What Is This Traditional Japanese Form of Poetry Called “Shigin”?

  • Shigin (詩吟) is a form of art in which a person recites a Japanese or Chinese poem in the Japanese language by chanting. This is done in front of a large audience, a few friends, or even to one’s self. It has a rich history and is often practiced by the elderly rather than the youth. Some people refer to this as a form of unique traditional music that is continuously being enjoyed by different generations. Let’s find out more about this Japanese form of art!

    History of Shigin

    Historically speaking, shigin is thought to have originated from China. It is believed to have entered Japan through the different texts which arrived from China a long time ago. It is considered to be older than the other forms of poetry in the country.

    In the beginning, shigin was sung in Chinese. Later on, Japanese readings were made for them. These were developed by members of the samurai class around the end of the Edo (江戸) period. During this time, poetry was synonymous with the upper class. They were used in contemporary recitals and festivals throughout the year. Some of them were also displayed at several Japanese exhibitions.

    There are several schools in Japan where you can practice shigin. An example of this school is called “kinjo (錦城),” which was established by Yamamoto Kinjo (山元錦城) in 1954. This school has different groups coming from all across the country – from Kyushu (九州) to Hokkaido (北海道). Cities have smaller groups such as the western and eastern groups of the Kinjo school. These schools conduct yearly performances and contests held in the city, prefectural, and national levels.

    How to Perform Shigin

    If you sign up for a shigin group, you’ll be doing the training in a Japanese-style room called “washitsu (和室),” which has tatami flooring. Members do the chanting in a lotus position (a proper way of sitting in Japanese tradition) as it is believed to give a strong and steady projection. Unlike in classical opera, singing is not encouraged from the chest. Energy is supposed to be focused in the gut.

    The recitation of shigin is called “gin (吟).” This is performed in a standing position and usually from memory. However, members may also be allowed to have themselves guided with a written gin. Topics range from war to love and even local legends. If you happen to see a shigin book, you will notice that there are no musical notes. There are only marks for each line which are used to indicate the pitch. There are also numbers which indicate how high your voice will go.

    Shigin performances may be accompanied with traditional Japanese instruments, and performers may also wear traditional clothing. Members wait for their turn before they go up the stage to perform. They sing with their voice traveling up and down like a fluttering butterfly.

    Shigin used to be popular only among the elderly, but in recent years, the number of young people who appreciate and practice the art is increasing. Some children as young as two are also joining shigin contests. In this sense, it feels like traditional Japanese poetry will continue on and even flourish in the near future.