The Fourth String
A Memoir of Sensei and Me
Two women. Two cultures. One music.
The word sensei in Japanese literally means “one who came before,” but that’s not what Janet Pocorobba’s teacher wanted to be called. She used her first name, Western-style. She wore a velour Beatles cap and leather jacket, and she taught foreigners, in English, the three-stringed shamisen, an instrument that fell out of tune as soon as you started to play it.
Vexed by the music and Sensei’s mission to upend an elite musical system, Pocorobba, on the cusp of thirty, gives up her return ticket home to become a lifelong student of her teacher. She is eventually featured in Japan Cosmo as one of the most accomplished gaijin, “outside people,” to play the instrument.
Part memoir, part biography of her Sensei, The Fourth String looks back on the initial few years of that apprenticeship, one that Janet’s own female English students advised her was “wife training,” steeped in obedience, loyalty, and duty. Even with her maverick teacher, Janet is challenged by group hierarchies, obscure traditions, and the tricky spaces of silence in Japanese life.
Anmoku ryokai , Sensei says to explain: “We have to understand without saying.”
By the time Janet finds out this life might not be for her, she is more at home in the music than the Japanese will allow.
For anyone who has had a special teacher, or has lost themselves in another world, Janet Pocorobba asks questions about culture, learning, tradition, and self. As Gish Jen has said of The Fourth String, “What does it mean to be taught? To be transformed?”
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"The Fourth String reconfigures the typical Japan fish-out-of-water memoir into a meditation on music and mastery, relationships, culture and narrative."
—The Japan Times
"Sometimes Janet and Sensei argue, sometimes Sensei favors other students over Janet, but each encounter offers a little more insight into music, Japanese culture, and into Janet herself."
—Education About Asia
"This memoir provides a picture of the ever present tension between the traditional and modern in Japan. It also provides great detail on the learning and playing of Japanese traditional music."
—The Asian Review of Books
"In this candid memoir, Pocorobba recounts the years she spent in devotion to her teacher and to learning the intracacies of the shamisen—a traditional Japanese three string instrument famously difficult to play."
—The Pacific Rim Review of Books
“Moving and provocative, The Fourth String charts a profound journey into the heart of another culture. What does it mean to teach and be taught? What does it mean to transform and be transformed? Are teacher and student finally, above all, comrades? This memoir --part biography, part autobiography, part portrait of an alchemy -- is as transmuting as its subject, and a joy to read.”
—Gish Jen, author of The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap
"A detailed and intimate portrayal of the relationship between two women."
"Impressively well written with a distinctive narrative storytelling style, The Fourth String is an inherently fascinating, thoughtful, and compelling read."
—The Midwest Book Review
"Elegantly spare yet detail rich, The Fourth String is a beautifully crafted, moving memoir."
—Alexandra Johnson, author of The Hidden Writer, recipient of PEN/Jerard Fund Award Citation for nonfiction.
"An insightful and deeply generous book written by a woman as open to surprises within herself as she is to the revelations she discovers about her temporarily adoptive country of Japan. Janet Pocorobba is by turns curious, funny, sensitive, and always, always brave."
—Pamela Petro, travel writer and author of Travels in an Old Tongue, The Slow Breath of Stone, and Sitting Up With the Dead
"The Fourth String is a piercingly insightful memoir of a young woman's search for herself by diving into the demanding traditional art form of the shamisen in a country renowned for keeping outsiders at arms' length."
—Liza Dalby, author of Geisha, Kimono, Tale of Murasaki, and others
"The Fourth String transports you into the exquisite minutiae of thoughtful, aesthetically oriented "gaijin" life in Japan."
—Leonard Koren, author of Wabi- Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Gardens of Gravel and Sand, and others
"An eloquent and insightful story about Japanese music and culture. Her observations shed light on our longing for beauty and purpose."
—Kyoko Mori, author of the memoir Yarn: Remembering the Way Home
"With lyrical prose and elegant precision, Pocorobba tells a gripping story of teacher and student, practice and dreams, and the ways we listen to our own music and discover our true self."
—Hester Kaplan, author, Unravished, The Tell, The Edge of Marriage, and others
"Exquisitely written … takes us on a spiritual quest in a new country and culture, … the soul of a place whose past secures hope and whose present yearns for modernity."
—Rachel Manley, author of Drumblair trilogy and winner of Canada's Governor General's Award for Literature
"The intimate, evocative world unveiled in Janet Pocorobba’s The Fourth String is a compelling place to visit... An effortless read by a writer who manages the impossible – capturing the ephemeral."
—Elizabeth Dowd, Noh Training Project US, Producing Director
About the Author(s)
Involved with Japan includes two decades of performing Japanese arts on two continents. She plays shamisen, the three drums of the kabuki orchestra (kotsuzumi, otsuzumi, and shimedaiko), and Japanese dance.