Nowadays in Japan, if you talk about the shamisen, the Tsugaru shamisen is probably the most popular. So, I would like to explain about whether the Tsugaru shamisen is the same as just any old instrument! Documentation on the Tsugaru shamisen is extremely rare. Why is that? The reason is mainly because its originators, in the Tsugaru District of Aomori Prefecture, were mostly blind men known as bosama (from a corruption of an honorific word for ‘holy man’), and they occupied the lowest level of what was in those days still Japan’s strict class system. At that time, there was a feeling that it was better not to inform the relatives of the condition of the bosama, and for that reason that there should be no records or even oral transmission. I would like to inform people from other countries of the little information that we have been able to put together.

Maybe you are aware that the differences in shamisen genre depend on the differences in the kinds of materials and ways of making each part. If you talk about the Tsugaru shamisen, some people may imagine a thick neck (futozao) with a 15cm larger than naga-uta body(gobudai), but in the Tsugaru District at the time the bosama started playing they also played the naga-uta (ballad) style of thin-necked (hosozao) shamisen, and the ko–uta (ditty) style with its medium-thick neck (chûzao).

The reason is related to the work of some bosama known as ‘kado-tsuke’ (this was performing door-to-door to get money and food), because it was more comfortable to carry around on your back. The bosama gave a performance putting a chant or story to their melody. One important point is that at that time their shamisen was not yet known as the Tsugaru shamisen. The bottom line is, in order not to lose track of the narrative, the coining of the name Tsugaru shamisen was not until the 1960s. In the history of traditional Japanese music you might be surprised to find that it was so recent, right? And so what was the sequence of events leading up to this point?

In a lot of introductions the inventor of the Tsugaru shamisen is said to have been Nitabo, born in Kamihara, Kitatsugaru, in 1857, but there has been a long time between then and the ‘60s! Not only did Nitabo not invent a new instrument, but neither did he christen one. So why is the future his? He aimed to differentiate himself from the other bosama at the point when started playing the futozao shamisen, so it is important to solve the riddle of the Tsugaru shamisen’s origin.

Nitabo lost his sight from a sickness at the age of eight. In those days in Japan, blind people had to decide how to make a living by the time they reached fifteen years old. At first, Nitabo seemed to be interested in the shakuhachi, but they were only allowed to samurai families and certain sects. He decided on playing the shamisen left to him by his mother, herself a blind performer (female blind performer: goze).

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the resulting abolition of the domain system in favour of the prefectural one in 1871 (Meiji Year 4), a blind persons’ guild known as the Todoza was also disestablished, leading to more freedoms for performers. Nitabo’s real name was Nitaro, and he took ‘Akimoto’ as a surname (many people across the classes had not had surnames until the Meiji Restoration) and started to use Nitaro Akimoto, but as his bosama stage name he continued to be known as Nitabo. He was still only fourteen at this time but already active as a kado–tsuke. Originally, he just played the shamisen, which was still not futozao, but with the release of the performers he could finally get the shakuhachi he had wanted for so long, and this was soon to have a big influence on his signature skill.

With the shakuhachi, Nitabo devised the ‘hachiningei (play eight kinds of instruments alone)’, which become the single most popular technique at matsuri (Japanese festivals). This became his stimulus to move from his blind performers’ door-to-door lifestyle to techniques of artistic accomplishment. His popularity became a pull that had the rich folk of his home district setting up private shows and garden party performances for him, and had him commissioned for appearances. Before long, Nitabo married a woman known as ‘Man’, who was an itako (a Tsugaru region shaman), and then followed a big episode in the story of the Tsugaru shamisen, probably in around 1878. Nitabo attended a performance of the Gidayu Bushi style in the largest theatre northward of Sendai, the Shigemori-za (with a capacity of 1200), where he came across the thick-necked Gidayu shamisen.

From then on, Nitabo played a futozao shamisen of red sandalwood, leading to the completion of the hachiningei through the use of stage props. Hachiningei performances involved a variety of sound effects using Gidayu shamisen, taiko (Japanese drums), flutes, shakuhachi, dance, chanting with a washtub, a large sieve, azuki beans, bamboo sticks, and kindling, all behind a folding screen to add a sense of realism. In addition to the narration and vocalisation style, the Gidayu shamisen, also very popular in Edo, was used.

Gidayu became a puppet show with dolls, accompanied with the shamisen, and Nitabo combined the goze arts with the Gidayu, and with its self-evident inspiration it became enthralling entertainment for all kinds of people. Although for kado-tsuke, light shamisen were used to avoid getting tired while carrying them around, Nitabo did not have that problem with futozao shamisen due to giving priority to shows in local tearooms (at that time rest areas used for providing food or drink) or dignitaries’ mansions. That time was the birth of the pride and joy of Gidayu, which was part of the flourishing of the Edo Period in the Tsugaru District. And this, in turn, spurred on the popularity of Nitabo’s flavour of the Gidayu shamisen.

