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The sanshin (三線, literally "three strings") is an Okinawan musical instrument and precursor of the mainland Japanese (and Amami Islands) shamisen ( 三味線). Often likened to a banjo, it consists of a snakeskin-covered body, neck and three strings.



Its close resemblance in both appearance and name to the Chinese sanxian suggests Chinese origins, the then Ryūkyū Kingdom (pre-Japanese Okinawa) having very close ties with Imperial China. In the 16th century, the sanshin reached the Japanese trading port at Sakai in Osaka, Japan. In mainland Japan, it evolved into the larger shamisen, and many people refer to the sanshin as jabisen (蛇皮線, literally "snake-skin strings") or jamisen (蛇三線, "snake three strings") due to its snakeskin covering.

The Sanshin is considered the soul of Okinawan folk music. Played by youth as young as 2, to the Elders with 100 years or more, there is a Sanshin in most Okinawan homes. It is the center of small informal family gatherings, weddings, birthdays, other celebrations, community parties, festivals. The Sanshin is held in great respect among the Ryukyu culture. It is often viewed as a vehicle, an instrument that carries the Voice of the Deities, and is regarded as a Deity itself. Of course, this respect is blatantly obvious in the Sanshin's traditional construction (detailed below). Sanshin are generally designed to last more than a life-time- they are an instrument of Legacy- often passed down through the generations of a Family.

There is a story that proves the Sanshin's Soulful steadfastness. It is a tale of the 'Husband & Wife Sanshin'- a pair of Sanshin made from the same core of Okinawan Ebony tree. They were owned by a husband and wife prior to World War II, At the onset of the War, the Husband was forced into Military service by the Japanese, and therefore had to leave his Wife and home. The pair of Sanshin, the soul of the couple themselves, were in danger during the inevitable war actions to come, which destroyed much of the inhabited parts of the main island and wiped out almost half of the native population. In an attempt to preserve his and his wife's sanshin, the Husband wrapped them up, put them into a wooden box, and buried them deep in the Okinawa forest. Later, they were dug up, and brought back to their rightful home, having made it safely through the violent war. They are currently preserved by the Son of the couple.


Traditionally, it was covered with the skin of the Burmese python, but today, due to CITES regulations, the skin of the python reticulatus is also used. 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 viper, 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) sanshin internationally somewhat risky. Due to international wildlife protection treaties, it is not legal to export snakeskin-covered sanshins to some countries (such as the United Kingdom and United States). [1] There is some room for interpretation of this in that the treaties specify that the restriction is for endangered species of snake.

Naturally-skinned instruments- while being absolutely unparalleled in sound quality (warm, deep yet pronounced tone)- are infamous for cracking and tearing- especially when the Sanshin is taken out of its natural habitat- the humid tropicality of the Ryukyu Islands. Up until recent times- skin breakage was never considered much of a problem- as the Sanshin's construction allows for it to be fully disassembled, re-skinned, and reassembled, usually with little time, cost, and inconvenience. If a skin broke, you just take it to your nearest Sanshin craftsman-who are heavily dotted throughout the Prefecture, and they would quickly repair the instrument. When Sanshin started its journey across the World, not only did this become a much bigger issue,( as they were no sanshin craftsman outside of Okinawa, and Western luthiers were/are unfamiliar with Sanshin construction or the use of natural skins), but the factors leading up to skin cracks/tears/breaks increased dramatically, in many parts of the world that are cold and/or dry, and perhaps with foreign players being unfamiliar with a Sanshin's sensitive nature.

This gave birth to the Artificial Sanshin 'Skin'. Artificial skins can made of a variety of materials, such as Nylon and Polyester. The quality, appearance, and price-point vary greatly- from the hard, thin-'skinned', and high-pitched, 'tinny'-sounding Polyester; to the more 'snake-skin-sounding' Nylon, which replicate the layered composition of natural snake skin. These artificially-skinned Sanshin are in-demand for several reasons, including Cost-effectiveness for beginners, and the fact that they can be taken into almost any environmental condition without the worry of damaging a natural skin. The highest-quality synthetic-skin Sanshin,(which can start as low as around US$300) are the go-to choice for professional Okinawan Folk Musicians who travel and play over-seas.

