Shigin (Japanese Poetry)

Shigin – Kinyu Kai (reciting Japanese poems by singing)

Sho-Chiku-Bai
The significance of the traditional trio…pine, bamboo and plum blossom… is accentuated on this auspicious occasion. It is a moment of sheer joy and happiness that embraces the household, like a legendary island where Gods of Good Fortune are said to reside.
Shigin_sho-chiku-bai
The cranes* are waltzing and the tortoises are frolicking, as people go merrily on a binge. Indeed, the infinite exultation is found in the shimmering cup of rice wine.
*Cranes and tortoises symbolize longevity

Sho: matsu (pine) long life
Chiku: take (bamboo) constancy and virture
Bai: ume (plum blossom) tenacity

If you’ve ever attended the annual VJCC Shinenkai, you have heard Chinese-style poetry, similar to the “Sho-Chiku-Bai” poem above, sung by one of our community’s shigin masters.

Shigin is the art of reciting or singing poems written in the Chinese style of “Kanshi”. There are 5,000 different singing styles, or schools, of shigin, each style singing the same poems to a different melody. Shigin is sung to commemorate special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and New Years celebrations (shinenkai). The poems that are sung express all facets of human life – love, beauty of nature, happiness, grief, revenge, etc.

Buddhist monks from China first introduced Kanshi to Japan. The Chinese poets recited Kanshiusing intonation and inflection on words to emphasize their meaning. It sounded very similar to Buddhist chanting. This style of poetry evolved into “shigin” in Japan.

Shigin first gained popularity in America during World War II when shigin groups were formed in the internment camps. Many of the groups formed in the Manzanar Relocation Center continued to study shigin after the war, and are still active today. Five of these schools of shigin are based in Los Angeles.shigin-group

We have two shigin groups at the VJCC. One focuses on the Kinyukai style, and is led by Mrs. Hosui Kishi (Shoko). Mr. Sensui Uyeno (Gary) an active VJCC member, is also a master/sensei in this style of shigin. The Kinyukai group meets on Monday nights at 7:30 pm.

The second group, formed over twenty-five years ago by Mr. Kokujun Tamada (Teruo), focuses on the Kokuseikai style. This group is currently taught by my grandfather, Mr. Kokuso Nakao (Setsuji), and meets on Tuesday nights at 7:30.

At a typical class, each student will practice singing a poem he/she has chosen, rather than the whole class working on the same poem. Students add their own emotions and interpretation of the poem when singing. Believe it or not, many people study shigin for health reasons. The use of “ki”, universal life force/breath, when singing is thought to increase longevity. When you sing shigin, you vocalize from deep in your diaphragm. Although the majority of the students are older, students can be any age – currently the youngest student is twelve years old.

The shigin students perform several times throughout the year. Shigin singing is often performed in combination with the demonstration of other Japanese art forms such as, ikebana, karate, odori,kenbu (sword dance) and different instruments. These “shigin-taikai” have been held in cities all over the United States, as well as in Japan, Brazil and Canada.