When 1883 came around, young blind men gathered around to petition to be what would become original deshi (close disciples) to Nitabo. Lessons began with what was called ‘bachi–tsuke’ (‘First step for How to use the pick’), humming to tune the shamisen, how to hold it, stringing it, how to hold the plectrum, how to pluck in order from the first string to the third. The cost of the lessons was about one pyo(60kg) of rice a month, or in the order of ¥30,000 in today’s money (by way of another frame of reference, nowadays normal shamisen lessons cost on average a little over ¥5000 a month).

After he had taught them lyrical accompaniment, he guided them into independence through encouraging them to compose and arrange, and to break into playing without imitating, and building their own independent genre. So at that point he started to recommend to all of his students to use the Gidayu shamisen; “If you use the futozao, you’ll get a bigger sound.” His disciples followed his advice and started to go out all over with futozao. It was through this flow of events that the adopted form of the Tsugaru shamisen gradually became futozao.

In these lessons, the posture (kamae) Nitabo taught was his own. That was what became the origin of the current way of holding the Tsugaru shamisen upright. Other shamisen styles usually use a posture of about twenty-seven degrees from horizontal, and Gidayu shamisen are not played upright either.

So why did Nitabo choose this upright style? One of the reasons was that to his mind he did not want his style to be imitative, and also in order to be able to pick quickly and powerfully it made sense to play upright. Furthermore, one more reason was that after he had married Man, she told him about the practice and way to enlightenment of the Itako sect and he started his own training. It is keeping the playing with no food and no sleeping. (Selflessness Eminence contributed to his belief in freeing yourself up in play, and in the advancement of technique .)

When you just lose your conscious nature at the end of a week of ascetic training, you will see some hallucinations. Sometime it is God or a talk( Then Itako can feel they become a sherman.) In this Nitabo’s case what has until that point, been a set plectrum seems like it will move in your hand of its own accord. Here,it has given birth to the ‘Mae-bachi (hit the up position)’ and the ‘Usiro-bachi (hit the down position)’. Through this technique, the plucked shamisen gave birth to the Tataki (struck) shamisen, and it was said the scraping technique was devised to make a wave-like sound.

Let us go back to the story of his disciples. If we go back a little way to 1881 (Meiji 14), when Nitabo’s first disciple joined him. His real name was Furukawa Kinosuke, but he went by Kino Bo. Nitabo performed shows with him, adding a new ‘two pick style’ to the programme.

He earned his independence after a short period of training, and took students on himself in Minami Tsugaru, continuing to propagate Nitabo’s style of striking the shamisen. At that time, a man known as Kamebo turned up, and performed with him, and so did one of the Meiji Period’s ‘Three Crows’ of Tsugaru Shamisen (Three Crows is a title given in Japan to the top three performers in whatever art), Kase no Momo.

To play shamisen today, there are considered to be two broad styles of playing: ‘Tataki (striking) shamisen’ and ‘Nezumi (plucking) shamisen’. Nitabo can be said to have originated the striking style, but what of the plucking style?

In 1890, one young man had an aim to go up to Nitabo and become his student. Ota Chosaku, born to a rich farmer in a place called Nagadoro, and given the stage-name Nagasaku Bo. He was a genius at remembering songs immediately, a technique said to be the shamisen remembering the song. The songs he had learned he could perform right there and then. He soon discovered the truth behind Nitabo’s teachings of ‘Don’t imitate, but play your own shamisen,’ and, ‘play the songs people sing’.

Nagasaku Bo certainly excelled at perfectly clear tones like a singing, and he added to that some beautifully crafted embellishments. This was the first step towards Tsugaru Shamisen really becoming a distinct instrument in its own right. Shortly after, one Tora Bo (Takamatsu Toragoro) entered an apprenticeship with Nagasaku Bo. With his teacher, Nagasaku Bo, they created a very clear sound, which became known as ‘Nezumi (The Pure Sound)’, and it was through that expression that the Nagadoro Te style of Nezumi (plucking) shamisen was born.

In later years, as with most of the deshi, he respected his teacher, Nitabo, but in a different way to his teacher Kino Bo, and did not really hand down much of Nitabo’s teachings himself. I’m sure he had been enchanted by the tones of Nitabo’s shamisen, but as for a way of life and thought, and the kind of recitals he aimed for, he was completely different.

