Japanese banjo, shamisen, made of domestic cat skin

The shamisen is made from mulberry wood, sandalwood, silk and ivory according to The Times newspaper. It is also made of the cured skin of a domestic cat (and dog). This tradition goes back the Edo period which is about 400 years ago but in the 21st-century this three-stringed Japanese banjo-like instrument is facing a crisis over criticism of the use of cat and dog skins.

Shamisen player
Shamisen player. Photo: Kyodo.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

I’ve not yet found out the source of the domestic cats which have been skinned. But you can see how this ancient instrument has suddenly found itself out of place in the 21st-century.

Improving animal welfare is, thankfully, higher up the priority list of things to do in many countries. And that is why this instrument is in the news.

I found a book on the topic which tells me, correctly or incorrectly, that the ideal skin comes from a tortoiseshell domestic cat.

We know that the Japanese Bobtail‘s favoured colouring and pattern is the tortoiseshell-and white, with plenty of white.

On that basis, it would not surprise me if this is correct and that a domestic tortoiseshell cat is the favoured individual to be euthanised and skinned.

Shamisen player of times past
Shamisen player of times past. Image believed to be in the public domain.

However, I have no idea how they select the cat. They may well be rescue cats in a cat shelter where the staff have been unable to find a home for them.

And the disturbing twist, on my research, is that the best shamisens are those called yatsuchichi. The cat skins of these shamisens have been stretched in a way whereby all eight nipples of the belly of the cat are visible. Further, it seems that the fur is burnt off in the manufacture of this instrument.

The instrument is played with a plectrum the size of a small spatula. Its size helps to reduce sound-wave leakage. The sound resembles the banjo as mentioned and it can be sharp and abrasive. And in an ironic and unpleasant twist, the courtesans who played the instrument were sometimes called cats.

Shamisens are part of Japan’s traditional culture creating an evocative sound which outsiders associate with Japan. The sound accompanies performances from Kabuki, puppet plays, folksongs and quiche entertainment and teahouses. Below is an example. I have cut it short to reduce file size.

The question now is whether the manufacturers are going to use some other skins or whether that would be such a break with tradition that they feel they can’t make the genuine item without domestic cat and dog skins being used.

There is also a shortage of craftsmen, we are told, to make them. The unanswered question is who owned these ‘domestic cats’ and how did they kill them?

Below are some more pages on ‘cat products’.

Please search using the search box at the top of the site. You are bound to find what you are looking for.

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