Help identifying the wood on this shamisen?

Just won this shamisen on an auction for about £50. the only notable damage on it is the backside of the dou has a rip in it. but i wanted help identifying the wood here whilst i’m waiting for it to be shipped

From what little i can gather i’m guessing it’s shitan or possibly kouki? although i’d be very shocked (in a good way!) if this turned out to be kouki. thank you in advance for anyone helping me to identify this

If you are waiting for it to be shipped internationally, I would be VERY worried about the itomaki being made of Ivory. It is illegal (i.e. can land you in jail) to buy ivory internationally in most countries.
If you are outside Japan, and if you still have time, ask the seller to throw the itomaki away, and buy new ones from Kyle or other seller.

If you are in Japan (and live here), you won’t have any problems. But if you are here and plan on taking this Shamisen back to your country, again, throw away the itomaki. Xray machines used by Customs are fine-tuned to detect ivory, and can detect even 3mm pieces.

As for the wood, it would be better to have a look inside the joints, and the back of the Saruo, as lighting can be deceiving.

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I had a look up on the law in the UK. and a few factors for ivory seems to fall in place, if i bought it with the intent to sell or “hire” its illegal. an exception being if it was carved before 1946 apparently? i can’t tell well enough by the pictures if it is ivory or bone on those pegs, so i’ve asked the middleman service i used for the auction to check and possibly remove them before shipping if they think its ivory and not bone

The only thing I’m certain of is that the itomaki are ivory.

This is the original auction page, yes?

Yes that’s the one. did some more digging and apparently the UK ivory law only applies for the purposes of selling. apparently if the thing is for personal use its exempt (but there might be a chance i still need a CITES certificate)

Hi PippyM
I have several shamisen (some playable, some not) that are similar to yours in appearance. For mine, I believe the wood to be kouki and the itomaki to be bone (microscopic pores, lighter weight - from internet sites on how to tell bone from ivory). I did not try the burning test!
To the Bachido experts: How do you tell real from artificial Beko bachi? I have 2 purchased in Japan about 30 years ago and am now curious if I bought the real thing.
I am a former Nagauta and Nihon Minyo player that may get back now that I’m retired. That’s why I joined this site.
Also I currently play Okinawa sanshin (Afuso Ryu) and would enjoy discussing the music and instrument if that would be appropriate here.

@PippyM Please loot at this:
Attention to section 8 and 10. Ivory law in the UK applies to all Ivory, with 5 possible exceptions. I don’t think that your Shamisen qualifies for a pre-1975-built musical instrument certificate, judging by the overall condition and details. And if it by any chance does, you may possibly need to spend a lot on getting it registered.

But in the case it does qualify, even then you can’t know that right now before having it on hand, as you don’t know if there are writings or seals inside the instrument that would help date it. Without any inscriptions or seals, there is no proof. Worse, the govt may even find any markings to be fake, made in order to facilitate the illegal trade, of which you will be judged to be part of. There is no claiming ignorance (the “I didn’t know” defence) on the purchase of Ivory.

I will go a step further. Shamisen have their itomaki replaced all the time. One could easily take a pre-1975 instrument and add ivory itomaki. However, the replaceable nature of itomaki is quite likely to be well known to UK authorities.

The penalties are way too harsh to be worth the risk, but that is ultimately your decision.

@oldstr Bone, especially older bone, will either become quite yellow if bovine (I have a set I use as reference), or have black grain in-between if whale (I have two sets I use as reference). Also, I can clearly see the Ivory pattern in the detail photo, plus I have several sets of ivory itomaki, and several ivory bachi, which are not illegal to own in Japan (but illegal to import/export).

Pippy, please take care, and also please consider the opinion of @Brown, who is an active member of Bachido, and have been sharing a lot of his expertise both here and in the Bachido Discord server.

@oldstr About the bachi, I’m not so sure there was fake bekko back then. One easy way to tell is it it has small areas that look like it chipped off. If I remember well, Brown said it is caused by a type of fungus that attacks Bekko.

Yeah no worries on that front.
I was just waiting on some confirmation on if they were bone or ivory.
the middleman service i’m using for shipping is going to check under a magnifying glass tomorrow to confirm if its bone or ivory.
And i have told them if it is ivory to just discard the itomaki for me. No big deal.
Even if i have to save up a bit more (not in the best financial situations at the moment ironically considering i keep bidding on instruments in auctions, half my high-end shinobue i own i won through auctions)
I’ll just get some acrylic itomaki or something. just to fit the theme.
The main thing i was making this bid with was hoping the wood might be kouki or shitan by the looks of it. I’ll probably send an email to kyle to get a general idea of how much the shipping fees will be to get the dou reskinned.
If i send off to kyle i might get both sides reskined with the synthetic skin because that’s really the only thing in my budget. But that combined with the itomaki replacements assuming everything else is fine. it should of been a pretty good restoration for the fact i won the auction for 9k JPY.

The most common cause of damage is actually insect attack! Mites and other small critters will eat at the shell, causing unsightly blemishes and damage. Glue failures or stress cracking also turn up. I have a bachi with each and every possible failure I think :cry:



Fake bekko has been around for a long time, but I am unsure of the exact history of it in Japan. A pretty easy way to identify whether or not its the real deal is to look at the flat at a slight angle. Shell grows in layers, and as its worked these layers are revealed creating a wavelike pattern that’s visible at angles.

