IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | East Asia

short newsshort news

Tsugaru Shamisen Music
An interdisciplinary analysis of a Japanese performing art

In The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music: The origin and development of a Japanese folk performing art three authors have collaborated to present the reader with a historical, social, and ethnographic description of a famous Japanese lute genre and have then proceeded to analyse it from the perspectives of world music.

By Hae-kyung Um

The book, richly illustrated with photos, drawings, and charts, is comprised of two sections. Part one, 'The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music: The Origin and Development of a Japanese Folk Performing Art', is an abridged English translation of a book originally written in Japanese by Daiz˘ Kazuo. It has been translated by the two other authors, Suda Naoyuki and Anthony Rausch. Part one is a historical and ethnographic account of Tsugaru shamisen music, which originated in Tsugaru, the remote northwestern region of Japan, in the mid-nineteenth century but is now widely performed throughout the country.

Daiz˘ describes the genesis and historical development of this performing art by providing well-researched biographies and musical genealogies of noted Tsugaru shamisen artists. In particular this work focuses on the life of Nitabo, a blind itinerant musician, who is credited with being the originator of the genre, and on Nitabo's successors who have carried on his musical legacy. The author describes how Tsugaru shamisen music has been shaped by the creative innovations of different individual artists and how this regional folk genre has evolved nationally through interactions with other performing arts to create new styles and genres.

Shamanic trance

Part two, entitled 'Anthropological Interpretation of The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music: The Origin and Development of a Japanese Folk Performing Art', examines the social and cultural implications of the ethnography provided by Daiz˘. This part, co-authored by Suda Naoyuki and Anthony Rausch, draws on a variety of case studies and theories from sociology, anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology. The two writers attribute the birth and development of Tsugaru shamisen music to their notion of 'shamanism and creative marginality'. They suggest that the inspiration and energy intrinsic to the creation of the performing arts, including this genre, is in part derived from the shamanic trance which enables the artist to transcend to other dimensions of freedom and creativity. Suda and Rausch also give support to this proposition by drawing parallels between shamanism and the arts throughout Asia and the West. In combination with this shamanic influence, they go on to argue that 'creative marginality', associated with peripheral or marginal status, operates as the key elements in the production of the performing arts and fine arts. In their view the social periphery is considered to be the 'creative and artistic seed bed' and the marginality of the musicians, such as their blindness and low socio-economic status, is considered to be the driving force behind their artistic endeavours. The authors also maintain that this notion of 'creative marginality' is to be found in Jazz, Blues, Flamenco, the music of Mozart and many others who share a similar type of existence that excludes such artists from their wider society and even isolates them within their own social periphery. They conclude that their hypothesis of 'shamanism and creative marginality' is a vital ingredient in the birth of the performing arts in general and will hopefully contribute to further explorations of the 'missing links' to be discovered in the creation of other folk performing arts around the world.


This book is a unique combination of a variety of perspectives of the three authors. The first half is written by a Japanese writer who entered the world of Tsugaru shamisen music as an outsider and who became a performer, broadcaster, spokesperson, and educator of this performing art. Daiz˘'s chronicle of Tsugaru shamisen music reflects his devotion to his chosen genre. He focuses on the artistic endeavours of the musicians and on the success of this isolated regional folk genre in becoming a national Japanese performing art with a developing international reputation. Then, in the second part, Daiz˘'s work is reinterpreted by a Japanese and an American sociologist. The two authors undertook a challenging task of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary analysis. Their combined scholarly effort, which covers a variety of performing arts from around the world and theories from many different disciplines, is impressive. However, some of their arguments are occasionally far-fetched or misleading, particularly when they cite secondary sources for their cross-cultural comparisons without critical examination, for example, their use of Japanese sources to describe Peking opera (p. 117). I also found some of the usage of terms borrowed from other disciplines to be inadequate, for example, their very non-anthropological reference to post-war Japan as a new 'egalitarian society' (p. 140). The explanation of the Japanese terms in the main body of the book and the glossary at the end are extremely helpful, although most students of East Asian Studies would have appreciated the addition of the Japanese and Chinese characters to this glossary. A more thoughtful analysis of cause and effect in relation to their central hypothesis would also have been welcome. Is marginality always necessary for creativity and to what extent is creativity a cause of marginality as well as being a product of marginality? However, this book is a welcome addition to English scholarship on the Japanese performing arts and culture, especially on the subject of regional and folk genres. Those who are interested in the performing arts of Asia, the sociology of performance, ethnology, and folklore will find this book useful in deepening their understanding of the individual and social dimensions of artistic creativity.

Suda Naoyuki, Daiz˘ Kazuo, and Anthony Rausch The Birth of Tsugaru Shamisen Music: The Origin and Development of a Japanese Folk Performing Art, Aomori: Aomori University Press, 1998, ISBN 4-900027-006, ix, 219 pp.

Dr Hae-kyung Um is a Research Fellow, PAATI, IIAS, Leiden. She can be reached at: HaeKyungUm@let.leidenuniv.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | East Asia