“Sensei”, a diminutive older woman, teaches Janet Pocorobba how to play the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed Japanese instrument. It is hard to tune and exactly how much “ma” or dead space to leave between the notes is constantly vexing. Sensei is of the view that the shamisen, and traditional music in general, is much neglected by the younger generation little interested their own culture. Disgusted by this attitude, Sensei turns to teaching foreigners to keep the music alive.
She does so in her own home for free, delivering her lessons using slightly stilted English.
“I am—”, she said, and offered me her first name, Western-style. I used her first name, though I have always thought of her as Sensei, “the one who comes before.”
The Fourth String is the account of Pocorobba’s time in Japan in the late 1990s. Central to her world there were her music lessons with Sensei, that lead to an intense relationship between student and teacher. This memoir provides a picture of the ever present tension between the traditional and modern in Japan.
Pocorobba, in her late twenties, decides not to return to America with her boyfriend Larry; Sensei helps find a tiny flat nearby her own home, and acts as the guarantor. From then on, wanting to show commitment to her musical studies, Janet, worries about what Sensei thinks about her hard-to-keep-up-with lovelife and way of being in general. Sensei functions as a sort of moral rudder and a rather fussy enforcer of rules, always, for example, commenting on or adjusting Janet’s kimono before performances. This imposing maternal figure motivates Janet to keep on with her practice of the shamisen. Away from teaching English, Janet throws herself into cultural activities, including, drumming and translation—however, none of the other teachers she encounters generates a pull on her as heavy as Sensei’s.
After several broken relationships she comes across Alan, also one of Sensei students, but his also moving back to America causes a strain on the relationship. When Alan returns to Japan things are not what they were during a trip they took together to the Inland Sea. Alan is just another distraction from Janet’s relationship with Japan and her Sensei. She worships her teacher but also tries to change her, asking Sensei to take on Japanese students and accusing her of discrimination when she does not.
Sensei assembles an interesting cast of other gaijin students who take part in musical performances, foremost among which is the talented Kenneth. It’s not clear whether Kenneth’s relationship with Sensei is physical but they are certainly close. Kenneth is cast out of the group when Sensei knocks on Kenneth’s door to find him in bed with a woman—repeating a similar experience she had with her former husband years before. This incident with Kenneth is then a painful opening of an old wound for Sensei.
She offered no new facts in this case, only repeated the moment of horror at the door. Like the music, there was no development, just repetition from a new angle, a relentless purging over and over again, especially the messy hair and the boxer shorts, the push down the stairs, his feeble taste in women.
Janet worries about what she herself might do to fall out of favor with Sensei.
The Fourth String is written in staccato prose; the inside of Sensei’s home and the streets of Tokyo mix into Janet’s thoughts and doubts of twenty ago in a stream of consciousness style. The gaijin life of uncertainty is well on display, through, for example, the claustrophobia of living in a small room and feeling awkward in a culture of subtle cues.
It remains unclear whether Sensei is as tied to Janet as her devoted student is to her. After Kenneth she finds a new potential favorite named Gautam—who Janet becomes involved with. This constant competition for attention is a major factor driving the narrative.
Pocorobba’s memoir achieves a nuanced portrait of her eccentric and strongly independent mentor. It also provides great detail on the learning and playing of Japanese traditional music. One hopes that the shamisen has not been lost completely in modern day Tokyo, drowned out by endless rock guitars and electronic beats.