Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Jim Sykes


This dissertation investigates the transnational constellation of material objects that constitutes a traditional Japanese musical instrument called the shamisen, as well as the challenges local Japanese shamisen makers today face in obtaining the material objects. I develop “ecologies of instrumentality” to provide both a theoretical framework and an ethical orientation to critically look at today’s global capitalist economy, extractivism, environmental crisis, and the contemporary mechanics of biopower.

Presently, all the materials that make up the shamisen are imported from other countries: the shamisen is made from red sandalwood, imported from India; its square resonator body is covered with dog and cat skin, imported from Thailand, Taiwan, and China; and a large plectrum used by shamisen players is made from ivory from African forest elephants found in the Congo Basin or made from tortoiseshell, imported mostly from Panama, Cuba, and Indonesia. However, the red sandalwood trees in India, African forest elephants, and hawksbill turtles are today recognized as endangered species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Growing international concerns about species extinction, animal rights, and environmental loss have affected Japan’s shamisen makers. The notions of environmentalism and cultural sustainability cannot be detached from the study of musical instrument industries today.

This dissertation formulates the ways in which traditional organology––the study of musical instruments and their classification––contributes to broader debates in the environmental humanities on the anthropogenic impacts on biodiversity and sustainable development of cultural heritage. While the latest organological research mainly features the making, materiality, and sonic capacity of musical instruments in the context of material culture studies (e.g., Bates 2012; Johnson 2010; Roda 2014, 2015; Tucker 2016), the discussion about ecologies of instrumentality is rather centered on the ongoing struggle for existence among different species, nonliving things, and objects in the more-than-human world. The dissertation engages critically with the current Anthropocene discourse and debate (e.g., Haraway 2016; Moore 2017, 2018; Tsing et al. 2017) for the purpose of contemplating how to live and coexist with others––humans, nonhumans, and nonlife, including traditional cultural artifacts––in an age of ecological crisis.


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