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Kankarā Sanshin

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Photo: TARUMI Kengo

The year 1995 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the devastating Battle of Okinawa. The municipal office had to come up with an event that was appropriate. Just like any other government-led event, there needed to be a thorough three-year plan to initiate the project.
 One day, the employee had an idea. Just because the event will mark 50 years since the end of the Battle of Okinawa, it doesn’t have to be related to the battle itself. For example, it is also 50 years since the Okinawan people started their new lives after the war. Based on this, the “Ten Ni Toyome: Sanshin 3000 (Let The Sound Reach the Sky: 3000 Sanshins)” project was launched. 

Okinawan citizens started their post-war lives inside internment camps. They had lost family members, relatives, friends and acquaintances. They also thought they’d lost their own culture, including music. However, the Okinawans restored their culture like a phoenix. They made sanshin, a banjo-like instrument, from the things at hand. First of all, they removed the wooden panels from the camp beds to make the necks. They then made the body from kankarā, empty American food cans. Lastly, they removed parachute cords to use them as strings. Thus the kankarā sanshin was born. People played kankarā sanshin to ease their pain from a war described as an “iron storm.” 

The municipal office thought that kankarā sanshin, which was born inside the camps where new lives began, could be the most appropriate symbol for the fiftieth-anniversary project. For “Ten Ni Toyome: Sanshin 3000,” they gathered three thousand sanshin players to perform a requiem that would reach the sky. There was no stage that could hold this number of performers, so they came up with the idea of using the main stand of Onoyama Track and Field Stadium instead. The audience seats were placed on the main field. It was the most attended concert in the history of Okinawa, with an audience of 20,000, plus 3,000 performers and 1,000 volunteers. In addition, the mass of free riders flocking into the stadium from the back gates must have raised the attendance over 30,000.
 The leading performers were elementary and junior high school students holding kankarā sanshins. As the instrument could be assembled inside the camp right after the war, its materials were quite easy to find in present-day Okinawa, overflowing with abundant materials. In elementary school, it became an interesting learning opportunity for the students. They created kankarā sanshins in art class, then played them in music class. The instruments became a practical and ideal teaching material that could not be found in any other part of Japan.
 Naha was not necessarily the place most widely celebrated for its sanshin culture. However, after the event, the city saw an unprecedented sanshin boom. At Ishimine Junior High School in Shuri, Naha, more than 100 students can now play the sanshin.

The kankarā sanshin is often considered to be synonymous with the strong mind of the Okinawans. But perhaps, it is more appropriate to think that it represents their adaptability. The instrument became an emotional pillar for Okinawan people, who survived and recovered from the damages of the Battle of Okinawa, a conflict so harsh that it drastically changed the natural landscape.