Japan artisans showcase Olympic collection under virus cloud

by Harumi OZAWA (AFP) / Photo by Behrouz MEHRI / AFP

TOKYO – Craftsman Kimiaki Kono was hoping the Tokyo Olympics would be a chance to win new fans for Japan’s lute-like shamisen, but the pandemic has left things on a sour note.

“I want people around the world to know about this instrument,” the 62-year-old told AFP at a Tokyo workshop where he builds the three-stringed shamisen, used in Japanese art forms such as kabuki theatre.

“We would have hosted a great number of visitors in Japan with the opportunity of the Olympics.”

So the decision to bar overseas spectators left him “very disappointed”.

Shamisens, a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument created by Kimiaki Kono, at his workshop in Tokyo, including one part (2nd L) with a special Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games design. (Photo by Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

But he is hopeful that a special Tokyo 2020-branded shamisen he has created will still attract interest from foreign enthusiasts when it goes on sale online alongside other traditional crafts from across Japan.

The initiative is part of the Tokyo Games’ extensive marketing operation, which includes branded items from T-shirts and fans to innumerable iterations of the cuddly Olympic mascots.

On Thursday, organisers unveiled the collection of crafts from all the country’s 47 regions, with 104 items including lacquered plates from Akita, wind bells crafted in Toyama and Kono’s shamisens.

The instrument was traditionally crafted with cat or dog skin, with the bridge supporting the strings fashioned from ivory and turtle shell used for the bachi, or plectrum.

But Kono says those materials are used less frequently nowadays — and his Olympic version substitutes paper for animal skin.

Kimiaki Kono, who created a special Tokyo 2020 branded shamisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed instrument, plays one of his designed shamisens at his workshop in Tokyo. (Photo by Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

“I am putting the priority on making this instrument approachable for as many people as possible,” he said as he worked on a sample printed with the 2020 logo.

“The respectful manners and hospitality demonstrated in the relations between a shamisen master and students can be learned with an instrument built with different materials.”

With just 99 days until the Olympics, a surge in virus cases has raised doubts about the Games.

A senior Japanese politician said Thursday that cancellation remains an option given the rise in infections.

But Kono is tuning out the background noise as he focuses on attempting to spread the word about his beloved instrument.

“The Tokyo Olympics is becoming something other than what we had anticipated,” he said.

“But I am still making efforts to show the world how fascinating this shamisen musical culture is.”