Sanshin, which can very well be said to be the soul of the music of Okinawa, is made from ebony wood, rosewood and python skin. There are seven representative shapes for sanshin, each requiring an exceptionally high level of delicate and careful workmanship. It is not uncommon for decades to go by before a sanshin passes successfully from the initial stage of wood selection to final completion.
Despite its widespread popularity, the exact origins of the sanshin are yet unknown, although the musical instrument is said to be have been in existence for over 600 years. After the Chinese three-stringed lute known as “sanxian” was introduced to the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 14th century, master craftsmen of the kingdom’s Kaizuri Magistrate’s Office refined techniques for producing a musical instrument unique to Okinawa. The original pronunciation for the word “sanshin” is derived from the original Chinese pronunciation (“sanxian”) and represented in writing with the Japanese kanji for the word “string”. In the 17th century, the concept of using the sanshin as an accolade in recognition and reward of honor was developed. The sanshin occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Okinawa, particularly in times of hardship and strife. In the aftermath of WWII, a type of sanshin termed “kankara sanshin” made with salvaged scrap materials provided much needed solace to those who bore loss and suffering as a result of the war. In recent years, there has been growing demand for sanshin from generations of Okinawa migrants located worldwide. The sanshin was officially designated as a prefectural traditional craft product on November 30th, 2012.
|Ebony wood, rosewood, isu (Distylium racemosum), yew plum, python skin
|Place of manufacture
|All regions of main island of Okinawa
|There are seven main types of sanshin: Febaru, Chinin-dēku, Kubashundun, Kubanufunī, Hiranaka-chinin, Makabi, Yunā
|Partnership name and date of establishment
|Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa, April 16th, 2010
|Date designated by national
|November 7th, 2018
|Date designated by prefecture
|November 30th, 2012
|Source: "An Outline of Promotion Strategies for the Craft Industry", official website of Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa （https://okinawa34.jp)
Devastation caused by the war led to an immense loss of lives and also afflicted permanent destruction on many tangible and intangible types of cultural property in Okinawa. In 1955, under control of the Government of the Ryukyu Islands, three sanshin were designated as Special Important Cultural Properties, and by 1958, an additional eight sanshin were added to the list for government protection. In 1995, the list grew by nine more sanshin. Today, there are a total of 20 sanshin designated as specially important cultural artifacts. On April 16th, 2010, the Sanshin Craftsmen’s Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa was registered as a business corporation. Efforts at preserving and promoting the tradition of this musical instrument paved the way for the sanshin to be designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a traditional craft in November 2008. Today, the sanshin is used to provide essential musical accompaniment to Kumi-odori, a Ryukyuan court dance listed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as well as classical Ryukyuan music, Okinawa folksongs and even in popular music. The simplicity of the sanshin’s musical tone continue to captivate and enthral countless people.