From SamuraiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
A sanshin with plastic imitation snakeskin, and chimi (pick/plectrum).
A sanshin chimi (pick/plectrum).
  • Other Names: 沖縄三味線 (Okinawa shamisen), 沖縄蛇味線 (Okinawa jamisen), 蛇皮線 (jabisen)[1]
  • Japanese: 三線 (sanshin)

The sanshin is the most prominent musical instrument in the musical traditions of the Ryukyu Islands. The three-stringed instrument is used in classical, folk, and popular music, and has gained popularity in recent decades in mainland Japan as well.

Construction and Manner of Playing

The neck, or sou 棹, of the instrument is normally made from a single solid piece of wood, lacquered black. The wood traditionally used is called kuruchi in Okinawan (黒木, lit. "black wood" or "black tree"), and kokutan 黒檀 in Japanese; the tree is a sort of ebony or persimmon.[2] Another type of wood, from the isunoki (Distylium racemosum) was also traditionally used.[3] While many sanshin continue to be made of this wood today, cheaper instruments made from other, lighter, woods are now widely available. The wood is typically selected from pieces laid out to dry for as much as three years. The rough shape of the instrument's neck is drawn on with a stencil, roughly carved out, and then more finely shaped with the use of rulers and gauges. Finally, lacquer is applied.

The strings are named wuujiru 男弦 (lit. "male string"), nakajiru 中弦 (lit. "middle string"), and miijiru 女弦 (lit. "female string"), with the "male" string playing the lower notes, and the "female" string being the one which plays the highest notes. They are wrapped around a set of tuning pegs (karakuri 範) within an open rectangular area at the top of the instrument known as the chirutamai 糸蔵 (J: itokura). These three large tuning pegs are used to tighten or loosen the strings in order to tune the instrument. Though some modern variations on the instrument, known as "peg sanshin," use pegs which can be screwed in along a groove, like guitar pegs, traditionally, the karakuri are simply carefully carved so as to fit tightly into the holes in the head of the instrument, a section known as the tin 天, or "heaven".[4] The tin bends gracefully backward at the top, and is wider than the rest of the neck. The strings, attached to the karakuri, run through a small board (called a "nut" in English) which guides them to run straight down the neck of the instrument. The tin then narrows as it meets the neck, creating a curved bulging section known as the miruku mimi 乳袋. The strings then run along the flat, front, side of the neck, an area known as tuui 野, while the back side of the neck is rounded, and is known as tii atai 野丸. The neck then curves again as it meets the body, creating a broad flat space on the front known as the sun'uri 野坂, and a thick, bulging part on the back known as utuchikara 鳩胸. This broad section of the neck, known as the utudamai, contains within it a thinner section, the "heart" or chiiga tamuchi 心, which pierces through the body of the instrument, and pokes out the bottom end (the "earth" or chii 地 of the instrument, in contrast to the "heaven" at the top). The strings are secured at their bottom ends to a set of threads known as the itokake 糸掛, which is in turn secured to this "monkey tail" (mijiati, 猿尾), the bottom end of the spike which pierces through the instrument.

The body of the instrument, the chiiga 胴, is a rounded square wooden box, made of four sections of wood, and pierced through by the sou, which extends a half-inch or so beyond the bottom of the instrument. A decorative cloth known as tiigaa 手掛 is wrapped around the body and secured with a number of tightly-knotted ropes. There are a number of different woods which are typically used for the body of the instrument, including chaagi (J: inumaki, Podocarpus macrophyllus), mulberry, camphor (kusunoki), and iju (Schima wallichii).[3]

Python skin is used for the skin of the body of the instrument, in contrast to the cat or dogskin used traditionally on Japanese shamisen. Though Okinawa is famous for the venomous habu snake, the habu is in fact too small for its skin to be used to make sanshin, and it is believed that the snakeskin for sanshin has always been imported from Southeast Asia. Though the pythons used to make sanshin skins today are not an endangered species, the difficulty of distinguishing one snakeskin from another makes transporting real-skin (J: hongawa 本皮) sanshin internationally somewhat risky. However, cheaper sanshin with plastic skins are quite common today as well. A small wooden or bamboo bridge, known as nma 駒, sits atop the skin.

