by tsugaru shamisen great Chisato Yamada with his own money. Yamada has spent years teaching his craft to young people, and in addition to continuing to teach and perform, he manages the folk-music club Yamauta in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture. Yamada has been working to transmit not only the music but also the dialect and culture of the Tsugaru area. He was chosen as the "prime minister" of the "Tsugaru nation," an organization formed in 1993 that consists of some 200 people that love Tsugaru culture.

Copyright (c) 2002 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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