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The kunkunshi notation for the folk song "Asadoya Yunta."
  • Japanese: 工工四 (kunkunshii)

Kunkunshi is the style of musical notation used for playing the Okinawan three-stringed sanshin, and elsewhere in Okinawan music.


Kunkunshi is believed to have been first developed by Terukina Mongaku (1682-1753), or by his student Yakabi Chôki (1716-1775). However, it only became standardized and used widely beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, or in the early 20th century. The oldest extant examples of the notation system are a compilation of tablature and lyrics to 117 pieces, attributed to Yakabi Chôki; the notation system takes its name from the first three notes (kun-kun-shii)[1] in this compilation.[2]

Though the notation system bears similarities to numerous notation systems used in China and Japan, including the separate and distinct notation systems used for shamisen and koto, kunkunshi is believed to be most closely based on the Chinese system of gongchipu, with one major difference. Whereas gongchipu notation indicates actual pitches, and is thus applicable to any instrument, kunkunshi is a tablature system applicable only to the sanshin.


The notation consists of columns of boxes, read from top to bottom, and right to left, just as in traditional Japanese texts. Kanji are used to denote each specific note. For example, when playing the open strings, without any fingering on the neck, the notes (from lowest to highest) are called ai, shi, kô (合・四・工). As fingering is added, the notes played on the bottom string, known as the miijiru (女絃), which plays the highest notes, include go, roku, shichi, and hachi (五・六・七・八); the middle string, or nakajiru (中絃), plays jô, chû, shaku (上・中・尺); and the top string, the wuujiru (男絃), which plays the lowest notes on the instrument, includes notes designated by the kanji otsu and (乙・老).

Most notes are of the same length as one another, one note per box. The sanshin is a monophonic instrument, meaning it does not make extensive use of chords, but rather is nearly exclusively played one note at a time, each note played one after another at a constant tempo (albeit sometime with half-notes in-between, called kubanchi); that tempo is indicated near the title of the song, the units of measurement based on the heart-rate of the author of the notation or compilation.

Pieces typically begin with a brief instrumental section of roughly three to 12 notes known as the uta-mochi (O: uta-muchi), which can be repeated multiple times to serve as a sort of introductory section preceding the vocal section of the piece. When uta-sanshin is played alone, the uta-mochi is most typically repeated twice; however, when the sanshin accompanies traditional Okinawan dance, the uta-mochi may be repeated as many times as is necessary to cover the dancers' entrance onto the stage. Dances typically begin in conjunction with the sanshin player leaving the uta-mochi and entering into the core, sung, section of the piece.

Often, additional notes will be played quickly and softly between two "standard" notes; these are called kubanchi and are denoted with a kanji written smaller, and on the line between boxes (an example can be seen in a 四 note near the end of the second column in the above example). Notes are typically always played in a downstroke manner; where upstrokes, called kaki utu, occur, they are denoted by a 90-degree angle drawn to the top right of the kanji (as seen on a 上 note in the left-most column in the above example). Another common technique, which is a key component of the sanshin's distinctive sound, is the hammer-on, called uchi utu in Okinawan; the left hand strikes the appropriate point for the fingering of that note, but the right hand does not play it. This is denoted by an apostrophe-like mark to the upper-right of the note to be struck. Slides (uchi urushi) and notes played together (chiri bichi) are uncommon, but when they occur, are denoted by a straight vertical line connecting the two notes, either to the left for slides, or on the right for chiri bichi.

The Nomura-ryû school of classical uta-sanshin (song and sanshin) uses a system of notation for vocal pitches as well, but outside of Nomura-ryû, vocal notation is not particularly common.


  • Nomura-ryû Ongaku Kyôkai Kunkunshi Notation Guide.
  1. Kun and shii being the notes commonly referred to as and shi today, adhering more closely to Japanese readings of the kanji.
  2. Thompson, Robin. "The Music of Ryukyu." Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. p314.