Bohan Li: Shamisen

Before I came to KCJS I hadn’t really decided what to participate in. Not all the programs would provide with such good chances for students to be involved in Japanese society. And I really hoped that I could take advantage of it. It took me a long time to think about what goal would I want to achieve at the end of semester. Is it a deep understanding of Japanese society? Or it could be getting to know about the working environment in Japanese since I have the idea to work in Japan after graduation? After careful consideration and getting advices from my teacher, I finally decided to practice Shamisen as my CIP program.

My initial consideration was that as a traditional and Japan-only instrument, Shamisen could be a good tool for me to learn about traditional Japanese music and arts. In China we actually have the similar instrument but nowadays most people don’t know more about it. However, after been imported to japan and assimilated to Japanese culture, Shamisen plays important part of Japanese「邦楽」. I would like to learn more about the spread and development of Shamisen through time.

At the beginning I thought it should be a group class that one teacher sits in the front and students follows teachers instruction and practicing. But then I found out that instead of a Shamisen class, it is more like an amateur’s club. Usually they have typical groups that practice same songs and meet regularly once a week. I was really nervous when I first meet with them. Partly because most of the members are elder people, I was worried that they would not be happy if a foreigner suddenly joined their private group. However, I was welcomed and even taken care of by them. They were curious about my past experience related to Japan, and would also like to tell me their personal relation to China, such as travel experience or business with Chinese partner. I was surprised because this is very different from things I learned from the Japanese minorities class that Japanese people would be offended if someone intend to enter their private group. Even I only joined them for few classes, I feel like I have already become a part of their party. Also, practicing Shamisen is a hart task for me since I had almost zero knowledge about string instrument. And because the Shamisen pick is actually really heavy, I had a hard time learning the basic rules like how to sit, rest my wrist and hold the ばち(picks) in the correct way. It was painful at the beginning, but when I firstly played a whole song, I felt that all the efforts were worthwhile.

I really want to thank my teacher Iwazaki Chieko sensei. She brought me into their club and also the area of traditional Japanese music. From her I learned not just about Shamisen as a instrument, but also how traditional Japanese aesthetics are changing and integrated with modern society. The insistence of Japanese artists and awareness of modern culture make Japan the special place that can retain its culture so well when other countries are somehow ignoring and losing their traditions.


6 thoughts on “Bohan Li: Shamisen

  1. Bohan your experience learning Shamisen sounds awesome! I also learned a bit of Shamisen at my CIP, but since my lessons were one on one, I didn’t really get the community experiences you had. All the same, all of the pain associated with playing Shamisen よく理解できます(笑)。After reading the ending of your post I also wonder about the integration of Japan’s artistic traditions with future generations. I never got the opportunity to see my teacher’s other students, but from the large amount of Koto and Shamisen always in storage, I would venture to say it has already become tough to attract more students. I wonder whether the continuation of tradition you identified will really be able to stand the tests of modernity.

    • Hey Nia! So in this club, it is true that most of the members are elder people. However i still met with two young girls. One of them just graduated from college, the other is a high school student. And i heard there are actually more young students. Also, what i heard from the high school girl is that she actually practices shamisen/koto at school!
      So i suppose for young people they still have chances to get to know traditional musics. Besides, my sensei sometimes writes scores for pop musics(like anime music ). so i guess it could be another way to attract young people.

  2. Bohan, I am glad to hear that you didn’t encounter the issues that you feared when you entered the group! I was also worried that I would be looked upon as imposing on a group where I didn’t belong, but that was not the case. You said it was more like an “amateur’s club” rather than one teacher teaching a group of students–did you prefer this, or would you have rather it have been more to your expectations of a “class”? It is also really great that you had the opportunity to view changing Japanese culture from such a unique perspective!

    • Hey Sabrina! Good questions. So at the beginning i expected a really class instead of a club. And actually at the beginning Nakamura Sensei(D class) told me it’s a group lesson(She’s also in the club) and i was kind of worried i wouldn’t get enough chance to learn or practice.
      I also hesitated because i don’t know if i should choose a volunteer cip to get social experience. But now i’m glad i chose shamisen because i got helped from other members and we actually talked a lot. And as a result i not only learned shamisen but also learned about japan’s society/ people’s daily life.

  3. Through group Shamisen lessons, it seems like you reached your goal of cultivating a deeper understanding of Japanese society! I feel that many of us carry a similar fear of being accepted when entering an unfamiliar environment, so I think you were very brave to take on the challenge of learning a completely new instrument.

    Along the same lines as Nia, I also found interest in your point about how the traditions of Shamisen are being rewritten, or should I say reintroduced, into a modern context. While you noted that the group is comprised mainly of elderly students, what do you think is detracting younger generations from joining group Shamisen lessons?

    • Hey Alexa! I think it has became a common phenomenon that young generations don’t care about traditional cultures or participate in any. Pop cultures seem to be more attractive since people have so many choices and don’t have to make that much efforts comparing to things like shamisen. I think the cost of money/time could be one of the reason. Practicing itself is also painful to some degree. Also, compare to instruments like piano or violin, shamisen is apparently not widely used in music-related areas.