OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN, a photo blog of Japan in the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods

Old Photos of Japan
shows photos of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s. In 1854, Japan opened its doors to the outside world for the first time in more than 200 years. It set in motion a truly astounding transformation. As fate would have it, photography had just been invented. As the old country vanished and a new one was born, daring photographers took photos. Discover what life was like with their rare and precious photographs of old Japan.
Recent Comments  
  • Kjeld Duits

    @Jim Clinefelter Thanks, Jim. I love it when photographers leave their name card like that! Yamamoto’s studio …

  • Jim Clinefelter

    The clue to who took this image is the kanji on the man’s haori, 寫山茂堂 …

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1870s • Shamisen Craftsman

Shamisen maker

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 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 (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..

Photographer: Yamamoto
Publisher: J B Millet Company
Medium: Albumen Print
Image Number 70614-0005

Quote this number when you contact us about licensing this image.
You can also licence this image online: 70614-0005 @ MeijiShowa.com.

Usage of this image requires a reproduction fee.
Reference for Citations

Duits, K. (2008, March 13). 1870s • Shamisen Craftsman, Old Photos of Japan. Retrieved on 2021, Oct 26 from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/58/shamisen-craftsman

Posted by • 2008-03-13
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.

#000688 · Jim Clinefelter · 2021-02-02

@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.

#000689 · Kjeld Duits (author) · 2021-02-03

Textile help

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