The shamisen is a traditional 3-string banjo-like instrument found in Japan. It’s characterized by three large tuning pegs, a long, thin fretless neck, and a small sound box covered with cat skin, or plastic on cheaper versions. Perhaps one of the most striking features of the shamisen is the way it’s played. A large plectrum called a bachi – held in the hand, rather than the fingers – plucks the strings but as it hits them, it also strikes the skin of the sound box, therefore producing a kind of percussive sound. Because of this technique, the shamisen doesn’t have the most harmonious sound and songs can start to feel a little abrasive to the ears, at times. The English speaking world was introduced to the shamisen for the first time in print through the diaries of Richard Cocks in the seventeenth century (see entry: Tatami), but funnily enough, it’s through Ian Flemings famous novel You only live Twice (1964) that we finally gain an understanding of the shamisen’s distinctive sound: “[Bond was] far from being..bewitched by the inscrutable discords issuing from the catskin-covered box of the three-stringed samisen”. Japanese people may be dismayed by this review, but it’s not completely inaccurate.
Despite the shamisen perhaps lacking in the melodious tones of its traditional counterparts, such as the beautiful koto, the shamisen can often be heard playing in higher-end restaurants to provide a traditional backdrop and it is undeniably one of the cultural sounds of Japan. Sakura (cherry blossom) is a Japanese folksong well-known to all Japanese people and is always on the shamisen’s repertoire. It’s haunting, slow melody can often be heard plucked to perfection on this three string instrument and, instead of the harsh, percussive sound heard in many songs, it shows off the instrument’s ability to create the quintessential sound of Japan – a kind of relaxed, zen-like atmosphere.