In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Tsugaru Shamisen:From Region to Nation (and Beyond) and Back Again
  • Henry Johnson (bio)

This is a study of Tsugaru shamisen, a well-known music genre and musical instrument with the same name that has distinct roots in the Tsugaru district of Aomori prefecture in northern Japan.1Tsugaru shamisen has a recognized home in Tsugaru, as is indexed in the first word of the genre's name, but today it is widely known and found throughout Japan—and beyond—and considered a unique Japanesemusic style. The genre is recognized within the Tsugaru district as holding a special place in the recent cultural history of northern Honshû, particularly the Tôhoku region,2 even though it has been influenced nationally in not only the development of its music style, especially as it has gained wider popularity in other parts of Japan, but also in the way its local identity has been constructed and contested in wider discourses of regional and national identity. Yet, what is perhaps most remarkable about Tsugaru shamisen is that it is a relatively new genre, particularly in terms of its contemporary style in wider spheres of Japanese culture, where it has gained popularity among younger and older players and listeners alike, while remaining at the same time one of contemporary Japan's icons of a traditional Japanese past. In this respect, Tsugaru shamisen is, to use the terminology of Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), a recently invented tradition, even though discussion of its origins inherently links it to earlier styles of music found in the Tsugaru district from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

This article explores the acknowledged birthplace of Tsugaru shamisen in terms of the ways the genre has been foregrounded in discourses on regional ownership, and in the dialectics of regional and national constructions of cultural identity. The study provides insight into the phenomenon of localization, or regionalization, of one specific, and highly visible in contemporary Japanese culture, music genre within and vis-à-vis a wider geographic (national and international) context.While some scholars have provided in-depth discussion of the music and history of Tsugaru shamisen (see, for example, Groemer 1999; Kinoshita 2003; Suda, Daijô, and Rausch 1998), very few studies [End Page 75] have explored Tsugaru shamisen and its interconnectedness with region and nation-state. Indeed, there are more popular and scholarly works published on Tsugaru shamisen every year, but, as Suda, Daijô, and Rausch (1998, 19) have pointed out, "for so long, no one had considered Tsugaru shamisen to be worthwhile of serious research. For so long, no one sought the roots of Tsugaru shamisen music." Today, the situation is very different. Tsugaru shamisen has achieved not only regional status as a representativemusic genre of the Tsugaru district, but is also receiving wide national and international interest.

Moreover, while many of Japan's traditional music genres are tightly connected to a perceived traditional and authentic past (that is, before the Meiji era), Tsugaru shamisen is particularly popular among a younger generation who have idolized some of its players, put the music style into a popular music idiom, and experimented with a range of crossover and innovative styles. It is in contemporary culture that the place of Tsugaru shamisen is witnessing not only a remarkable interest in the music style, but also where a new genre of Japanese music is currently inventing, re-inventing, and developing itself as a style that is simultaneously traditional and modern.

The areas of investigation in this study are the interconnected and contested boundaries between the Tsugaru district and the nation-state. The study looks at how identities are influenced within and formed by a process of indexing a place and how that place has been used within wider discourses linked to identity formation. The Tsugaru district is the main geographic area of study, even though Tsugaru shamisen is known in the wider Tôhoku region and, nowadays, in many other places in Japan. This district, like some others in Japan, is often perceived as part of a homogenous nation-state, which it is on a wider political level, but closer examination shows it is actually one of several of Japan's unique and distinct...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 75-100
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.