support this research
70614-0005 - Shamisen maker, 1870s

Shamisen Craftsman

Artist Yamamoto
Publisher J B Millet Company
Medium Albumen Print
Period Meiji
Location Studio
Image No. 70614-0005
Purchase Digital File

A craftsman, wearing a traditional chonmage (topknot) hairstyle, is working on a shamisen, a three-stringed musical instrument played with a Bachi (plectrum), while being assisted by a woman in kimono.

In the back five shamisen rest against the wall. To work more easily, the craftsman has freed his right arm from his haori.

The shamisen has a long history. Around 1390 a snake-skin covered three-string instrument was developed in China, which was later introduced into the Ryukyu Kingdom. It became known as the snake-skin covered sanshin (also: jabisen).

About a century later, this instrument was improved upon by the Ryukyu musician Akainko, who established the foundation of Ryukyu sanshin music.

The sanshin was introduced into Japan by trade ships around 1562. Because snakeskin was not as common in Japan as in the Ryukyu Kingdom, it was replaced by dog or cat skin. Other changes made the instrument so different that by the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1603) it had developed into a new instrument, the shamisen.

The shamisen became incredibly popular and by the Edo Period (1603-1868) was an indispensable part of kabuki and music in general. [1]

While the shamisen is still going strong and has even been used in Jazz, chonmage are now only worn by sumo wrestlers.

The chonmage was only worn by men and originally used by samurai to hold their helmet steady during battle. The top of the wearer’s head was shaved, while the remaining hair was oiled and tied into a small ponytail folded onto the top of the head in a topknot. As chonmage was associated with samurai, it was seen as a status symbol and was very popular.

In 1871 the Danpatsurei edict (断髪令) encouraged samurai to cut off their chonmage. It created a small photography boom when samurai rushed to photo studios to get their photo taken before their chonmage was cut off.

As a result of the edict, Western hair styles, called jangiri (じゃんぎり, also: zangiri) in Japanese, became increasingly popular. This in turn encouraged photographers to seek out people wearing chonmage.

This photo is featured in Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, edited by Captain F Brinkley.2

The photographs for this publication were sourced by Kozaburo Tamamura (1856-1923?).


1 Columbia Music Entertainment, Japanese Traditional Music: Shamisen. Retrieved on 2008-03-10.

2 Captain Brinkley, Frank (1897). Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese, Shogun Edition. J B Millet Company.


Leave a Comment

Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1870s: Shamisen Craftsman, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 26, 2022 (GMT) from

I have a small favor to ask

Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage to increase our understanding of Japanese culture and society.

Finding, acquiring, scanning, restoring, researching and conserving these vintage images, and making the imagery and research freely available online, takes serious time, money and effort.

I do this without charging for access, selling user data, or running ads.

Your support helps to make this possible, and ensures that this important visual heritage of Japan will not be lost and forgotten.

If you can, please consider supporting Old Photos of Japan with a regular amount each month. Or become a volunteer.

Thank you,
Kjeld Duits

support this research

Explore More


Ainu Fishermen

Four Ainu fishermen stand in log boats, two of them holding spears as if ready to catch fish. Fish was, together with venison and other game, a very important part of the Ainu diet.


Young Family

A charming studio shot of a young family “on the road” in late 19th century Japan.


Oxcart with Rice Bags

A man stands next to an oxcart loaded with tawara (俵, straw rice bags). Tawara (also: hyo) were used for holding rice, charcoal or grain.

Add Comment

The clue to who took this image is the kanji on the man’s haori, 寫山茂堂 (Sha Yamamoto Dou; Photo Yamamoto Studio). Yamamoto Ei often put his studio name in his images.



@Jim Clinefelter

Thanks, Jim. I love it when photographers leave their name card like that!

Yamamoto’s studio with the slanting backboard is also easy to recognize.