Tsugaru Shamisen and Modern Japanese Identity
Mcgoldrick, Gerald Thomas
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The shamisen, a Japanese plucked lute dating back to the seventeenth century, began to be played by blind itinerant male performers known as bosama in the late nineteenth century in the Tsugaru region, part of present-day Aomori prefecture in northern Japan. By the early twentieth century it was used by sighted players to accompany local folk songs, and from the 1940s entirely instrumental versions of a few of the folk songs were being performed. In the late 1950s the term Tsugaru shamisen was coined and the genre began to get national attention. This culminated in a revival in the 1970s centred on Takahashi Chikuzan, who had made a living as a bosama in the prewar period. In the wake of the 70s boom a contest began to be held annually in Hirosaki, the cultural capital of the Tsugaru region. This contest nurtured a new generation of young players from all over Japan, eventually spawning other national contests in every corner of the country. Chikuzans death in 1998 was widely reported in the media, and Yoshida Ryichir and Yoshida Kenichi, brothers who had stood out at the contests, were cast as the new face of Tsugaru shamisen. From about 2000 a new Tsugaru shamisen revival was under way, and the music could be heard as background music on Television programs and commercials representing a modern Japan that had not lost its traditions. Through discourse analysis of primary materials, and informed by the authors twenty-five years of direct experience with the Tsugaru shamisen community, this dissertation examines how since the millennial revival the music has come to index a Japanese identity that is modern but still essentially Japanese. It explores ideas developed in the 1930s by thinkers like Watsuji Tetsur and Yanagita Kunio that continue to influence popular conceptions of modernity and tradition in Japan. It traces the one-hundred-year recording history of the music and the proliferation of national contests in recent decades and compares the revivals of the 1970s and the millennium to demonstrate how a genre that previously indexed rural, traditional Japan has come to represent the modern nation.