Shigin: A truly beautiful art form with a rich history

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By Justin Bingham

Imagine you’re sitting behind a silk screen nervously waiting your turn to go up. The person in front of you calmly walks up on stage looking a little nervous as well. They look at the crowd of 100 or so people, bow, and takes a breath. Then they start to sing. Their voice, like a roller coaster, travels up and down fluttering like the wings of a butterfly. It sounds a little like Buddhist chant but slightly different. This is Shigin.

Shigin is a type of traditional Japanese chanted poetry. The poems span hundreds of years and cover a myriad of topics from war to love and even local legends. The closest thing it could be compared to in Western music would possibly be Greek Byzantine Chant. The singing is comprised mostly of vibrato and follows a slightly different scale than what people in the West would be familiar with. Shigin was developed around the end of the Edo Period by members of the samurai class. At the time poetry was seen more as something the upper class did and many poems that are sung were written by famous Japanese military and political figure such as Nobunaga. Many emperors also composed poems which eventually would be sung.

If you were to look at a Shigin book you would notice a few things that make it different from a music book you may have seen before. For one thing, there are no music “notes”. . Next to the lines there will be marks to indicate the pitch of your voice. These marks can vary from triangular to more wavy lines depending on the style. You will also see numbers written in Chinese characters, for example 七 (7). These numbers will indicate how high you voice should go. Seven would be high pitch were 一 (1) would be very low. The poems are usually arranged in four vertical columns of Chinese characters with Japanese pronunciation written in hiragana off to the right. Most of the poems were originally written in Chinese because Chinese was seen as a high society language at that time much like how French or Latin was to the English speaking world in the past and was required learning for many people. In fact, there are many poems written by Chinese writers such as the poem 事に感ず (Koto Ni Kanzu) by the Chinese writer Ufun

Shigin, just like any other art form, has several schools or 流派 (ryuha). One school is called 錦城 (kinjo). It was started in 1954 by Yamamoto Kinjo (山元錦城 1906-1977). Now the school is led by her children who are in their 80’s. This particular school spans most of Japan. There are groups from Kyushu to Hokkaido. Usually in a city , the group is divided into smaller groups. An example would be in Iwaki City in Fukushima. The Kin Jyou school is divided into the eastern and western groups. At certain times during the year performances , practice performances (勉強会 benkyokai) and more formal performances (発表会 happyokai) are held. These events take place on the city, prefectural, and even national level. There are also regional and national contests called コンクール (konkuru).

Shigin is a truly beautiful art form with a rich history. Unfortunately the majority of people who practice it are elderly. There are not many young people who practiced this form of chanting however in recent years there seems to be an increase in young people who are interested in learning it. In March in Tokyo, there was a contest held which had not only a section of adults who sang but also a section of children. Those children ranged from high school students in their third year to as young as two years old. It looks as if this tradition will continue and many more will be able to enjoy this unique music for generations more to come.

The writer is a 27 year-old American English teacher living Iwaki, Fukushima and has been practicing Shigin for nearly three years. 

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When I comment on recitation of Shigin towards a foreign country, I take this article into account. Thank you.

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