It was about this time that regional variations in renditions of shamisen music were born. In northwest Tsugaru, the Nagasaku Bo students mainly adopted The Pure Sound, while in central Tsugaru, Hirosaki, and south Tsugaru Yoshiyuki Bo students adopted the striking feel. Then in about 1896 the Nagasaku Bo faction accomplished the Nagadoro Yosare and with this piece came the ‘kyokubiki’ (‘trick playing’). Interestingly, the Nagasaku Bo style made use of the usually idle little finger instead of the more usual ring finger. According to him this way of fingering the ‘Nezumi’ was the ultimate!

In 1897 (Meiji 30), the Sino-Japanese War ended, and the establishment of the Eighth Division of the Imperial Army was decided for Hirosaki City, and when it started the area would boom. Two years after that, in 1899, it looked like the bosama were opening their skills up for the general public to enjoy, and the general public could join in.

In 1900, Umeda Hogetsu (Suzuki Toyogoro) started an apprenticeship with Nagasaku Bo. He was not blind, but he had a disability in that he had unusually short arms and legs. He painstakingly devised his own way of performing, and thought up his own sound for the shamisen to accompany songs; a clarity of playing like Nitabo’s. This style is known as Umeda Style and it became the forerunner of the clear tonal style of modern transmission. Into the Taisho Period, Umeda achieved a level of ability high enough to become known as the leading player of shamisen. Years later, Tsugaru shamisen performer, Takeyama Takahashi, further broadened the world of shamisen by spreading it to a nationwide constituency, going with the flow started by Umeda Hogetsu.

On the other hand, back to Nitabo, a horse market opened at Kizukuri in Nishi Tsugaru in 1903 (Meiji 36), and one Morita Gennosuke and Nitabo had a competitive performance there. This Morita was the mastermind behind these wildly popular shamisen play-offs, and one of the originators of the Tsugaru folk song movement. The contest made a big impact on Nitabo. For some reason, Morita gave a dance to great applause from the audience. The blind Nitabo could not dance, and had some sense of foreboding about the new era. In 1905, with the end of the Russo-Japanese War, which had started in 1904, the Iwakiyama Festival started opening with the folk song contest.

In one of the Tsugaru Region’s big three festivals a new style of show came about where amateurs would sing first, and at the end the likes of Morita Gensuke and Kase no Momo would perform the centrepiece songs. These flamboyant and lively festivals had become more entertaining for a general audience than the somber, strict, arrangements that went along with the bosama style.

From that time the combination of Umeda Hogetsu and Kase no Momo became more popular at the contests. Nitabo and the Nagasaku people stubbornly continued refusing to join the contest. With their artists’ pride they thought joining a contest riddled with amateurs would not be a good thing. This was the reason that their names came to be forgotten by the general populace.

In the interests of space there follows a chronology of the major happenings in the evolution of the Tsugaru shamisen into its modern form.

  • 1914: The Naka Tsugaru Atago Village Festival opened, and young people were particularly excited by it. A lot of them had started to buy their own shamisen.
  • 1916-1917 (Taisho 6-7): Nitabo took on his last disciple, the nine year-old Shirakawa Gunpachiro. He learned the whole of Nitabo’s repertoire in five years, through ‘having a taste for stealing’, that is, not learning formally but picking the tricks up through listening, and furthermore not only did he pick up Nitabo’s style, but fused those of Nagatoro and Umeda together, culminating in his devising the fusion ‘Barracuda Style’ (Kamasu–Te).
  • 1923: Shirakawa Gunpachiro debuted at the shamisen contest. This year Takahashi Chikuzan apprenticed to Toda Jujiro Bo.
  • 1928: (Showa 3) In Hirosaki City a troupe called the ‘Mutsunoie’ (‘The House of Mutsu’) was launched.
  • 1929 (Showa 4) Although not blind a Kida Rinshoei and Fukushi Masakatsu left home to become bosama players, and got accepted with the Mutsunoie. Rinshoei was out of South Tsugaru, so the same place as where Nitabo’s number one disciple, Kinobo, and his student, Kamebo, were. The bosama style that Rinshoei learned was also considered to be from that tradition, so his sound was stirring, with a loud voice, and an even louder playing style.
  • 1931: Takahashi Chikuzan and Kansei Kuniko enter the troupe and the world of the shamisen play-offs. One after another star performers joined up for the contests.

One episode in 1932 stands out especially. A party of thirty Tsugaru folk-singers, calling themselves the Music Group, held a performance in Tokyo’s Sanyukan. Players from Nitabo’s tradition and disciples of Desaki-bo gave solo performances. Basking in their introductions, like; “All the way from Tohoku, if your shamisen is to get good enough to pluck like you’re plucking it apart…” they finished their performance on Cloud Nine, and there, listening with a smile on his face, in front of the stage, was Umeda Hogetsu.

The combination of Kase no Momo and Hogetsu’s ‘Umeda Hand’, aimed at young people, did not fit with the Music Group’s aspirations, but it especially fit in to Tokyo. It was a distant, and special, reunion of master and student.

