After 13-year quest, shamisen maker sheds animal skin in favor of synthetic

Kyodo

A shamisen instrument maker near Tokyo has developed a synthetic substitute for the cat and dog skins used to craft the traditional three-stringed instrument.

Developed by Komatsuya Ltd., the artificial material has been well received by professional musicians for its ability to match sound created by the animal skins, lower price, higher durability and wider public acceptance.

Animal skins have long been used to cover the front and back of the plucked lute’s body, giving the shamisen its unique sound. Komatsuya usually sources dog skins from Southeast Asia, but their poor quality and rising prices had been an ongoing worry for President Hideo Komatsu, 63, who had fretted about the future of the instrument.

Around 2004, shamisen luthier Komatsuya began testing synthetic leather and developed a prototype three years later, but Komatsu was not satisfied.

The company, based in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, then teamed up with a textile maker. After years of trial and error, it came up with an artificial textile in 2014.

Named Ripple, it is cheaper and more durable than animal skin.

With Ripple, it costs around ¥50,000 to cover a Tsugaru shamisen — a type developed for a genre originating on the Tsugaru Peninsula. This is ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 cheaper than using animal skin, and a Ripple skin does not have to be replaced as often.

In its analysis of Ripple, Japan Acoustic Laboratory, a Tokyo-based institute for voice and sound analysis, concluded that the acoustic features of the fabric are similar to those of animal skins and that there are no clear differences between them.

Ryohei Inoue, a 47-year-old member of AUN J Classic Orchestra, a band specializing in Japanese instruments that has performed several times overseas, describes the sound of a Ripple shamisen as “astonishingly good.”

“Many people overseas flinched when we told them shamisen use dog skins and they said they didn’t want to listen to us play,” he said.

Masamitsu Takasaki, a 32-year-old Tsugaru shamisen player, said the synthetic covering “suits outdoor performances because it can withstand rain.”