Name: Sanshin.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321.6
Country: Okinawa, Japan.
Region: Far East Asia.

Description: The sanshin [in Japanese: 三線 or literally “three strings”] is an Okinawan musical instrument and precursor of the mainland Japanese and Amami Islands shamisen [三味線].

Map of Okinawa Japan
Map of Okinawa Japan / Open Street Maps

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.

Sanshin Tunings
Names in Japanese Translation Tuning
Hon chōshi 本調子 Standard C F C
Ichi-agi chōshi 一揚調子 1st String Raised Eb F C
Ni-agi chōshi 二揚調子 2nd String Raised C G C
Ichi, ni-agi chōshi 一、二揚調子 1st & 2nd Strings Raised D G C
San-sage chōshi 三下げ調子 3rd String Lowered C F Bb

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.

Construction: The sanshin is composed of the following components, the first being the body called [do 胴 in Japanese] of the instrument. The body resembles a double sided frame drum. Having a hollow body that is covered front and back with skin, in the manner of a banjo. The skin used depends on the genre of music and the skill of the player.

Traditionally skins were made using dog or cat skin but use of these skins gradually fell out of favour starting around 2006 due to social stigma and the decline of workers skilled in preparing these particular skins. Contemporary shamisen skins are often prepared with synthetic materials, such as plastic.

Citations: Bibliography: Websites: Sanshin / MIMO Musical Instrument Museum Online ;

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