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Tsugaru-jamisen (kanji: 津軽三味線, hiragana: つがるじゃみせん) or Tsugaru-shamisen (hiragana: つがるしゃみせん) is a genre of shamisen music originating in Aomori prefecture in the northernmost area of the Japanese island of Honshū. It is today performed throughout Japan, though associations with the Tsugaru area of Aomori remain strong.


The genre is played on a large shamisen with thicker strings than those used for most other styles. Tsugaru-shamisen is easy to recognize by its percussive quality (the plectrum striking the body of the instrument on each stroke) and the lilt of the rhythms performed. Unlike most other Japanese music, some Tsugaru-shamisen pieces are in triple time, though the three beats are not accentuated in the manner of Western music.

Tsugaru-shamisen has a large and steadily growing repertory. Details are of course arguable and there is some variation among performers. Interviews with noted shamisen virtuosi such as Takahashi Chikuzan and Yamada Chisato and recordings issued by stars of the past allow one to produce the following table. Most of the titles given below exist in two versions: in song form (a vocal line with shamisen and drum (taiko) accompaniment) and as a solo shamisen piece (see sixth group below). Recently, younger performers have been attempting to combine Tsugaru-shamisen playing styles or motives with jazz, rock, and other forms of more commercial music. With the exception of the shin min’yō of group E these songs are usually considered to be “traditional.”

The Tsugaru-shamisen repertoire[edit]

  • A. Kudoki bushi (Quasi-narrative songs)
    • “Suzuki Mondo” Now rarely played
    • “Jonkara kudoki” Now rarely played
  • B. Tsugaru (no) mitsumono (“Three Tsugaru Songs”)
    • “Tsugaru jongara bushi”
      • shin bushi (new song)
      • naka bushi (middle song)
      • kyū bushi (old song)
      • shin kyū bushi (new old song)
    • “Tsugaru yosare bushi”
      • shin bushi (new song)
      • kyū bushi (old song)
    • “Tsugaru ohara bushi”
      • shin bushi (new song)
      • kyū bushi (old song)
  • C. Tsugaru (no) itsutsumono (“Five Tsugaru Songs”)
    • “Tsugaru aiya bushi”
    • “Tsugaru san-sagari”
  • D. Kyū min’yō (“Old folk songs”)
    • “Yasaburō bushi”
    • “Tsugaru jinku”
    • “Dodarebachi”
    • “Ajigasawa jinku”
    • “Tosa no sunayama”
    • “Tsugaru ondo”
    • “Torajōsama”
    • "Tanto Bushi"
    • Others
  • E. Shin min’yō (“New folk songs”)
    • “Waiha bushi” (composed in 1932 by the singer Narita Unchiku [1888-1974])
    • “Ringo bushi” (composed by Narita Unchiku in 1954)
    • Others
  • F. Kyokubiki (shamisen solos and improvisation). Potentially all songs of B, C, D, and E (most commonly B), as well as free improvisation, freely entitled by performers.
    • “Iwaki” (Takahashi Chikuzan)
    • “Arashi” (Yamada Chisato)
    • Others, etc.
  • G. Gassō or kyoku-awase (ensemble playing of multiple shamisen, occasionally supplemented by other instruments such as percussion, taishō-goto, koto, etc.). Most often versions of “Jonkara bushi;” sometimes other songs of groups B to E above; occasionally newly composed pieces or free improvisation on standard patterns.

Playing method[edit]

A Tsugaru-jamisen player

The Tsugaru-shamisen is characterized by many distinct phrases and styles. In acrobatic technique (kyokubiki), improvising is the feature. The player will often strike the strings and skin very hard and fast with the bachi. They use only left index and ring finger traditionally, and the scale is basically pentatonic (do re mi so ra). A technique unique to the Tsugaru-shamisen style in recent years is the tremolo played with the back of the bachi without hitting the skin.

Discussion of the repertoire[edit]

Group A presents songs that are only rarely heard today, though they were once the mainstay of the repertoire of itinerant, often blind, musician-beggars known as bosama. At the start of the 20th century, these kudoki were gradually displaced by shorter non-narrative songs. The bosama (and, in time, other performers) tended to concentrate their efforts on some five favorite songs (Group C). By the middle of the 20th century three songs (Group B) and their shamisen versions had become the core of the Tsugaru-shamisen repertoire, which they remain today. Indeed, "Jonkara bushi" — in a version that the old bosama would probably not even recognize — has today become virtually a symbol of the timeless “spirit of Tsugaru.”

