Sanshin Photo:Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa

Sanshin Sanshin

A simple but beautiful sound essential to Okinawan music
A delicate artisanship that has been passed down for generations since the Ryuku Dynasty


What is Sanshin ?

Sanshin is a musical instrument produced around Naha of Okinawa prefecture. It is used for Kumiodori, which is a theatrical art listed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Ryukyu opera, Okinawa's intangible cultural heritage, as well as various kinds of music such as folk and pop music. Many people are fascinated by the simple sound of sanshin.
Sanshin is consisted of a neck, body and pegs where the strings are attached. There are different types of sanshin depending on the shape of the neck, and among them, there are seven typical types of sanshin which are named after the craftsmen of the Ryuku Dynasty that created them. Delicate craftsmanship is necessary to produce a sanshin, and sometimes it could take decades to make one sanshin, from choosing the wood to completion. Snakeskin is used on the body. In the old days, it was a symbol of wealth to have a sanshin with a snakeskin body in Okinawa. People would display a pair of sanshin made from the same wood called mitu sanshin on their alcove to bring good luck, or they would place the sanshin in a lacquered box and treasure it. In this way, sanshin is not only an instrument, but has a special meaning within the Okinawan culture.


Sanshin - History Photo:Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa

In the late 14th century, an instrument called sanxian, which is said to be the origin of sanshin, was brought to the Ryukyu Dynasty from China. In the 15th century, people of the samurai class were recommended to play sanshin. Sanshin became an official instrument for court music in the beginning of the 17th century, and was played in various events. At the same time, a post to control sanshin producers was established. This produced master craftsmen who made high quality instruments. As Kumiodori and other performing arts were flourishing, sanshin established its position as one of the main instruments in court music.
With the abolition of feudal domains and establishment of prefectures in 1897, the Ryukyu domain became Okinawa prefecture, and the samurai class who were the players of sanshin, lost their positions. However, as they spread out to regions, sanshin became known widely to the general public.
Many sanshin were lost in the war when Okinawa became a battlefield in 1945, but in and after 1955, exquisite instruments that were able to avoid damage from the war started to be protected as an important cultural property, and the sanshin culture that started from the Ryukyu Dynasty is still treasured and protected today.

General Production Process

Sanshin - General Production Process Photo:Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa

  1. 1. Deciding on the design of the sanshin As the size of the parts differ depending on the type of sanshin, when the type is decided, the measurements are copied onto the wood, using the design drawing and paper pattern.
  2. 2. Cutting and filing The neck is cut out while considering the wood grain, and is filed.
    As the upper part of the neck is an important part that determines the design, this whole process is done by hand. Careful attention is necessary to complete a well balanced instrument.
  3. 3. Lacquering and burnishing Lacquer is applied to give the sanshin a beautiful finish as well as to avoid cracking from dryness. Lacquering and burnishing is repeated three to ten times.
  4. 4. Cutting the snakeskin The snakeskin is cut into the shape of the body.
    It is fixed on a wooden frame that is the same size of the body with nails and is rounded and shaped. The back of the snakeskin is reinforced with fabric tape and is tied onto a frame to stretch the snakeskin.
  5. 5. Stretching the snakeskin The snakeskin is stretched twice, on the back side and front side. After it is tied onto the stretching frame, wedges are driven into the frame and the tension of the snakeskin is adjusted. The more the wedges are driven in, the more the snakeskin is stretched.
  6. 6. Assembling the parts, adjusting and finishing The pegs are set on the neck, and the neck is inserted into the body. This assembling process is very important, as it largely affects the tone quality of the sanshin. The angle of the neck and body are carefully adjusted.
    The utaguchi, doumaki, and itokake which are parts to set the strings are set, the strings are set on the pegs, the koma to hold up the strings on the body is set up, and the sanshin is completed.

Where to Buy & More Information

Sanshin Craftsmen's Business Cooperative Association of Okinawa

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