Do You Know the Traditional Japanese Instrument Made of Snakeskin?

  • Purchasing a sanshin (三線) is like becoming an artist. The sanshin is one of those rare traditional instruments in Japan which takes several weeks to assemble. The art of making it is based on really old customs which is both complex and an exciting thing to do. But do you know that it played an important role in comforting and relieving people’s stress in Okinawa (沖縄)? It is not only an instrument from the past but a reminder of Okinawa’s history.

    What is a sanshin?

    The word “sanshin” literally means “three strings” and it is a musical instrument originating from Okinawa likened to that of a banjo (a four-, five-, or six-stringed instrument) but has a distinct tone. Its body is covered with snakeskin, and it has a neck and three strings. The neck is handcrafted from a single piece of wood. Its appearance resembles that of a Chinese instrument called the “sanxian” (three-stringed fretless plucked musical instrument) which highly suggests its origin from China. The sanshin was originally reserved for entertaining the royal court and has been taken up by the general public. It is said that the first Okinawan sanshin to be introduced in Osaka happened sometime around 1560 where it then was called “shamisen.”

    In the past, the body of the sanshin was covered with the skin of Python molurus (a large species of snakes found in South and Southeast Asia). Today, due to some animal and wildlife restrictions, pythons to be used in sanshin making are being bred instead. Nevertheless, high-quality snakeskin is a must. However, some shops nowadays sell cheap sanshins with plastic skin. These are quite common these days especially since the transportation of snakeskin sanshins are illegal in some countries due to international wildlife protection reasons.

    Regarding the instrument’s strings, they are raised off from the snakeskin body through a bamboo bridge. The color of the strings are either white or yellow and they come in different Okinawan names according to thickness. The thickest string is the male string which is called “uujiru.” The middle string is called “nakajiru,” while the thinnest string is the female string and is called “miijiru.” The instrument can be played by using a guitar pick or the nail of the index finger. Traditionally, players would normally wear a small flat tool called “bachi” on the index finger to pluck the strings but this is common up until today.

    Sanshin Craftsmanship

    According to a sanshin craftsman, the art of making a sanshin is like giving birth to a child. It is very complicated and can take several weeks to complete. It is also expensive as it can cost up to $10,000 per piece. It is estimated that there are only about 50 professional traditional sanshin craftsmen left in Okinawa. All of them know the old customs in making the instrument well, from the crafting of the body to providing the best possible balance.

    However, after World War II, Okinawans resorted to makeshift versions of the instrument by using empty tin cans and a piece of wood. It was called “kankara” or “kankara sanshin.” These paved the way towards improvised sanshins.

    There are many sanshin makers across Japan. One example is Resort Instrument Factory ASOVIVA. They are a maker of Hongawa sanshin which is produced from high-quality snakeskin but comes at a reasonable price. Like a guitar, the sanshin requires different finger positions for different notes but with no frets. ASOVIVA makes sure to provide labels on the neck of the instrument in order to indicate correct finger positions. This makes beginners’ life easier.

    The sound of a sanshin varies greatly on the workman and the shop. Most of the time, when you use conventional methods for reinforcing the snakeskin, the result of the sound is shut-in. It is best to use high tension in order to stretch the two skins across the wooden frame. This results to a more vibrant tone.

    The sanshin has five tunings called “chindami,” namely…

    1. “hon choshi (本調子)” or standard tuning
    2. “ichi-agi choshi (一揚調子)” or first-string raised tuning
    3. “ni-agi choshi (二揚調子)” or second-string raised tuning
    4. “ichi, ni-agi choshi (一、二揚調子)” or first- and second-strings raised tuning
    5. “san-sagi chōshi (三下げ調子)” or third-string lowered tuning

    If you’re after mastering the traditional songs of the Okinawan people, it would be best to get a traditional set. As it takes a very long time to produce a sanshin, most shops in Okinawa sell only a few items each month. Some shops provide warranty on repairs of the instruments for 5 years while others offer warranty for a shorter period of time.

    The Sanshin’s Role in Okinawa’s History

    The sanshin has become a central part of the traditional music of Okinawa in the last 200 years. People in the region are strongly connected with each other through the instrument. Some Okinawans say that the sanshin comforted so many people during the war times and it also helped them relieve stress. It has a soulful sound which mirror so many emotions from joy to sadness. It was used by many professional aristocratic performers in the past where it became widely popular and available. It also formed the foundation of strong popular folk traditions.

    Nowadays, many people are actually interested in the sanshin and have started learning and playing their own instruments. Some incorporated the instrument in pop and rock-like music styles in which they can truly express themselves.

    Okinawan music remains enormously popular in subtropical Japan. And more than anywhere else, it still plays a very significant part in Okinawan people’s lives. People in the region are known for having a laid-back attitude and strong community ties. What keeps them together is music. It is considered ubiquitous. Even when people are already gone, it still follows them as music is played at the graveyard sites. It is just there all the time.

    There are times when sanshins are also used in between words and not to play melodies. It is simply used to accompany the words and make them stand out more. It can be an artful way of communicating with other people. So why don’t you try playing this instrument to feel the Okinawan’s sunny outlook in life?

    If you want to hear how a sanshin sounds like, check out this video:

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