The songs of group D — though no less traditional than those of groups A, B, and C — were not, it seems, a major part of the bosama repertoire. Instead, they tended to be sung by non-professionals, generally without shamisen accompaniment. But with the Tsugaru-shamisen “boom” after World War II, these songs began to receive renewed attention. Shamisen accompaniments were composed or arranged by such performers as Takahashi Chikuzan (Takahashi 1976:142). Somewhat earlier there had been a nationwide movement to produce “new folk songs” (see Hughes 1985:144-54, 281-309; Kojima 1970), resulting in the songs listed in Group E. More recently still, solo shamisen versions of the songs of Group D have been arranged. Solo versions of the older songs have become the center of the repertoire, leading to the development of long solo improvisations (Group F) and ensemble playing (Group G).

One of the most the interesting characteristics of the Tsugaru-shamisen repertoire is what might be termed its cumulative nature. As can be seen from the listing of songs in Group B, newer variants of songs tend to coexist alongside older versions, rather than replacing them. Although the older songs and their shamisen accompaniments or shamisen solo versions have no doubt themselves been somewhat transformed from what they were many decades ago (and they of course were never an entirely uniform to begin with), it remains certain that the “old,” “middle,” and “new” versions are differentiated not merely stylistically but also historically. Their structural differences contain, as it were, a congealed history.

Notable players[edit]

References and further reading[edit]

Daijō Kazuo
Daijō has spent most of his life studying The Tsugaru-Shamisen and has met many of the old bosama. His writings, often in semi-novelistic form, emphasize that everything originated with one "Nitabō". Most scholars[who?] reject this unilinear derivation of the genre.

  • 1984 Genkon Tsugaru-shamisen. Gōdō Shuppan.
  • 1986 “Tsugaru-shamisen no rekishi: sono seishin to fūdo.” In Tsugaru-shamisen taizen (6 cassettes and book). Tokyo: King Records K25H-5274-8.
  • 1995 Tsugaru-shamisen no tanjo: minzoku geinō no seisei to ryūsei. Tokyo Shin'yosha.

Groemer, Gerald

  • 1991 The Autobiography of Takahashi Chikuzan: Adventures of a Tsugaru-jamisen musician. Warren Michigan: Harmonie Park Press.
  • 1993 "Tsugaru-jamisen ni okeru sokkyō ensōteki yōso no bunseki" Tōyō ongaku kenkyū 57:41-61.
  • 1999 The Spirit of Tsugaru: Blind Musicians, Takahashi Chikuzan, and the Folk Music of Northern Japan. Warren, Michigan: Harmonie Park Press. 321 pp., illust., biblio.
  • 2012 The Spirit of Tsugaru: Blind Musicians, Takahashi Chikuzan, and the Folk Music of Northern Japan, 2nd revised edition. Hirosaki:Tsugaru Shobō. 369 pp., illust., photographs, biblio.

The new edition includes a good deal of newly discovered historical information and brings the volume up to date. Currently only available from amazon.co.jp, it remains the most detailed study of Tsugaru-shamisen to date in any language. Includes a translation of Takahashi Chikuzan's autobiography (Takahashi 1976))

Hughes, David

  • 1985 The Heart’s Home Town: Traditional Folk Song in Modern Japan. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.

(introduction to Japanese folk song in general).

Johnson, Henry

Kimura Genzō

  • 1974 “Tsugaru-shamisen no keifu (1-24),” Tōō Nippō, Oct.16-Dec.14.

Kojima Tomiko

  • 1970 “Shin-min’yō undō no ongakushi-teki igi.” Engekigaku 11:1-29.

(Study of the "new folk song" movement)

Matsuno Takeo

  • 1935 “Tsugaru min’yō-shi.” Kyōdo-shi Mutsu 1:90-118; 3:115-157; 4:93-112.

Suda Naoyuki and Anthony Rausch

  • 1998 The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music. Aomori: Aomori University Press.

(Abridged translation of Daijō 1995 and includes some more general anthropological material).

Takahashi Chikuzan

  • 1973 Tsugaru-shamisen Takahashi Chikuzan (liner notes). Tokyo: CBS Sony SODL 17.
  • 1976 Jiden: Tsugaru-shamisen hitori tabi. Tokyo: Shinshokan.

(Autobiography of one of the Tsugaru-shamisen greats of the past. Translated in Groemer 1991 and 1999).

Tanaka Sadako

  • 1984 Tsugaru-shamisen no “mitsumono” ni okeru hikaku kenkyū—kyokubiki o chūshin toshite. Unpublished master’s thesis, Tōkyō Geijutsu Daigaku.

External links[edit]