The shamisen is a centuries old Japanese stringed instrument making its way down the catwalk of the North American music industry—but its rare whiney crying sound gives pause to pet lovers internationally.
A shamisen is a long-necked stringed instrument traditionally handcrafted out of the most exotic materials. Its frame traditionally can be carved out of mulberry wood, sandalwood, or quince. At the top of a fretless, narrow neck are three hexagonal shaped pegs, traditionally made of ivory or tortoise shell, used to tighten the strings. The stings are traditionally made out of silk. The silk strings are stretched over a length of the neck to the opposite end which is shaped like a hollow, resonating drum similar to a guitar, or banjo. A shamisen drum is known as the dō.The simplistic beauty and pure sound of the shamisen does not come without a price. The controversial shamisen drum is traditionally made from the cured skin of a demised cat. In the most high-quality shamisen, it is not uncommon for there to be a noticeable protrusion of a cat’s teats.
The shamisen, first called the sanshin, is believed to have derived from the Chinese sanxian, in the 16th century which was introduced to Japan through the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Modern day Ryūkyū Kindom is typically referred to as associated with Okinawa Islands. The music resounding from a shamisen has a beautiful, high-quality whiney twang. When one thinks of traditional Japanese guitar-styled music, it could very well be the piercing tones of the shamisen that comes to mind. In spite of having only three strings, the shamisen music has a varied and unmatched sound. The whiney cry of the shamisen can be very melancholic sounding. But on the opposite extreme, it has a very unique sound that is incorporated into contemporary music such as country, jazz, and rock and can sound as upbeat as a banjo or fiddle. Similar to playing the guitar with a pick, the shamisen is often played with a plectrum called a bachi, which resembles a medium-sized, fan-shaped putty knife used for spackling.
In the late 90’s animal rights activists’ protesting caused many Japanese tanneries to go out of business. Tanning, an acidic process treatment for animal skins, is used to turn the cat skins into leather. Professional shamisen artists have stated that the cats in Japan have a much better diet than in other countries. A skilled shamisen artists feels the imported animal skins do not translate into the same high tonal quality as their domestic feline hides. The quality of the cat hide is what musicians sense gives the shamisen its pure sound. Synthetic hides and plastics are similarly disfavored by shamisen artists. Seasoned shamisen artists contend, while synthetics are being tested, they do not replicate the same quality as cat hides from cats produced in the boundaries of Japan
The cat population has been reported to have been over 300,000 stray cats at times. In 1997, BBC News journalist Juliet Hindell reported the Japanese government has in the past used “cat catchers” to catch stray cats and ship them off to tanneries in a regulated manner. The industry went from having over 200 cat trappers in years prior to the 1997 report, down to only two at the time of the report. It was further reported many cat catchers had been accused of stealing family pets which has caused some controversy between the Japanese government and the pet lovers it governs.
The Japan Cat Network is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping control the cat population in Japan. The organization promotes trapping, neutering, and releasing stray cats in order to provide a safe and humane option to assist the community keep the cats at bay, but safe.
Nevertheless, despite the downsizing of many Japanese tanneries, the unique shamisen sound is purring its way into the Japanese and North American rock and country music scene such as the Nashville Folk Festival. Artists such as AAA (“Triple A”), Kevin Kmetz, and artists featured in the U.S. released “The Birth of California Shamisen” documentary currently have popular hits featuring shamisen sounds. Others, like the Yoshida Brothers shamisen professionals, keep their eye on the tiger by successfully performing in their two-man shamisen band for audiences worldwide. Similar to the Yoshida Brothers more shamishen artists such as The ABEYA, Oyama and Nito, and Hiromitsu Agatsuma have astounded U.S. audiences with the enchanting Tsugaru Shamisen-styled sounds as their tour schedules are no longer confined to the eastern world. To hear live shamisen music, Washingtonians can most likely coordinate a visit to the Kennedy Center during each annual National Cherry Blossom Festival probably for many years to come if their shamishen cultural bookings history continue to be mimicked from one year to the next.