Japan: Finale for the world's most elegant use of a dead cat

Richard Lloyd Parry
Saturday 15 November 1997 01:02 GMT

The shamisen, one of Japan's traditional instruments, is under threat. This is good news for cats, says our correspondent in Tokyo

Of all the artifacts of traditional culture, few are so quintessentially Japanese as the musical instrument known as the shamisen. A three-stringed, elongated banjo with a piercing twangy note, the shamisen has been at the centre of traditional music for 400 years. It is the instrument played by geisha in their tea houses, and by musicians accompanying kabuki plays. Japanese music without the shamisen would be like a brass band without the trombone.

But recently, the unthinkable has happened: political correctness and the decline of old skills are conspiring to threaten the very existence of the ancient instrument.

The problem is this: the shamisen is one of the most elegant uses ever devised for a dead cat. The instruments are hand-crafted out of various exotic materials, including mulberry, sandalwood or quince for the frame, silk for the strings, ivory and tortoiseshell for the pegs and plectrum. But the most important ingredient is the hide which is tightly stretched over the sound box - the cured skin of Felis catus.

For the first few centuries after its introduction from China, shamisen makers had little problem securing supplies of their raw material, and even after the Second World War there were 200 professional cat-nappers who kept the trade in skins. Now that number has dwindled to just two. In the whole country, there is just a single tannery capable of curing cat skins. The situation is so desperate that an association of shamisen makers is lobbying the government for permission to recycle a few of the hundreds of thousands of cats which are put down by their owners every year.

"This is a life-or-death problem for the traditional musical instrument," says Toshio Yamanaka, president of the Japan Musical Instrument Association (JMIA). "If things carry on as they are now, we will be handing down a pale imitation of a traditional art of public entertainment."

It is not that Japan lacks dead cats: government figures reveal that 303,000 of them were destroyed by their owners last year. The JMIA is anxiously waiting on a decision by the Tokyo city government for permission to reincarnate them in shamisen form, but an increasingly popular animal- rights lobby stands ranged against them.

"There is a world-wide movement in the world of medicine and science to experiment with substitute animal skins," says Yasuhiko Aida, secretary general of the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The same should go for cat skins for shamisen."

Dog skin can also be used to make shamisen, but only for cheaper, practice instruments. Artificial hides are constantly being improved, but professional shamisen players insist that there is no substitute for genuine cat. "The thickness of cat skin used on shamisen varies subtly from the centre to the edges," says Eiji Tokiwaza, a player of traditional shamisen ballads. "The subtle difference gives an instrument exquisite resonance." According to Mr Yamanaka, "with current technology, you cannot reproduce the subtle irregularity of thickness and thinness out of any synthetic skin".

Desperate shamisen makers have tried importing substitute skins from less squeamish countries, such as China and Taiwan, but the foreign animals are not up to scratch. "It is partly because the skins of domestic cats are of a fine texture," explains Mr Yamanaka.

"Moreover, animals from different environments have a different skin quality and tanning methods vary from place to place."

Psychologically, the instrument makers have chosen a bad time to launch their campaign. Last spring, Japan was dumbstruck by the decapitation of an 11-year-old boy in Kobe. His murderer turned out to be just 14 years old. In a twist, which was widely reported and discussed, police attention was first attracted to the young murderer after he showed off to his friends the severed tongues of mutilated kittens. Perhaps understandably, the idea of harvesting cats, however worthy the cause, strikes a discordant note.

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