Shigin (詩吟) is a form of Japanese poetry, which is usually chanted or sung. The poems are called gin (吟). They may be accompanied by traditional instruments such as the koto (Japanese harp) or shakuhachi (bamboo flute). Shigin often provides the music for the performance of certain Japanese dances, such as the sword dance or the fan dance.
Shigin is not a well-known Japanese art, even within Japan – except perhaps for ero-shigin, sung by comedian Tenshin Kimura, who sings erotic little ditties in the style of shigin. The sound of shigin is unlike anything I’ve heard in the west – a lonely, emotional sound, at times atonal to the Western ear. Everyone sings with his or her own style, and expressing the emotion of the verse is considered one of the most important things.
Shigin is thought to have originated in China early in the first millennium AD. It has been suggested that gin were originally used in the Japanese court to teach Chinese characters. Gin are thus significantly older than other more popular forms of poetry, such as haiku.
My own experience with shigin started four years ago, when I attended a workshop. My teacher, Takeshi Kanda, had launched a campaign to get more foreigners interested in the art form. He is passionately devoted to shigin and would like to see it grow and prosper. At that first workshop, when he got up to demonstrate his technique, this sweet, slender gentleman shook tables and shivered glass with the power of his voice.
Learning shigin wasn’t easy. I was neither a speaker of Japanese, then, nor a reader of music. Shigin uses a five-note scale instead of the more familiar eight-note scale, but the biggest difficulties I had were with breathing and following the roller-coaster rise and fall of the notes. Each gin is just under two minutes long and broken into four parts, requiring a lot of breath. The sheet music is quite loopy. I sing nanappon, or ‘seventh level,’ which is comparatively high. The Japanese used in shigin is often archaic, not so different from comparing Chaucer to modern English. My early attempts as pronunciation were atrocious, and my first attempts at vocalization sounded like the caterwauling of a cat in heat. But I kept showing up, and getting better. I was surprised and delighted as my voice grew stronger and my technique improved.
Every year there are shigin tests and recitals to prepare for, and I have won awards in the local and prefectural contests, coming in fourth or fifth place. Every summer the national competition of my school of shigin, Seigindo, takes place in Shikoku. I’m hoping that next year I will be there.
Please check out this obscure but beautiful art form, and if you like to sing, give it a try!