The sanshin is a non-fretted instrument, and thus finger placements with the left hand (the hand not holding the plectrum/pick) must be fairly precise to get the correct sound. The vast majority of songs use the top section of the neck, and can be played without the hand moving down the neck. A particular finger of the hand is meant to be used for each note; generally, the hand remains at the top of the neck, with the index finger handling the nearest fingering points, the middle finger further ones, and the pinky finger reaching down to the furthest ones. However, some songs make use of finger positions far down the neck of the instrument, to achieve particularly high notes. An Okinawan system of musical notation called kunkunshi 工工四 is used when playing sanshin; it bears similarities to systems of notation used for traditional instruments in China and Japan, but bears no resemblance to standard Western staff notation.

The scale employed is fairly different from that of traditional Japanese music; in the standard tuning, called honchôshi 本調子, the three strings are most typically tuned to what Western notation would consider B-E-B or C-F-C, though variations exist. Two of the most common alternate tunings are niagi 二上, in which the middle string is raised up to a higher pitch, and sansagi 三下, in which the bottom, highest-pitched, string is lowered to a lower pitch.

The sanshin's strings are played with a small claw-like piece called a chimi[5], made of water buffalo horn, lacquered wood, ivory, or another material, which is fitted over the index finger and held in place with the thumb and other fingers. Rather than plucking or picking at the strings, as is done with certain other instruments, the sanshin chimi is simply passed through the strings, coming to rest on the next string as each string is played. The sanshin is a monophonic instrument, meaning it does not make extensive use of chords, but rather is played almost exclusively one note at a time.

In addition to noticeable differences in the size and shape of the instrument overall, its tuning, and the snakeskin, the shape of the chimi is one of the more noticeable differences between the Okinawan sanshin and the Japanese shamisen, which uses a larger, flatter plectrum, called a bachi, which is held in the hand and often used to strike the strings or the body of the instrument in a percussive manner. The sanshin's delicate snakeskin could not long survive such strikes, and they are not used in Okinawan music.

Types of Sanshin

While the sanshin overall has a distinctive look and sound differentiating it from the Chinese sanxian or the Japanese shamisen, and while all sanshin are recognizable as Ryukyuan sanshin, there are a number of types with slight variations in size and shape.

The feebaru 南風原 style is considered to be the oldest.[6]

The yuuna 与那 or yuuna gushiku 与那城 style of sanshin is one of the most common. Said to originate from the Yonagusuku area, it has a thick and very straight neck. The chirutamai (the rectangular area within which the strings are wrapped around the tuning pegs) is longer than in many other styles, and the bulge at the back of the neck where it meets the body (the utuchikara) is larger. The yuuna style is further subdivided into the Edo yuuna, ko yuuna gushiku, Sakugawa no yuuna, and kamoguchi yuuna styles.

The Kuba sundun 久場春殿 type, after a design by Kuba Sundun, has the thickest neck of any sanshin style, and a less curved head than most other styles. The neck grows gradually thicker along nearly its entire length, in contrast to many styles of sanshin which have a more noticeable point at which the neck begins to curve out. Kuba Sundun is also credited with inspiring the Kuba nu funi 久葉ぬ骨 style of sanshin, which has the narrowest neck of any sanshin type - a stark contrast to the Kuba sundun style. The slim neck is said to resemble a palm leaf, or kuba, giving it a name coincidentally homophonous with that of its designer.

Other styles include the Chinen and Makabi styles.[6]


The three-stringed instrument is derived from the Chinese sanxian, and served as the basis from which the Japanese shamisen developed, beginning in the late 16th century. Throughout the early modern period, access to high quality sanshin was limited exclusively to the aristocracy, though it is believed that commoners may have possessed equivalent instruments using tanned paper in place of the more expensive snakeskin. It was only after 1879, when the Ryûkyû Kingdom fell and was annexed by Japan, and the aristocracy abolished, that sanshin became more widely available.

