AXIS@vol.89@2001 January February

Traditional Craft Forms

Tugaru Jamisen

There seems to be a large generation gap when it comes to how much knowledge people have about the shamisen (the three-stringed traditional Japanese instrument and the sentiments towards it. 
For example, today's primary school students look at the shamisen as if they were looking at an African instrument.
The shamisen is a simple instrument played by hitting the strings with a plectrum. 
If you pay close attention, however, you will notice that astonishingly ingenious and Precise functions and skills are behind the shamisen. 

Photo/Yutaka Suzuki

While most shamisen necks can be split into three pieces, there also exist those that can be split into five or even six pieces. Despite the microscopic precision in such parts as the neck joints and sawari, some primitive parts are left in the completed form. Fuzzy areas, since the music sometimes requires the player to adjust tension of the strings while performing, are created intentionally.

Shinichi Kinoshita, the leading Tsugaru Jamisen player among the younger generation. says, "Most people know the guitar has six strings, but only a few know how many strings there are on the Shamisen." 
   The shamisen has three strings, mainly made of silk. Hide from a cat or dog is stretched over the body. Hard and dense Indian redsander wood is used for the neck and body. The neck, approximately 1m in length, can be disjointed into three parts. This is not limited only to professional class shamisehs; all shamisens have this same structure. It was probably born of the request from the players to make it easier to carry and consideration by the makers to minimize deformation of the neck by making each piece short. 
   Players and makers of the tsugaru jamisen are spread out throughout Japan. Owing to the increasing popularity of young players such as Kinoshita, people in the field anticipate that a tsugaru jamisen boom is about to arrive In fact, the total shamisen production at the shamisen maker Kumagayakikuoka CD. (Kumagaya City, Saitama Prefecture)has increased by 100% compared with the previous year.The tsugaru jamisen used to occupy only about 10%, of total@shamisen production, a figure that has increased to 50%, today. 
   So why is the tsugaru jamisen attracting so much attention now? One reason is that learning one of the Japanese traditional instruments will become compulsory in middle schools from 2002 This is a remote cause as it has resulted in raising people's interest in the entire field of Japanese traditional music. The real reason, however, is perhaps the fact variations in playing styles and pieces (tunes) for the tsugaru jamisen have increased One of the shamisens Kinoshita uses is an electric one made by Shamisen Katoh in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo The typical stage microphone picks up mostly the sound of the plectrum hitting the strings to the detriment of the more important musical notes and tones. The birth of a shamisen with a built-in pickup has given rise to diversity in playing styles as it enables musicians to perform with large drums and rock bands, or at outdoor concerts. 
   Kinji Katoh of Shamisen Katoh spent two years developing this electric shamisen. Most of that time was spent in "trial and error," in which they dealt with such problems as failure of the pickup to catch up with the fast plectrum movement typical of tsugaru jamisen music, the failure to pick up a certain note, or the sound being slightly different from the live sound when listened to at a later date. He said such problems were very subtle since the sound changes depending on the positioning of the pickup and tightness of the h de Katoh showed his confidence: "I am somewhat proud because the electric shamisen has made many things possible " 
   Nevertheless, whether it's an electric shamisen or the conventional acoustic model, the determining factor regarding the tsugaru jamisen's unique sound is how the hide is stretched over the body. Shinichi Kinoshita even says, "Stretching shows the individual character of the stretcher so much that I can tell who stretched it by just listening to the sound " 
   Kinji Katoh has been stretching hide over shamisens for 38 years and says "You can tell a good sounding hide by just looking at it. It's just intuition, there are no other words to explain it." Moreover, the stretcher has to consider what kind of person will play it, his age and level, because a tightly stretched shamisen will not generate much sound when played by a beginner. It is natural that every sheet is different in thickness and softness as it is animal hide, but the thickness varies subtly depending on the part of the body as well. According to Katoh, "Flat ones and those with constant thickness are no good A good sound is generated because there is fluctuation in strength within the same sheet " After a while, the stretched hide becomes soft and acts as a spring to resonate sound, but at the beginning it is stretched so tightly that sometimes it ruptures. Moistened hide is grasped by a pair of wooden tongs called "'kisen" and attached to the body How this kisen grasps the hide determines the result of stretching. 
   Shinichi Kinoshita's style of tsugaru jamisen is characterized by its dynamic and powerful body-resonating sound and fast picking motions. "I hit the strings hard to make a powerful sound and I try to broaden the range between loud and quiet sounds. The most important thing is to press the right spot (tsubo) so that the body always resonates." 
   Tsubo is the position on the string you press down The shamisen does not have frets like the guitar. However, if you miss the tsubo even slightly, you will not get the unique and complex lingering resonation (sawari) of the shamisen. The sawari can not be produced unless the tsubo is pressed accurately and the hide is stretched properly. Moreover, the tsugaru jamisen has a protrusion also called "sawari" on the upper neck below the pegs to tighten strings, The extent of this protrusion can be adjusted and it is used to resonate, or give sawari to, the top string. 
   It was previously mentioned that the fretless neck can be disjointed into three pieces, but even if you feel it with your fingers you can't tell where the joints are. The cross section of the joint is not perpendicular and it is structured so that a tenon and mortise are clasped tightly inside. The tolerances of the joints are so close that a regular person will not be able to take them apart.           According to Keiji Hoshino, who is in charge of making the neck at Kumagayakikuoka, "Since wood starts to distort as time goes by, 1/1,000mm precision is not necessary. But 5/100mm difference can be detected by human tactile sense. So the deviation at the joint is approximately 2 to 3/100." 
   Making the body and neck comprises handcrafting and machine tool work that is virtually the same as doing skilled work by hand. Hoshino's small shop is full of such machine tools, all of which were made by Hoshino himself. "You can't make a shamisen with the precision level of regular woodworking machines. So we get steel working machines, carve out blades from a clump of steel one by one and have set up a system to mass-produce them in the capacity of a manufacturer. If we keep our technology to ourselves. the shamisen will die out. We also have to change the way we make it because ways of thinking change every 5 to 10 years." Katoh also said something similar: "Our shop did not branch off from an old-established shop, so we can do things more freely. Even before I entered this business people were saying they had no work and hoped the economy would get better. But if you look for it yourself, there's plenty of work " That is why he caters mainly to the up-and-coming generation and young musicians rather than the masters, As an artisan he said with a laugh:"Until recently I didn't like hearing master craftsmen say they spend their entire lives training and practicing and that there is no end to it But I have begun to understand that feeling " Kinoshita says that he "never considered tsugaru jamisen as traditional performing arts." The tsugaru jamisen with its individual styles and ad-lib music quality is changing steadily and surely with the times. This transformation is engineered by the craftsmen and players who study the past and look to the future. A

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