The devil's music

No-sword has played host to anti-shamisen demagoguery before, and I'm afraid it's time for some more, courtesy of Nishimura Takeki 西森武城's Meiji-era book Jōdan hanbun hitorigoto 常談半分独り言 ("Talking, half in jest, to myself"):

There are any number of other instruments: the koto, the biwa, the kokyū, and so on. Some have a pureness of tone exceeding that of the shamisen's, but none surpass the shamisen in its power to lead people astray.

Strum a shamisen by the spring moon, in the gloaming, under heavens rich with clouds, and it will send a man's soul soaring into the void. Allow it to sing through the autumn rain, in melancholy, over ground thick with fallen leaves, and it will hurl a man's soul to distant skies. With such skill does the shamisen lead men astray that it almost seems ensouled itself. [...]

When a man falls for a woman, or a woman grows close to a man, the shamisen is a very matchmaker. And so no matter how old and experienced a geisha may be, to steal her shamisen is like absconding with a blind man's staff or snipping off a crab's claws: it renders her incapable of ensnaring the commonest man, and likewise even the commonest man will not feel affection for a geisha unless lured into abandon by her shamisen. [...]

The strings on a shamisen are thin, but they can stop a heart, and bodies sway this way and that with the shamisen's neck. [...] Put simply, the shamisen is a matchmaker that knows only lewdness. Pleasant listening, perhaps, but beyond pleasure lies lust, and lust can only lead one to error. Better never to listen to the shamisen at all! And yet, though you may think "O, indeed I shall not!" wherever you may go abroad the shamisen will be heard; there is nothing for it. For as long as there have been shamisen, lewdness has been on the rise, and truly troublesome practices have taken root everywhere from the cities to the remotest country towns. Oh! what mysterious power does the shamisen conceal within itself? Let a thousand scholars gather to work arm-in-arm together; this mystery alone would remain unsolved.

It has been said that to tax the shamisen heavily would be one way to discourage immorality, and indeed this may be excellent policy, but however heavy a tariff may be laid upon it, the sound of the shamisen will not cease! Why? Because the shamisen itself does not crave bawdy music — people do. And when people crave bawdy music, they will not begrudge even a thousand pieces of gold for that purpose; the shamisen, then, would not in the end be abandoned. It cannot be banned, and seeing that it cannot be banned, I can only offer this warning, not to be forgotten: Abandon not thy self to the shamisen, lest your body be brought "three down."

("Three down" is a pun on the shamisen tuning san-sagari, in which the third string is lowered one step from standard tuning.)

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That really makes me want to learn to play the shamisen...


This is quite amusing.

If he has this much to say about a three stringed instrument, imagine what he would say about the guitar, or the koto...


Yeah, this would be a better advertisement for the shamisen than anything any hogaku kyokai (or whatever) could come up with.

Peter: On the other hand presumably he would have been OK with the ichigenkin.

language hat:

Yeah, I don't think that can be called "anti-shamisen." DON'T GO NEAR THE EVIL SHAMISEN OR YOU WILL HAVE HOT SEXY SEX!!!


There was an interesting piece in a "This American Life" that aired around Valentine's Day about an American who was studying abroad in China, and for fun took up Chinese opera. When it came time to rehearse, and finally meet the musicians he was struck by one of the young women playing the erhu and fell in love at first sight...

I thought it interesting that I just happened to hear that story on the same day as reading this Ambrose Bierce-esque description of the shamisen.


I'd better warn the Okinawan uta-sanshin master that I work with to quit before it's too late!

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