The Chinese sanxian dates back to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and is most commonly seen in two forms. In northern China, sanxian tend to have longer necks. The Okinawan sanshin, however, developed out of the shorter-necked sanxian common in folk traditions in southern China,[7] especially Fujian province, the area which historically interacted much more directly with Ryûkyû. As such, it is believed the sanxian may have been first (or most significantly) introduced to Ryûkyû by the 36 Min families who traveled to Ryûkyû in 1392, and settled there, establishing the community of Kumemura, and setting the basis for the future Ryukyuan scholar-bureaucrat aristocracy. Initially, the sanxian was used exclusively in a Chinese-style court music tradition known in Ryûkyû as uzagaku. However, by the mid-16th century, a distinctly Okinawan version of the sanshin began to emerge, and to be employed in the recitation of classical poems or songs known as omoro. This adoption of the sanshin into native Ryukyuan traditions is often attributed to Aka Inko, or Ne-agari, but it is unclear whether this is the name of an individual, a group, or more broadly a category of person (such as an occupation or position).[8] This was only a few decades before, or perhaps right around the same time that, the sanshin was first introduced into Japan, and began to be developed into the Japanese shamisen.

As late as the early 17th century, some sources indicate that sanshin made in Okinawa were of inferior quality. One Chinese envoy, Xia Ziyang, who visited Ryûkyû in 1606, remarked as much, and had members of his entourage instruct local makers in better techniques. However, a now-famous sanshin maker by the name of Feebaru appeared later that same century, and by the end of the 17th century, the Okinawan sanshin took on its mature form, which continues to be the standard form today.[9] King Shô Eki established within the an office known as the sanshin-uchi, a post responsible for overseeing the production of high quality sanshin, in 1710; the sanshin-uchi worked within the workshops of the kaizuri bugyôsho (O: keezui bujô-ju), the government bureau which oversaw lacquerware and certain other craft production. It is believed that it was right around that time as well that the Okinawa sanshin settled into what remains its standard size today, at 2 shaku, 5 or 6 sun in length.[10] By the end of the 17th century, or within a few decades afterwards, the sanshin being produced in Okinawa are believed to have been of much higher quality, both aesthetically, and in terms of their sound.

Musical traditions adopted from Ming Dynasty China, including seated or "chamber" music (uzagaku) and processional music (rojigaku) were the dominant forms of court music in the Ryûkyû Kingdom. These were also performed by Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, and several sets of Chinese-style instruments (plus Okinawan sanshin) were gifted, at various times, to daimyô including the lords of Owari, Mito, and Tsuwano. One such set, given as gifts to the Owari Tokugawa lord of Nagoya in 1796, remains today in the collection of the Tokugawa Art Museum, and includes what are believed to be the oldest extant examples of Okinawan sanshin.[11]

However, while the sanshin is today commonly thought of as the central instrument of all Okinawan music, including traditional court music, in fact there are no records of it being used in formal ritual court music. Official court ceremonies on seasonal festivals such as New Year's, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Chrysanthemum Festival, as well as court ceremonies such as the investiture of a king by Chinese envoys, employed uzagaku music performed on Chinese-style instruments; sanshin were only used in the performance of uta-sanshin songs, Ryukyuan dance, and kumi udui entertainments following the end of the formal ceremonies.[12]

The incredible strength of Chinese-style music in Okinawa can be attributed to, among other factors, the absence of any instrumental tradition in Okinawa prior to the introduction of Chinese instruments, and the strong belief in Ming Confucian civilization as the model of "correct" "enlightened" "high" civilization. However, by the late 17th century, just as the sanshin itself was taking its mature and now-standard form, the classical Ryukyuan repertoire as it is known today had also begun to coalesce, centered on uta-sanshin (song and sanshin); many core pieces of the classical repertoire were composed around that time by Tansui ueekata Kenchû (1623-1683), founder of the oldest extant school (style) of Okinawan classical music. It remains unclear, however, whether any of the pieces currently in the repertoire today predate Tansui, or for most pieces, when they were first composed, performed, or entered the repertoire. The earliest compilation of notated music is attributed to Yakabi Chôki (1716-1775); it contains the lyrics and sanshin tabs for 117 songs.[13]

The use of a chimi, a claw-shaped plectrum, though quite standard today, is believed to be a relatively recent development. Eighteenth and early 19th century paintings of people playing sanshin do not seem to depict the use of a plectrum.

