Art & Schools Background

Shodo – Calligraphy

According to Kuni, there are groups of Shodo, but no real schools, or “Ryu-ha” (style), as in other Japanese art forms.

Since Shodo doesn’t have a “Ryu-ha”, depending on one’s group, one  learns many types of styles deeply connected with history, then you can choose the style that you like or learn the teacher’s style for inspiration when you improve. Kuni says, “It’s like learning “So” (Okoto) but learning both schools of Ikuta-ryu and Yamada-ryu. It’s like learning Chado (tea ceremony) but learning all the styles of Ogasawara-ryu and Sagago-ryu and more. That’s why knowledge and skill really depends on the calligrapher.”

Chikushikai Koto & Shamisen School

Japan’s Chikushikai koto and shamisen school was established in 1949 by Katsuko Chikushi, who was the first Sōke (head of the school). The school’s headquarters are in Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, and it has members throughout Japan, in the USA, and in Canada, among other countries.

Of the many significant events that Chikushikai has been part of over its sixty year history, one of its most memorable was being invited to perform for the opening of the Fukuoka Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation). The school presented Chikushi’s symphony “Chikushiji” (Byways to Chikushi), a piece for koto performed with a full Western orchestra. The piece made history as NHK’s inaugural television broadcast in stereo.

Upon Chikushi’s death in 1984, the Sōke mantle passed jointly to her two children, daughter Miyoko Chikushi, who is the current Sōke, and son Ichirō Sakamoto (who passed away in 1998). Recently, Miyoko appointed her daughter Junko Chikushi as acting Sōke, and has begun sharing her Chikushikai responsibilities with her. Junko is the incumbent third-generation Sōke. Miyoko’s eldest daughter, Akemi Furuya, is the school’s business manager and President of the Board.

Tsugaru Shamisen

The shamisen is an instrument that’s been around for a long time in Japan. It’s about 1 meter (3 feet) long and has three strings that are played using a large pick called a bachi. The tsugaru shamisen is a kind of shamisen whose unique style of play gives performers room to improvise. A lot of people say it’s similar to jazz in that way. “Tsugaru shamisen is the jazz of Japan,” claims Chisato Yamada, one of the top artists in the genre. Mr. Yamada, in fact, has often performed with jazz bands both in Japan and other countries.

The shamisen first came to Japan from China by way of Okinawa (which was then called the Ryukyu Kingdom). People in Japan began developing their own way of playing it, such as the use of the bachi. In the Edo period (1603-1868), it was used as background music for kabuki theater. Its popularity soared as a result, and it evolved into one of the most important instruments in Japan’s classical music.

The shamisen is basically made up of the body and neck. There are three main types, differentiated by the thickness of the neck. The thickest, or futozao, produces a booming, powerful sound, while the thinnest, hosozao, has a very gentle and delicate sound. The type used for tsugaru shamisen is even bigger than the futozao, and the strings are a little fatter as well. The bachi is used not just to pluck the strings; it is sometimes used to strike them with force. The sound, therefore, is very loud – almost too loud if you’re listening up close.

The tsugaru shamisen, as the name suggests, developed in the Tsugaru district – the western half of Aomori Prefecture on the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island. Tsugaru is usually covered in snow from the end of November to early April, and is one of the snowiest regions in the country.

Sawai Soukyokuin Koto 

The founder of the Sawai Soukyokuin, Tadao Sawai was a performer of Japanese koto playing various music genres as well as Japanese music since he was a student at Tokyo University of the Arts, and was frequently featured on TV and radio as a hope for the future. Around 1966, people who wanted to learn koto music was drawn to this charismatic performer and his activities.

In 1968, the “Koto Study Group by Tadao Sawai and Kazue Sawai’s students” was created, and in 1974 the name was changed to the “Sawai Koto Laboratory.” Through lessons and concerts presented by Tadao and Kazue, his wife, as well as study sessions and concerts presented by his students, the number of students gradually increased, and their activities  spread.

On February 24, 1979, the opening ceremony for the “Sawai Sokyokuin” was held at Kasumigaseki, Tokyo. In the same year, the Tadao Sawai Ensemble was established and has held numerous concerts up to the present.

Many concerts were sponsored by Tadao Sawai and they received many invitations from overseas music festivals. This led to their actively working towards disseminating Japanese music overseas.

Focusing on the development of instructors, he conducted qualification examinations and tests for the Sawai Soukyokuin since 1980. In addition, the “Sawai Sokyokuin Ensemble Seminar” was held (84-) for the purpose of improving the expressiveness and ensemble skills of performers, and “Komaki Sanmai” (86-89) for studying and appreciating classical music. 

Even after Tadao Sawai passed away in April 1997, the activities of the Sawai Soukyokuin have continued not only nationwide but also overseas. Maintaining the musical spirit, and the number of domestic and overseas performances planned by the members themselves has increased. This has greatly contributed to the spread of koto music. Interacting with various genres other than other schools and the Japanese music world, the philosophy of Tadao Sawai for the koto instrument continues through his wife, Kazue Sawai, who is one of the master performers of the koto herself, his son, Hikaru Sawai, and demonstration that koto music has the ability to participate in music from all over the world, even as it is based on traditional and classical traditions.  The Sawai Soukyokuin is always looking for new possibilities, and continues to work towards the future.


