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New discoveries lend clues to history of "sanshin"

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-08-27

The Okinawan sanshin is a three-stringed lute that was modified from a similar Chinese instrument brought to the island centuries ago. Over the years changes have been made in the making of the "sanshin," but the basic design still remains. Although a few of the rarer models have turned up in places such as Hawaii and South America, where they were brought by Okinawan emigrants in search of work, there remains only a small number of sanshins that were actually used by the king and his court. Recently, one such instrument owned by the Okinawa Prefectural Museum has helped to shed light on the history of the sanshin and the artisans who made them.

During an examination of a classical "Morishima Keijo" sanshin by folklorist Kenichi Ota, writing was discovered inside the body of the instrument. The Morishima Keijo- a name associated with one of the highest quality makers of sanshin during its time - was first given to the museum in 1982 as a gift from Sho Hiroshi, a direct descendent of the Sho royal family. The sanshin is believed to have been made for the king himself, and is considered to be a cultural treasure.

Ota explained that he and co-worker Ken Sonohara were originally only looking for the kanji meaning "heaven," which was written or inscribed into many items used by Ryukyuan kings. "Sonohara-san was examining the neck and I was looking over the body. I looked inside and found the writing," he recalled, "I was very surprised when I saw it."

Ota's observations revealed not only the kanji for "heaven," but also much more about the history of the instrument. "The eighth month of the tenth year of Kampo" was part of what was written inside the sanshin, which represented the date according to the year of the Chinese Emperor of that time. Ota explained that the corresponding date using the solar calendar was August of 1860. "Many experts originally believed the sanshin we examined was made in the eighteenth century, so this new discovery has caused much debate," he said. There is now argument over whether the neck of the instrument was made earlier, but Ota feels that both the neck and the body were made at the same time.

Next to the date was written "Tokeshi Chikudun Peichin" - a name that matched historical records authored by Majikina Anko, an Okinawan historian who passed away in 1933. Anko recorded Peichin's name as one of the master sanshin-makers during the nineteenth century.

Ota and Sonohara also learned through their examination that small cuts were made around the inside of the body for better sound.

"Until now much of the current research done on the sanshin has involved mainly oral history, but now we have a written record," explained Ota about his findings.

The discovery verifies that the sanshin was at one time the property of a Ryukyuan king, and it has helped to stir new interest in an instrument which has become synonymous with Okinawan culture. Ota believes the changes in the sanshin's design since its introduction into Okinawa is also very significant in relationship to the sanshin makers of today. "I feel that the basic elements to the traditions behind the sanshin should be kept, but for Okinawan music to continue, change is also important. Young people need to experiment and come up with even newer designs, which will help Okinawan music to grow and spread around the world."

If you are interested in viewing the "Morishima Keijo," it is currently on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum as part of a special exhibit on sanshin until September 5. Many other antique sanshin are also part of the exhibit and visitors can see the cultural history behind this wonderful instrument, which still plays a significant role in everyday life here on Okinawa.

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