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Sanshin reflects Okinawa's cultural soul

Date Posted: 2012-02-24

Okinawa boasts many unique cultural events, activities, foods, dance and even musical instruments played to accompany those dances.

March 4th marks Sanshin-no Hi, or Sanshin Day in Okinawa (3/4; san = three, shi = four). Often referred to as the embodiment of the soul of Okinawa, the sanshin is a plucked banjo-like instrument consisting of a long, black-lacquered ebony neck which pierces the top and bottom of an open frame-shaped body covered on both sides with snakeskin. The three strings were formerly made of silk, although tetron is now more commonly used. The strings are plucked by means of a plectrum made of water-buffalo horn.

Special celebrations commemorating Sanshin Day kick off at noon March 4th across most of the prefecture, with music supporting the traditional Kagiyadefu dance. In Yomitan, the celebration spreads across the village, sometimes slipping into the homes and schools, although the main event takes place at the local Cultural Center. Performers will be entertaining with a variety of classical, contemporary and folk tunes on their Sanshins. The events are free at 2901 Zakimi, Yomitan Village. Performances run noon to 9 p.m.

There are various types of sanshin classified in accordance with such features of the neck as the angle of inclination of the head section, the size of the peg box, and the curvature of the base of the neck before it enters the body. Named after their original makers, these include Makabi, Febaru, Chinen-deku, Kuba Shunden, Kuba-nu-funi, Hiranaka-Chinen, and Yunagushiku types.

Although sanshin was originally reserved for the Ryukyuan nobility, the sanshin became the favorite of the commoners during the nineteenth century, and is currently experiencing a sort of renaissance.

It is said that when a fire broke out in a house, the first thing Okinawans rescued was the sanshin whereas in mainland Japan it was the sword. Nevertheless, such is the popularity of the sanshin nowadays that its soulful sounds are incorporated in many contemporary popular tunes.

Sanshin no Hi is not only celebrated in Okinawa, but at a variety of locations around the world where there’s an Okinawa population. Live radio programs are beamed on Sanshin Day through the Internet around the world, linking Okinawans to far away spots including Brazil and Paris.

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