Writer: Vika Lekve
Translator: Sayaka Tateishi
Japan: a culture rich with both ancient and modern lifestyles interwoven. Among these contrasting worlds is music. From the ancient ceremonial instruments of Gagaku (雅楽) to J-Pop, our ears fill with sounds of Japanese life, but have you ever wondered what traditional Japanese instruments are? To unveil some of this mystery, I interviewed the person who repairs such instruments in Kyushu: Mr. Yoshihide Maekawa of Maekawa’s Musical Instrument Shop (前川楽器店). Friend and translator, Sayaka Tateishi, and I found ourselves amazed by the information.
There are seven instruments considered traditionally Japanese: the taiko drum (太鼓), the smaller tsuzumi drum (鼓), the sanshin banjo (三線), the biwa lute (琵琶), the shakuhachi flute (尺八), the shamisen (三味線), and the koto zither (箏 or 琴). Except for the taiko drum, all were developed from other culture’s instruments towards the end of the Heian Period (794 – 1185 CE). The shamisen is believed to have come from the Chinese sanxian, which originates from the older Persian and Tibetan spike lutes. The shamisen and sanshin were introduced to the Ryukyu Kingdom (the Ryukyu Islands, i.e. Okinawa) where they developed from Chinese instruments to tools of the Ryukyu court before being extended as part of Japanese culture. The other six made their way from China to Honshu or Kyushu where they evolved into Japanese culture. The first of the stringed instruments that made its way to Japan in the Nara Period (710-784 CE), was the koto zither. As the first, it absorbed the Old Japanese word “koto” which meant “any stringed instrument.” History developed the instruments, but the instruments’ roles defined the culture.
Each instrument has a specific purpose. In the Kabuki theater, the music is provided by half singers, and half musicians playing the shamisen, the taiko, and the tsuzumi. Two other styles of shamisen are also used in both Nagauta and Jiuta theater. The taiko drum is used in Noh theater and festivals. The biwa lute is primarily used alongside storytelling, made famous by the Biwa Monks (琵琶法師) in the Heian Period. These blind priests made a living reciting scripture and lore: they are attributed as the first storyteller of The Tale of Heike. For concerts, the most common combination is three instruments called the sankyoku-gassou (三曲合奏) made of the shamisen, the koto, and the shakuhachi. Each instrument is lovely in its own right, but together they complement.
Speaking of sound, the instrument’s shape, size, and material all affect sound quality. Made of bamboo, the shakuhachi is often translated as a bamboo flute, but it can be crafted of harder woods, too. Traditionally, the sanshin was made of wood and snake skin while the shamisen was made of cherry or oak wood and cat or dog hide. (Fear not animal lovers as synthetic leather is available!) The koto is traditionally made of paulownia wood, and silk for the strings. Less common materials include tortoiseshell and ivory. Tortoiseshell can only be found on artefacts, but elephant ivory comes from old stocks that remained in Japan before trade became trafficking. As the stock is limited, larger ivory pieces like the shamisen pick or a set of 13 koto bridges start at 1 million yen (9,000 USD) and 1.5 million yen (13,500 USD). There is support in protecting endangered animals, so alternatives to elephant ivory are being explored. Plastic and local wood alternatives are often sourced for these instruments at a fraction of the price. Some of these replacement woods include karin (花梨), shitan (紫檀), and the best wood for higher notes, kouki (紅木). Perhaps there is a future alternative yet to be discovered…
How does this relate to Nagasaki specifically? On Hirado Island, the Matsuura Museum houses some ancient musical instruments. Before Japan was unified as one country, there were many fiefdoms and kingdoms, including the Matsuura Kingdom. This museum holds some of these traditional instruments of one queen. Mr. Maekawa is one of the few with the skills to repair these instruments, and recently did maintenance for the museum. That Nagasaki Prefecture has these ancient, functional relics played by royal hands is incredibly lucky and rare.
How does this relate to you? Regardless of whether you are able to make the trip to the Matsuura Museum in Hirado, or visit concerts in the future, music is a hobby that requires time, focus, and sitting. Perhaps, in a time of staying at home this is an opportunity to enjoy a new skill otherwise not pursued individually or as a family. In order to contact a music teacher, Mr. Maekawa recommends meeting with your local music shop owner as they can match you best to people certified* to teach in your area. You may even be able to do lessons via video platforms such as Zoom or Skype.
*Please note in many Japanese art forms, it can take 20 years or more to become certified to teach.
You can find Mr. Maekawa’s online shop at http://maekawa-gakki.jimdo.com/ or on Facebook as “Souvenir Shop Maekawa.”The Matsuura Museum (Hirado Island, Nagasaki Prefecture) can be found at http://www.matsura.or.jp/en/home-2/