Name: Sanshin.
Type: Cordophones > Composite > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: Okinawa, Japan.
Region: Far East Asia.

Description: 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].

Origins: It closely resembles the Chinese Sanxian and its name suggests Chinese origin. The Ryūkyū Kingdom [pre-Japanese Okinawa] had very close ties with Imperial China. In the 16th century, the sanshin then 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.


Hon chōshi (本調子) – “standard tuning” C3-F3-C4
Ichi-agi chōshi (一揚調子) – “first-string raised tuning” E♭3-F3-C4
Ni-agi chōshi (二揚調子) – “second-string raised tuning” C3-G3-C4
Ichi, ni-agi chōshi (一、二揚調子) – “first- and second-strings raised tuning” D3-G3-C4
San-sage chōshi (三下げ調子) – “third-string lowered tuning” C3-F3-B♭3

Usage: It is is perhaps one of the more important musical instruments of Okinawa, Considered to be ‘Heart’ of the Ryukyu People. Played by youth and elders alike. Most Okinawan homes would usually have a sanshin present. 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. 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.


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