There are 9 branches in Japan (Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Hokuriku, Tokai, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu), and the number of members as of 2007 is about 3,000. There are two overseas branches, the Hawaii branch was established in 1986, and the Sydney branch was established in 1989. Both Japanese and many local people are learning and participate.

In New York, San Francisco, Holland, Moscow, etc., members of the Sawai Soukyokuin are also active performers who collaborate with other genres. University of Hawaii, Wesleyan University (Connecticut, USA), University of Iowa (Illinois, USA), University of California San Diego (California, USA), Monash University (Melbourne Australia), University of the Philippines (Manila), University of Florida (Florida, USA) have also hosted Koto music courses.


Information 5-20-18 Kameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-0051

TEL: 03-3712-3590 FAX: 03-3712-6370


Bandō Ryū of Japanese classical dance (Nihon buyō 日本舞踊) is headed by Kabuki actor Bando Minosuke II (二代目坂東巳之助, 1989-present) the eldest son of the late Bandō Mitsugorō X (十代目坂東三津五郎, 1956-2015).  Bandō Ryū of Japanese classical dance traces its founding to Bandō Mitsugorō III (1775-1831), who created a series of rapid-changing dances (hengemono 変化物) portraying a variety of different characters that became the iconic repertory and stylistic representation of the Bandō Ryū’s style of Kabuki dances. 

During the time of Mitsugorō III, the popularity of Kabuki spread among both the merchant and samurai classes.  The popularity and economic stability of the Early Modern Period (1600-1868) allowed for townswoman to indulge in learning a new hobby, Kabuki dances.  However, under Tokugawa law, the military regime of the Early Modern Period, it forbids its people to hold two professions.  Thus, you were either a Kabuki actor or a Japanese dance teacher.  This gave rise to women who specialized in Kabuki dances known as onna kyōgen-shi (女狂言師) who specialized in Mitsugorō III’s style and dances.  In addition to teaching Kabuki dances to townswomen, the onna kyōgen-shi commuted to the Edo Castle to teach the women who resided in the inner chamber of the castle (ōoku 大奥), a space forbidden to men other than the Shōgun, or the military leader of Early Modern Japan.  The onna kyogen-shi, in addition to teaching Kabuki dances, replicated and performed Kabuki dramas as a form of entertainment for the women of the inner chamber. Thus, one of the major characteristics of Bandō Ryū Japanese classical dance is not simply dancing, but also incorporating elements of acting within the Kabuki dances. 



There will be two types of styles of Shamisen music performed during the NextGen Geijutsuka Series:  Tsugaru Shamisen (July 14) and Jiuta Shamisen (as Nagauta Shamisen, on July 28)

What is shamisen?  By Kyle Abbott

The shamisen is a three stringed lute from Japan, with growing international interest. Similar to a banjo, the body is covered with a stretched skin. (synthetic or natural) Traditionally, the three strings are made of wound silk threads, (contributing to the distinct sound of the shamisen) tightened by the three large tuning pegs on the headpiece. The neck is fretless and about half the width of a guitar neck.

How is the shamisen played?

The player places the shamisen body (called the dou) on their thigh and lays their hand over the body. Typically, the player plays the shamisen with a large ice scraper-sized plectrum called the ‘bachi’. The bachi almost acts as a drumstick, because it strikes the skin as well as the string.

The most unique quality of the shamisen is its ability to be percussive and melodic at the same time. It can be played quiet as a whisper or, if played forcefully, can be clearly heard outside on a crowded street.

The player holds the neck up with their left hand (or right hand, if left-handed) and changes the pitch simply by pressing the strings down. The fretless neck of the shamisen is initially daunting, but with just a little practice and muscle memory, the shamisen is an incredibly fun instrument to learn.

Also, adhesive position marks are used to help identify where to press the string.

The tuning pegs are called itomaki. The strings are tied to them, tightened and held in place with friction.

Why is the shamisen unique?

The most unique quality of the shamisen is its dual ability to be percussive and melodic. Using a large plectrum to strike the string and skin, you’re able to simultaneously bring out the tone of a drum and a melodic lute at the same time! These qualities combined with the fretless neck makes the shamisen an incredibly versatile instrument.

Another unique feature of the shamisen is the droning buzz called ‘sawari’. The buzz is created when the resonating string lightly touches a ridge (called the sawari yama) near the headpiece (called the tenjin), causing the droning buzz to occur. It is believed the sawari effect was inspired by the same effect of an Indian Sitar, which is called ‘Jawari’.

Can you play other genres with shamisen?

The shamisen is very capable of appropriately blending into almost any cultural music or genre. Here are just a few examples: Traditional Japanese 7, Appalachian Folk 9, Lady Gaga Covers 9, Progressive Jazz. 11

Why is the plectrum so huge?

This is an aesthetic addition by the early Biwa players of Japan, who use an even larger plectrum for their instrument. Though it’s cumbersome at first, the bachi (plectrum) allows the relaxed player to use the power of their whole arm to execute a solid, percussive strike with ease. The shamisen can also be played simply with your finger, guitar pick, or more!

Is it difficult to play?

In my (Kyle Abbott’s) opinion, the shamisen is very beginner-friendly. After all, it only has three strings! Similar to a ukulele, everyone can pick up the shamisen and enjoy playing songs, while still having limitless possibilities for advanced players! Shamisen superstars like the Yoshida Brothers have made the shamisen famous with their great virtuosity, but even they played simple songs when they first started learning. Anyone, young or old can start playing shamisen.