  • 1935: sees the induction of twenty-seven year-old Gunpachiro into Mutsunoie.

The following year, 1936, Mihashi Mithiya became the student of Shirakawa Gunpachiro. Regarding Gunpachiro’s sound, it was also characterised by the pick that he used. Although most players used picks of water buffalo and tortoiseshell, he was using a wooden one of the kind that would be considered for practice today. Also, the corners were deliberately rounded like a rice paddle. In fact, the first pick that Nitabo had used had been a similarly rounded Gidayu style pick, with the tip planed down thinly. Despite the two players having different musical directions, why would they both deliberately choose such similar picks? Unfortunately, we will never know.

It also seems that how the tuning pegs were used had become a characteristic of the style too. Usually, there are three strings tuned around the bottom two tuning pegs, whereas Gunpachiro’s style was to wind the middle of the three strings around the single peg opposite. The middle was considered the most durable, and he was thought to have the ability to be able to change the one most likely to break smoothly, mid-performance, without having to stop playing. This has become the regular stringing preference for a lot of players in Hokkaido, Tsugaru, and that region.

Looking at performance style, a new maebiki style was established by Gunpachiro (maebiki: to play before singing). At the time, there was no kyokubiki (kyokubiki: to just purely play the shamisen, with no vocal accompaniment). They already had maebiki, but Gunpachiro established the tradition of playing it for longer. At that time, neither Kida Rinshoei nor Fukushi Masakatsu nor anyone had had the same programme, so it became specifically a part of Gunpachiro’s signature style. When Gunpachiro and Mutsunoie returned to Tsugaru from their provincial tour, they found there had been a huge change.

(Here follows a short discussion on shamisen ‘fushi’. This can be loosely translated as ‘time signature’ or ‘metre’, and that is the closest equivalent and used in this translation, but it also contains elements of pitch and tone.) The time signature of the shamisen had been changed. Regarding the length of the performance of what is known nowadays as kyubushi (‘Old Time’: a roughly mid-paced tempo), a lengthened part in shinbushi (‘New Time’: a quicker tempo) had replaced it and become mainstream. The changes confused Gunpachiro, and he relied on Fukushi Masakathu to get him up to speed, as Fukushi Masakathu had stayed in Tsugaru during the tour. Gunpachiro picked it up in the blink of an eye, and furthermore blended the shinbushi with his new maebiki style to create what has endured and flourished to become kyokubiki.

The crystal tone of Gunpachiro’s playing was like that of a ball rolling, and it really enthralled his audiences. Before you would know it Shirakawa Gunpachiro had become a God of Shamisen! And it was not just general audiences, but other shamisen players were getting worked up trying to steal his techniques. Kida was especially persistent.

After Gunpachiro, Kida Rinshoue definitely came next, and some years later he declared himself that Gunpachiro had been the best, ‘like my teacher’. Today’s Tsugaru Shamisen has three basic principles: 1 “Dotten (surprise!)”; 2 “Nezumi (softly, morosely)”; 3 “Jyawameki (exciting)” and they were likely similar to Gunpachiro’s perspective.

  • 1947 (Showa 22): When Fukushi Masakatsu’s troupe came to perform in a local elementary school, Yamada Chisato joined the troupe in a manner akin to running away from home.
  • 1949 (Showa 24): Mihashi MIthiya left Gupachiro’s original troupe. He went to Tokyo to debut in performances in traditional Japanese lodging inns (‘minyo’), where he rose to stardom in the minyo boom.
  • 1957 (Showa 32): A movie was released. Masakatsu Fukushi, having had enough of the now stagnated Music Group, went up to Tokyo. He started a life playing at a shamisen minyo establishment.
  • 1959 (Showa 34): Mihashi MIthiya held a daytime performance to commemorate his twenty-year anniversary of his minyo life. He called on Gunpachiro to come and they had a master-student play-off… And this time, Gunpachiro’s performance had the audience and the other players in Tokyo at the time listening in awe. It was at this time too, that the expression ‘Tsugaru shamisen’ was coined in reference to Gunpachiro’s playing. And this time too, there was one particularly moved member of the audience, a Takahashi Yujiro. After that Takahashi Chikuzan, Kida Rinshoei and others were not only aiming at recognition in Japan, but took to introducing the instrument worldwide to get more widespread recognition.

My explanation has been getting ahead of itself, but Tsugaru shamisen was born and has evolved through the efforts and talents of a great many players. Now too, the likes of the Yoshida Brothers, and those led by Agatsuma Hiromitsu, are not only active solely in the world of minyo (Japanese folk songs) and novelty playing of Tsugaru shamisen, but also in performing together with all kinds of other instruments, and are getting a lot of interest from genres other than Japanese classical music.

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