These days, with the Sanshin's popularity rapidly expanding all over the world, and the desire of players to have a most traditional Sanshin (not to mention the legal issues)- a type of hybrid skin has been developed. Called the Kyoka-bari style- this is a natural python skin that is fitted and stretched with a strong, synthetic reinforcement fabric underneath. This proves a great compromise for those in dryer/colder/hotter climates. Like with its un-reinforced predecessor, it is still good practice to maintain regular oiling of the reinforced Kyoka-bari skin to prevent over-drying and cracking. There is also a tailor-made product to avoid skin-breakage- naturally oily leather circular pads that you lay on either side of the sanshin body during case storage. This prevents over-drying which leads to breaking.

The wooden parts of the Sanshin- the Neck (Sao), head/body (Dou), and head (Ten), can be made with any of a large variety of hardwoods. Traditionally, the neck or Sao is crafted with the solid black core of the Okinawan Ebony tree, a species native to Okinawa- and the only ebony in the whole of Japan. This black ebony core is amazingly strong and highly sought-after for its attributes to traditional sound quality. Typically, Ebony trees no younger than 100 years old are used in Sanshin construction- the time necessary for the tree to grow a big enough black core to produce one or more instrument necks. One special note of beauty- outer flanges where the core passes into the main wood body of the trunk go from black to deep red/brown- presenting a unique natural contrast.

Instruments made with Okinawan Ebony are among the most expensive Sanshin made and sold today. Even Ebony instruments that forego authentic snakeskin for the cheaper and more durable Nylon and Polyester skins can be several times more expensive than an instrument made with other hardwoods.

The other, more common hardwoods (used mainly for convenience, availability, and cost-effectiveness) include: Oak, Apitong, and Rosewoods (any number of Species)

There are 3 strings, called Gen. They can be made of Nylon or Silk. They are first attached to the base of the Dou (head), at the point where the end of the neck pole sticks out. A silk thread-piece, known as an Itokake or Genkake is fitted onto the wood piece, then the strings are individually attached to the 3 loops of the Itokake, using a simple draw-thru knot. The other end of the string are brought up the body and neck, and are the individually wound onto their respective pegs, called Karakui. Itokake, once only available in Gold color, are now being made in a variety of colors, to match a variety of Doumaki.

Karakui, the tuning pegs, are generally made with whatever wood the neck is made from, but Ebony is most common, and desired for its strength. Acting much like the tuning pegs of the violin, cello, and other traditional western wood string instruments- Karakui will require the use of Rosin (made of Pine resin, oils, ash, etc.), after an initial period. The Rosin is applied as a thin and tacky layer, adding grip between the two wood pieces. Karakui are infamous for breaking with the slightest impetus, and are therefore readily available individually or in sets of 3. Karakui also act as another face of expression for the Sanshin- they can be carved in a variety of different styles and designs, and finished in a range of colors, textures, and some can even be 'tipped' with Jade, Coral, or other stones, shells, and natural decorations. Another part of Sanshin's body is susceptible to damage- and that is the head, or 'Ten'. It can be scratched, dented, or even completely broken off, if mishandled. A textile, simply called a Ten cover, is a small, elastic-reinforced slip-cover that is generally padded and quilted, to provide a bit of protection against surface damage. These Ten covers can be used at all times, or can be removed during play. Use during play will not effect sound quality. Ten covers come in as big of a variety as Doumaki, many made to match.

