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New, tiny cousin of shamisen instrument designed to pluck hearts of foreign tourists

Seberu Pico Co. president Tomoyasu Ninomiya, left, holds a shamiko at the Shamiko Kaikan hall in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, on Oct. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Shohei Kawamura)

TOKYO -- A unique musical instrument similar to a traditional three-stringed Japanese shamisen, but smaller, lighter and easier to handle, has been developed by a small Tokyo manufacturer as a new souvenir for foreign tourists.

The "shamiko," which looks and sounds much like its full-sized cousin, was created by jewelry component manufacturer Seberu Pico Co., based in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward. The 70-year-old president Tomoyasu Ninomiya stated, "I hope (the shamiko) will create an opportunity to transmit Japanese culture."

One of the shamiko's unique features is its body, made from a square wooden measuring tool called a "masu" covered with a highly-durable traditional Japanese paper, instead of the animal skin on shamisen. This is intended to lower the cost and improve its durability. A hole in the back of the body boosts the sound.

Performers play the three nylon strings of the shamiko with a pick. To help beginners, there are numbers on the neck to show the player where to hold down the strings to follow musical scores. The instruments cost about 10,000 yen to 60,000 yen, depending on the size and design.

Shamiko with various designs, including images of the classical Hyakunin Isshu Japanese poetry anthology and The Tale of Genji are seen in the Shamiko Kaikan hall in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, on Oct. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Shohei Kawamura)

Ninomiya, who has a deep interest in Japanese culture, said that he noticed after starting a shamisen club at his firm that the traditional instrument had its drawbacks, such as the high cost and frequency of maintenance. He came up with the idea to "make our own convenient shamisen." It took five years for Ninomiya and his employees, who had zero knowledge of making musical instruments, to make their first sale.

Customers can select from 20 different designs for the shamiko's body. Designs aimed at foreign visitors include images of the Hyakunin Isshu, a classical anthology of a hundred poems by a hundred poets, and The Tale of Genji. Ninomiya established a Shamiko Kaikan hall near the company in the ward's Aoto neighborhood this past spring, for practicing and to interact with other shamiko players. He even went as far as creating an independent record label to spread the use of shamiko. Ninomiya's passion also drove him to compose original music to play with the shamiko.

The enthusiastic president commented, "I want foreigners to understand the rich emotion of Japanese people, through this musical instrument inheriting features of the shamisen but with a modern twist."

(Japanese original by Shohei Kawamura, Tokyo Bureau)

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