Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

The Sanshin: The Beauty of Simplicity

Photo: By Wolcott, Katherine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sanshin: The Beauty of Simplicity

Damian Mitchell

Music should humbly seek to please; within these limits great beauty may perhaps be found. Extreme complication is contrary to art. Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.”-Claude Debussy

Music is truly one of the great shared passions that binds the human race together; it crosses boundaries, it circumvents the barriers put up by language and culture, yet is undeniably closely tied to both.

Every culture has some form of music, exactly as every culture has both storytelling and myths. So fundamental are these forms of communication and shared experience that they underpin the whole society in which they are found. Indeed, it could easily be argued that both are intrinsically woven together into the very fabric of their mother civilisation. However, even though each typifies so much of the crucible in which they were born, both, especially music, have the power to transcend it.

Kokyu with bow behind it, Sanshin Japan, 19th century

Peter Roan on Flickr
The islands of Japan, specifically the hundreds of individual islands that make up the Ryuku Islands of which Okinawa is the most well known, are no exception to this truism and in this article I want to take a look at the sometimes lilting, sometimes tenebrous sanshin and my recent challenge to make one.

What is a Sanshin?

The sanshin is a simple three-string instrument that hails from the shores of Okinawa and was a precursor to the more widely known shamisen found on mainland Japan.

The sanshin is plucked like a Chinese lute or a European guitar and, like these, it has a similar basic design: The sounds are produced by plucking three strings that run the length of the long wooden neck that protrudes from the body of the instrument itself. Each of the three strings is wrapped around one of three tuning pegs that are jammed into three holes in the headstock at the end of the neck. The neck is fretless like a cello or violin, as opposed to the metal-ridges or frets of a guitar, so as to give the player a wider variety of notes and half-notes literally at the player’s fingertips. Control over what notes are being played is done by pressing a string down onto the neck and plucking it near the body. The sound is then amplified by the resonator. It is the main body that actually acts as a resonator to increase the amplitude of the sounds that are being made. It is as simple as that; easy to understand but less so to master.


Now, with the basic mechanics out of the way let’s look at the history of the instrument.

As I mentioned the sanshin is an antecedent of the shamisen. However, it does itself have its own forebears and a long history. Alas! The very ancient history of instruments like the sanshin in Asia is somewhat shrouded by the years between then and now. We do have some tasty titbits nonetheless.


Matt Watts on Flickr
We have what appears to be a three-stringed lute in a thirteenth century stone sculpture from the Southern Song period in China. Then there are references to a three-stringed lute in literature from the Yuan Dynasty in the fourteenth century. Finally it is specifically named as the sanxian, meaning “three-strings”, in documents dating from the subsequent Ming Dynasty.

The sanxian bears a strong resemblance to the sanshin in both form and the materials used in their construction. For a start, both have the three strings, long fretless fingerboards and a resonator as we touched on earlier. Traditionally, the resonator of both the sanshin and sanxian was made by stretching snakeskin, typically from a Burmese python, over the round-edged rectangular wooden frame of the instrument’s body.

There is a very good reason for the strong resemblance of the sanxian and sanshin: the old maritime kingdom of Ryuku, as Okinawa was known before becoming part of Japan in 1879, was a close trading partner with mainland China. Through this route the sanxian morphed into the sanshin. It was in this form that the instrument eventually came to mainland Japan through the great trading gate that was, and still is, Osaka.

The Strings and the Tuning

In Okinawa the instrument quickly became absorbed into their culture and turned into an important feature of island life. As such, certain traditional ways of thinking and thus words became attached to the instrument. For example, the three strings were named, the thickest was the male string or Uujiru, the central string was the middle string or Nakajiru and the thinnest string was known as the female string or Miijiru. Another example is the plectrum that was traditionally used to pluck the sanshin’s strings. This was made from water buffalo horn. The agricultural use of buffalo in the country is another testament to the long history that Okinawa shares with China.


Toshiyuki IMAI on Flickr

The sanshin has 5 tunings known as the chindami. The standard tuning or hon choshi (C3, F3 and C4) is the most common but variations on these involve slightly raising or lowering the pitch of one or more of the strings.


Wars change everything. Whenever they occur they are fulcrums for change. Sometimes their effects are slight, but when the fighting is in the very villages in which you live, the deaths are in almost every family and when your land becomes occupied, the changes are drastic and fundamental.


USMC Archives on Flickr
The Battle of Okinawa in mid-1945 was the largest landing by amphibious craft during the Second World War. It was known as Operation Iceberg by the American military and, much like the iceberg that struck the ocean liner the Titanic thirty three years earlier, caused massive casualties. Over 150’000 Japanese deaths occurred, soldiers and civilians over the three month campaign with the Allies losing around 12’000 in addition to the 50’000 wounded.

It was not long after this before the surrender of Japan took place and the country underwent changes that would alter it forever. Okinawa was greatly affected and still lives under the shadow of the American base that is still there. The American occupation impacted the lives of everyone but for our story about the sanshin, the rationing that was occurring all over the world in the post-war period, but particularly in Okinawa, caused a shortage of most of the traditional materials used in its construction. This meant that a different solution for what to use in making the instrument was necessary.


PicselPerfect on Flickr

Kankara Sanshin

In dark times the desires for pleasure, joy, fun, music and other escapes from the hard realities of life are at their strongest. Additionally, with the defeat, there was a strong drive to cling onto what they could from the halcyon pre-war days and for these reasons amongst others, there were many who wanted to play songs and sing traditional pieces with their surviving friends and family. However, the materials to make traditional sanshins were beyond scarce, so what was to be done?

With the food shortages due to the war and as a result of the collapse of the economy in the wake of the surrender, the survivors found themselves living on food handouts from the American forces. Part of the answer was the large cans of food that the American military were both consuming themselves and giving out as rations to the starving Okinawan populace. These could be used as excellent resonators for a sanshin. Each merely required the addition of a neck and strings and pegs to attach the strings to. The neck and headstock were often made from whittled down furniture legs. Interestingly, often swords and bayonets were more often than not used to do the whittling. As for the strings, parachute cords were used, although nowadays it is more usual to find them made from nylon just like with guitars. And that was pretty much all that was needed.


Abasaa on Wikimedia
Given the ad hoc nature of the instruments construction you may not be surprised to find out that “Kankara” literally means made from a can.

Do it Yourself

So, as the son of a carpenter, I thought trying to craft a Kankara Sanshin would be an excellent little project to try my hand at.


To begin with I got hold of a large can, you can pick these up for free at certain restaurants if you know the staff well or buy one at one of the supermarkets they have here in Japan that specialise in providing produce for restaurants. Into the can I made a pair of oblong holes through which I was going to fit the neck. I then undercoated it and added some colour.



For the neck and headstock I used a long piece of pine that I shaped, sanded and lacquered according to some specifications I got off the Internet. To this I drilled holes for the three pegs that were likewise made from pine.


I obviously bought a set of nylon strings. Even though I was a chemistry teacher back in England and I have made nylon in the classroom before, I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to make my own unfortunately. The bridge for the strings to keep them above the can body was also a small piece of pine. With all this done it was then a simple matter of putting it together and voila, one kankara sanshin.


Tuning it was easy enough and I used a plectrum that I made from an old plastic store card. It sounded good considering the rough and ready construction and I was pleasantly surprised at my success.

If you were interested in having a go at this there are actually DIY kits available for making kankara sanshins. This is certainly a less expensive and thoroughly rewarding experience and I’d recommend it. Have fun!