The finishing touch, and arguably 'the Soul' of every Sanshin, is the Doumaki- the decorative textile that surrounds the head of the Sanshin. Dou, meaning 'drum' and Maki, meaning 'Wrap'. Most often, Doumaki are made from modern fibers and methods, and display the Royal Crest of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Hidari Gomon), in rich black and gold. These days, a wide variety of both modern-made and traditional hand-woven Doumaki can be found both in Japan and by world citizens via the internet. They can range from US$10 (for traditional design and cheaper materials), all the way to US$175, for the magnificent hand-woven Doumaki, made with hand-spun silk or the famous Basho-fu, 'silk' made from the trunks of Okinawan Banana trees. These high-end Doumaki may also incorporate leather, python skin, Bingata fabric (Okinawan 'stencil & paste' dyeing), Minsaa weavings (traditional Ryukyu '4 & 5' Square patterns_ and other natural/modern materials.

In addition to synthetic skins, another modern cost-cutting adaptation is the 'New Wood' Sanshin- an instrument that abandons any type of 'skinning' of the body, and instead utilizes a thin panel of wood composite. This wood face is then finished and decorated in any number of fashions. This 'New Wood' design has pioneered the seemingly popular 'Sanshin Kit'. This 'DIY' kit generally includes pre-fabricated parts- the Sao/Neck, the Dou/drum head base, and the Karakui/tuning pegs- all of which come 'unfinished', awaiting the new owner's creative hands. Wood parts can be further sanded, stained/painted, oiled, lacquered, etc... whatever the heart desires. Kits come with a traditional Doumaki, but the die-hard artisan may choose to create their own unique, personally-designed textile. It seems that in recent times, with the US Dollar and the Japanese Yen not exactly being of equal value, the cost of shipping to countries outside of Asia, is higher than the cost of the Kits themselves.

A very unique 'evolutionary-tangent' of the Sanshin came about just after the Battle of Okinawa- the deadliest action in the Pacific War. Civilians were corralled into US camps following the Battle, during the US take-over. The Okinawans, allowed to bring nothing with them, insisted upon carrying on musical and dancing arts so important to their culture. With the assistance of their US captors, and their rations, a new type of Sanshin was made- using a tin can, and most likely a broom pole. This changed everything for the downtrodden prisoners, bring a bit of peace and joy to their otherwise bleek situation. This war-born Sanshin is now called Kankara Sanshin, or 'Can-Sanshin, Can-shin, etc.'. It is also the subject of the 'DIY-Kit' approach to Sanshin


Museo Azzarini collection Sanshin.png
Museo Azzarini collection

Traditionally, players wear a plectrum, made of a material such as the water buffalo horn, on the index finger. Today, some use a guitar pick or the nail of the index finger. In Amami, long, narrow bamboo plectra are also used, which allow a higher-pitched tone than that of the Okinawa sanshin.

A bamboo bridge raises the strings off the skin, which are white, except in Amami, where they are yellower and thinner. The traditional names for the strings are (from thick to thin) uujiru (男絃, "male string"), nakajiru (中絃, "middle string"), and miijiru (女絃, "female string"). The sanshin has five tunings called chindami (ちんだみ): [2]

Musical Notation

Sheet music for the sanshin is written in a unique transcription system called kunkunshi (Okinawan : 工工四pronounced  [kuŋkunshiː] ). It is named for the first three notes of Chinese melody that was widely known during its development. Its creator is believed to be Mongaku Terukina or his student Choki Yakabi (屋嘉比 朝寄, Yakabi Chōki) in the early to mid-1700s. [3] A set of kanji are used to represent specific finger positions. Unlike European musical notation, kunkunshi can only be interpreted specifically through the sanshin.

See also

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  1. "CITES praises new 'Python Conservation Partnership'". CITES. Geneva: Conservation on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. November 27, 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2017.
  2. 滝原, 康盛 (1964). Ryūkyū minyō kunkunshi 琉球民謡工工四. Ryūkyū ongaku gakufu kenkyūsho 琉球音楽楽譜研究所, Naha, Okinawa.
  3. Thompson, Robin (2008). "The music of Ryukyu". In Tokita, Alison; Hughes, David W (eds.). The Ashgate research companion to Japanese music. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited. ISBN   9780754656999.