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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.


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Old Photos of Japan aims to be your personal museum for Japan's visual heritage and to bring the experiences of everyday life in old Japan to you.

To enhance our understanding of Japanese culture and society I track down, acquire, archive, and research images of everyday life, and give them context.

I share what I have found for free on this site, without ads or selling your data.

Your support helps me to continue doing so, and ensures that this exceptional visual heritage will not be lost and forgotten.

Thank you,
Kjeld Duits


Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1870s: Shamisen Craftsman, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on December 11, 2023 (GMT) from

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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.