The shamisen, a traditional Japanese musical instrument with a twangy tone vaguely reminiscent of a banjo, is at the centre of an animal rights controversy.

The shamisen, the instrument closely associated with geisha in traditional tea houses, gets its unique tone from a membrane made from the skins of domestic cats.

The shamisen is crafted from traditional materials including mulberry wood, sandalwood, silk and ivory – but while many of the more expensive materials have been replaced with modern synthetic alternatives the cat skin has proven impossible to duplicate.

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For decades, shamisen-makers had collected stray cats from Japan’s city streets and cured their skin. Just after the end of the Second World War, there were around 200 professional cat-nappers working in Japan.

But as the protests from animal rights campaigners in pet-loving Japan began to grow, they turned to importing leather made from cat and and small dog skins from China and Thailand.

Imported skins from Thailand were considered particularly inferior, due the hot weather and unhygienic conditions. Out of a batch of Thai dog and cat skin, only 20% or so is usable.

From a peak of 18,000 shamisens a year at the beginning of the 1970s, annual production has shrunk to a few thousand.

Experiments with substitutes, such as specially-treated heavy paper, have proved unsuccessful.

The best results so far have been achieved with a specially-designed synthetic shamisen leather called “Ripple”, but purist stay it’s not quite the same as the real thing.

Some 70,000 cats are put down in Japan’s animal shelters every year, but animal activists have refused to accept any use of real cat skin.

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"There is a world-wide movement in the world of medicine and science to experiment with substitute animal skins," says Yasuhiko Aida, secretary general of the Japan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The same should go for cat skins for shamisen."

One shamisen player, Sakichi Kineya, told The Times: “We have been appealing to the government for 30 years to give us these skins since these animals are being culled anyway.

“It makes more sense to put them to use rather than just cremating them. In human history from a long time ago we lived off animals.”

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