Following the abolition of the Ryûkyû Kingdom in the 1870s and the absorption of its lands and people into the Empire of Japan, many elements of Ryukyuan arts, including performing arts, which were previously exclusive to the aristocracy became more widely, popularly, available. Proficient aristocratic performers began to perform for more general audiences, and to teach students from non-aristocratic backgrounds, while sanshin-makers likewise began selling instruments to the general market. It was also at this time that the sanshin, and Okinawan musical traditions, were first popularized in more distant portions of the archipelago; on Yonaguni Island and in many other parts of Sakishima, string instruments were up until then not a part of the musical tradition.[14] Though Okinawa experienced some considerable processes of Westernization during the Meiji period, it also saw considerable popularization of its musical and other performing traditions, forming the foundations of strong popular folk traditions.

In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, many Okinawans worked to create sanshin from whatever materials were available, as part of efforts to create some levity and enjoyment in their difficult lives. Matayoshi Shin'ei (1916-1985), said to have been one of the greatest sanshin makers of the 20th century, is credited with the creation of the kankara sanshin, a sanshin made primarily from an empty tin can, parachute fabric (in place of the snakeskin), parachute strings, and whatever scraps of wood could be found. Of course, both within and outside of the refugee camps, people made improvised sanshin from a wide range of different materials; however, Matayoshi's kankara sanshin has become iconic, and mass-produced kankara sanshin are widely sold today as a relatively inexpensive alternative to investing in a more traditional-style instrument.[15]

Musical Genres

Okinawan music is generally divided into three genres:

  • Classical (J: koten ongaku) - This category mostly consists of songs associated with the royal court of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, including pieces played alone, or in conjunction with Okinawan dance or kumi udui theatre, in court entertainments. These included formal receptions for visiting Chinese or Japanese dignitaries, as well as receptions, banquets, and other such events within the court. Many of these songs are quite slow, and played quite precisely, according to traditional styles of playing. A very distinctive vocal style is also employed, in which the mouth is held only narrowly open, and an idea of tightness or tautness, pressing down on the hara (stomach) is central to the technique, producing a distinctive vocal sound. Classical pieces tend, for the most part, to be heterophonic, meaning that the notes sung do not line up with the notes played on the sanshin; the Japanese term tsukazu hanarezu is often applied in traditional Japanese music to describe the way that instrument and voice follow largely the same melody line, but a half-beat or more off from one another.[16]

The two most prominent schools of classical uta-sanshin are Nomura-ryû, which employs fairly strict adherence to written notation, and Afusô-ryû, which focuses more heavily on oral transmission, i.e. playing in emulation of one's teacher. A third school, Tansui-ryû, is considered the oldest, and is still active today. As one can imagine, the former tradition tends towards a high degree of consistency or similarity from place to place and teacher to teacher, while the latter tradition tends towards the development of lineages of sub-styles, as each group of students learns to play like their teacher, in a manner somewhat different perhaps from the students of another teacher.

Classical songs include Nubui kuduchi, Kajadifû bushi, Aha bushi, and Wudui kuwadisa, among many others. The most formal, most elevated, set of classical songs are known as the gozenfû itsufushi (O: gujinfû ichifushi), and include kajadifû bushi, unna bushi, nakagusuku hantamee bushi, naga iheya bushi, and kuti bushi.[17]

  • Folk (J: min'yô, also known as shima uta) - Folk music includes a wide range of types of songs, not only from Okinawa Island, but from all of the Ryûkyû Islands. Some of the oldest folk songs derive from the Miyako Islands.[18] Many folk songs derive from traditional festival music, agricultural work songs known as yunta or jiraba, or courting songs known as utagaki, while others are of newer composition, but have become so widely known, and so standard, that they have come to be regarded as "folk music." Some folk songs employ the distinctive vocal techniques of classical singing, while others use a more standard/Western/modern open style. The heterophony heard in classical songs is lessened in folk and popular music, with the pitches played and sung more regularly lining up with one another. The lyrics are often in Okinawan, or another Ryukyuan language, but are sometimes in standard Japanese. The playing style on the sanshin is somewhat freer than in classical playing, as various techniques are used to help one play more quickly or more smoothly, though such moves might not strictly be tolerated in one of the classical playing styles.