Beyond that, look to the patterns and colors. True bekko has generally irregular color and asymmetrical shapes.

I see. You’ll have a better idea of the instrument’s wood when you can look at the unfinished wood at the joints. Right now, I’d be disinclined to think the whole thing is karin (consider the color difference between the neck and body), but it’s unclear outside of that. Much of the instrument is actually a bit difficult to comment on, given the listing doesn’t actually show how the measurements were taken. I hope the tenjin isn’t broken.

As for repair costs and value… believe the costs for kawahari can be found on the store page. Sourcing itomaki on the cheap can be difficult. Provided you manage that and there’s nothing else too seriously damaged it’ll be okay in the end.

Good luck :slight_smile:

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Little update for everyone, the workers sent me this to show they removed the itomaki for me.

Tomorrow I’m gonna pay for the shipping and hopefully should have it in my possession within a week or two! emailed Kyle to ask about how much shipping to and from would be for the reskinning. Gonna use black hibiki. Probably going to go with acrylic itomaki because those are the cheapest (that still look decent) that i can find. Now i just gotta figure out what i want to use for the doukake so i can match the itomaki colour to the colour of whatever fabric i use for the doukake. and dear god i’m going to have to tie my own neo again aren’t i? :slight_smile:

Hello! Have you received your shamisen and managed to reskin it? Also, does it have small see-through notches on the neck? It looks almost exactly like a shamisen I just bought, except the logo on the fabric on mine is an origami crane instead of a bachi and the fabric is purple. Other than that, they are pretty much identical in my eyes.

Yeah i have it on hand now, still not reskinned yet as i have money troubles. as for the wood its still hard for me to identify. the inside looks more or less the same as the outside. needed a good clean too

Can someone help me identify this wood?

I bought a second hand shamisen. But don’t know the wood. But the shamisen is old so is not been the most easiest to identify what wood it is. I just want to know for my own curiosity. The suggestions I have is hard rose wood and possible purple rose wood.

There is a symbols in the dou and on the side in Japanese for (Oaktree 柏木) but nothing suggest Karin shamisen as it is heavy and it’s colour changes depending on the lighting like light brown to orange to like dark brown. Any input is appreciated!

Hello @Kevinshamisen

Judging by the grain and color, I am almost certain it is Shitan, but it would be good to get corroboration from @Brown or another member with a wealth of knowledge.

And judging by the zagane, azuma sawari, and apparent width of the sao (looks like futozao), you got yourself a very old tsugaru there. Too bad there’s no rindou. Also, you will need a good resurfacing of the fingerboard, which, if you don’t have a lot of experience with woodwork, I’d send it to a Luthier.

I hope you could show us the dou, especially the inside of it, as I am very curious about its age, build technique, and if there’s some Luthier inscription.

Oh, and those star shaped medium sized Itomaki, that is a classical set I would love to have more in my collection. Very nice find indeed.

This is inside the dou, it has an inscription but don’t know what it says. I have been suggested shitan and also that it could be purple rose wood. But don’t know for sure ? How old do you think this is?

My money is also on Shitan, doggo.


The dou is will put together. Generally, builds try to get concentric growth rings to align with the center of the panel.

The interior is unworked, but it is finished. So it’s a maruuchidou.

The sticker is about the last skinning. Looks to be me like the client and the shop’s address. I can translate some of it, if you like. But the details are likely not relevant to any identification. I would point out that the last skinner did an odd job. It is typical to cover any marks on the dou by bringing the skin down far enough to cover scratches. The last skinning didn’t go down nearly far enough.

If you wish to know more about the genre of your instrument, please take a measure to it and tell me the width of the neck at the chibukuro and the length and width of the body (measuring only the flat top of the drum, not the curved bevels.

You can, alternatively, look at the under side of the doukake. The size is frequently labeled there.

Thanks @jonnyfive and @Brown for clarification. Had a feeling it was not Karin wood as the color and the heaviness of the wood, so one can perhaps say it is a midrange shamisen. I am pretty sure this is a Tsugaru shamisen, the width of the sao is 30 cm to be exact. I am hoping to get a good sound out of this shamisen, but I am using wooden bachi that creates a squizzing sound, so trying to get around that without having to buy tortoise bachi, but seems expensive. Will see, thank you again. But love this shamisen, as it gives me so much

I must assume you mean the sao is 30mm wide, haha.

Yes, that makes it a futozao by any reckoning. Whether it’s a tsugaru or not depends on the size of its dou.

You do not need a bekko bachi by any means, wood is perfectly fine.

Can you better explain what you mean by “squizzing”?

I cannot believe I wrote 30 cm, that would be a very big shamisen. I have some practice video of me playing I think that would be the best description #yasaburobushi #shamisen last practice of the piece today | By ケビン in Japan | Facebook
You can hear what I mean by the sound, which I think comes from bachi, not so much the shamisen. Had a look on Pantera bachi yesterday so will try to save up for that, and see if the sound changes.


I don’t hear anything out of the ordinary, although I do think you’re tuned exceptionally low.