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Shigin: Japan’s Best Kept Musical Secret

Japan has a very rich and diverse range of musical styles. Many people are familiar with famous J-Pop artists like AKB48 and Arashi, and computer-generated mega-star Hatsune Miku. With their songs being catchy, uplifting, and relatable, it’s no wonder that their music is so popular worldwide. But these modern forms of music are by no means the only styles of Japanese music worth listening to—instead, I’d like to introduce an unsung traditional form of music called Shigin.

Shigin (詩吟)

Shigin (詩吟) means “poetry chanting,” and it is the art of reciting a poem. It uses a form of poetry somewhat different from other more well-known styles like Tanka or Haiku. While Shigin tends to follow a more uniform structure than the aforementioned styles, yet it can still vary greatly in terms of rhythm, pacing, etc. There are several different singing styles, such as Joushou (城勝), which is the style of Keisei-sensei of Shigin Unit Xie, or Kinjou (錦城), which is the style that I personally practice. Although the singing styles may differ, they all share the same poems, so it’s fun to experience compare how the same poem can be sung and interpreted differently.

Shigin sheet music with annotations

One of the first things you may or may not notice about the script in the photo above is that everything is in Chinese. Almost all of the poems are written in Chinese with the Japanese pronunciation written on the side, as its origins can be traced to Chinese poetry. And just like any other forms of poetry, the topics sung about can vary wildly, from historical events, love, despair, and even fantasy.

Instruments

Shigin does not require the use of any instruments, as it was originally performed a capella. However, Japanese instruments such as the flute-like shakuhachi and stringed koto, have been introduced over the years as background music. When practicing, a tool called a digital conductor is used to keep the pitch and rhythm of a song, since the instruments in the background might be a different tempo than the singing. Therefore, the Shigin performer must memorize not only the poem, but also the pitch and timing, among other aspects of the song.

The digital composer for Shigin.

This is the digital conductor. The yellow buttons and the kanji beneath them correspond to particular “notes.” These notes on the conductor match up to the ones in the text.

Shigin sheet music matched with the notes on the digital composer

Here we can see some of the notes from the digital conductor being used in the text itself. The musical text shown is from the Kinjou style.

Shigin sheet music

Here we have an example from another style by Public Interest Group Nippon Shinzyou Gakuin (公益社団法人日本吟道学院). You may notice there are some symbols here that are different from the other images. It may look confusing at first but this variety of styles adds to the flavor, complexity, and beauty.

Why You Should Care

If you are a fan of traditional Japanese music, poetry, or trying something new, then you should definitely check out Shigin. It will provide a richness and depth to the Japanese language, culture, and history that is hard to find in other forms of Japanese music. There is also the added bonus that you will be doing something very few (and I mean FEW) foreigners have done. I have been doing this music for going on five years now and have only met one foreigner (and heard of three) to have ever tried Shigin—myself not included.

How to Get Started

It can be rather overwhelming to get into Shigin since there are so many styles and not much information in English. However, you can look up Shigin on Youtube and find videos from various styles to sit back, relax, and enjoy. If you happen to be interested in Keisei-sensei’s music, please check out the website to her group Shigin Unit Xie (詩吟ユニットXie) where you can find information about their upcoming events.

Shigin artist Keisei-sensei of Shigin Unit Xie

While Shigin is not an easy thing to get into as a foreigner, if you keep pushing forward, you will not regret it in the slightest. You will make a lot of new Japanese friends, learn a side of Japan you may have never known existed, and be respected for trying to educate yourself on the more obscure parts of Japanese culture.

Shigin Unit Xie

Shigin Unit Xie (詩吟ユニットXie)

For all of you who might be in the Osaka area in January, don’t miss a chance to see Shigin Unit Xie perform live!
Website: http://www.xie.tokyo/english_profile.html

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