Some of the most popular folk songs are Asadoya yunta, which originally derives from Taketomi Island but which is today most commonly performed with lyrics in standard Japanese (not Okinawan); Nada sousou; Tinsagu nu hana; and Tôshin doi, a song commonly played to accompany kachashi dancing. Prominent folk singers include Natsukawa Rimi, Noborikawa Seijin, Kadekaru Rinshô, China Sadao, and Kina Shôei.

  • Okinawa/Uchinaa Pop - Okinawan pop/rock music was born, arguably, in the 1970s, as a key part of a wider resurgence in Okinawan identity and culture. Bands such as Rinken Band, Champloose, and the Nenes, and artists such as China Sadao, Rinken Teruya, and Kina Shôkichi, began incorporating sanshin, Okinawan language lyrics, and Okinawan sensibilities or imagery into pop/rock compositions. The song "Shima Uta", released in 1992 by a mainland Japanese band, The Boom, quickly became one of the most popular songs associated with the islands, and with the style or genre of "Okinawan pop," despite being composed and performed originally by non-Okinawans. As a result, the term shima uta, lit. "island song[s]," has come to be used as a generic term for Ryukyuan folk songs. Since the 1970s, numerous artists and bands have begun incorporating sanshin, eisa (festival) taiko drums, and other Okinawan elements, including sampling of folk songs, into new compositions. Okinawan pop songs run the gamut from the more traditional-sounding to rock, electronica, and more mainstream-sounding pop music. Some songs employ Ryukyuan language lyrics, though most use standard Japanese; some incorporate elements of the classical vocal sound.

Popular Okinawan pop songs include "Shima Uta," "Hana," "Shimanchu nu takara," "Ojii jiman no Orion beer," and "Haisai Ojisan." Popular artists and bands include Begin, Kariyushi 58, Mongol 8000, and HY.


  • Robin Thompson. "The Music of Ryukyu." Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. pp303-322.
  • Robin Thompson. "The Sanshin and its Place in Okinawan Music." Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 沖縄美術全集. vol. 5. pp. i-vi.
  • Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.[1][2][3]
  1. Referring to the sanshin as "Okinawa shamisen" or simply "shamisen" is common among Okinawans (and those of Okinawan descent) employing standard Japanese within an Okinawan context. Terms such as jamisen ("snake shamisen") or jabisen ("snakeskin strings"), are not typically used in Ryûkyû, but only among mainland Japanese (Ashgate. p305.), highlighting the snakeskin aspect, and marking the instrument as different.
  2. Scientific name Diospyros ferrea.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum.
  4. O: tin or chira, J: ten, lit. "heaven"
  5. O: chimi, J: tsume, lit. "claw"
  6. 6.0 6.1 Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 5, 307.
  7. i.e. played mainly by the common people, and ignored for the most part by the literati, who revered the qin as their musical instrument of choice.
  8. Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 5, 348.
  9. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, “Traditional Musical Instruments of Okinawa,” Okinawa bijutsu zenshû 5, 314.
  10. Miyagi Eishô, Ryûkyû shisha no Edo nobori, Tokyo: Daiichi shobô (1982), 130.
  11. Sanshin no chikara, Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum (2013), 75.
  12. Kaneshiro Atsumi 金城厚, “Ryūkyū no gaikō girei ni okeru gakki ensō no imi” 「琉球の外交儀礼における楽器演奏の意味」, Musa ムーサ 14 (2013), 59.
  13. Ashgate. p310.
  14. Yuan Yu Kuan, "Militarization, Marketing, and Musicking: The Soundscape of Yonaguni Island, Okinawa," presentation at Association for Asian Studies annual conference, Washington DC, 23 March 2018.
  15. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, 314-315.
  16. Alison McQueen Tokita, "Music in kabuki: more than meets the eye." The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. p236.
  17. Kaneshiro, 53-54.
  18. Ashgate. p305.