Old Shamisen (From Grandmother)


My grandmother was singing and dancing in Seattle in the late 1920’s. I have what I think is her original shamisen (Picture below). How she hung on to it through camp, I have no idea. Can anyone help ID and get an idea of vintage, make for this instrument? Regardless, I just joined, and I’m going through the lessons. It’d be fun to play an old instrument. Incidentally, it is in really good shape. Sounds great as far as I can tell, so I have a feeling she had it fixed up in the 1980’s. It looks a lot like the vintage shamisen in Kyle Abbott’s youtube video about the 120 year old nagauta shamisen.

Some info if not clear:
It’s a 2 part Sao. There’s a label in the Dou (See picture). There was no Kamigoma. (how thick should the brass be if I make one?) The Sao appears to be Shitan or Kouki. I can’t tell, it is very fine grained wood… I did the red-hot needle check and the the koma and itomaki are ivory. The bachi are wood and bakelite.

Other questions: What is the purple thingy? (It’s suede with elastic and is stretched on cardboard.
Will a shinobi koma fit this instrument or is it too small?

Thanks for any insight you may have.


Hi Jason,

Thanks for posting this, it’s always interesting to see these old instruments, and get a glimpse at what was happening in Japanese communities outside of Japan! It looks like a nice old instrument.
The purple thing fits over the arm rest that goes on the top of the dou (body) so that your arm doesn’t slide around while you’re playing.

As far as the label goes, I can’t make out everything, but I’ve reposted it with some of the information translated.

Starting from the far left:

Customer: “XX Shiyatoru sama” (Mr. XX of Seattle) I can’t make out the family name, but the second character looks like ‘door’ (the “be” in “Kobe”, but it can be pronounced ko, to, e, he, etc. Maybe you can figure it out from your grandmother’s family name? )

Date: June 5th, Showa 15 (1940) This usually refers to the date that a skin was put on. It’s usually removed when a new skin is put on, and replaced by a new label.

In the big open space:
Kawa yotsu (dog skin)
touka kan? (10-day A-grade) I don’t know what this part means, but it may have to do with the grade of dog skin.

Location: Tokyo (Ueno) Shitaya Inari-cho ni (Near Ueno Station, and a block from Hokusai’s grave, according to Google map’s!)

Shop name: Kikuoka X yoshi ten (the store is owned by someone whose family name is Kikuoka, but I can’t make out the first character of his given name)

Phone number: Shitaya 944 (back in the days when you called the operator and said “please connect me to Shitaya 944” I guess)

That’s it for me - maybe some other people can fill in the blanks. In the meantime, have fun - it looks like a nice instrument to play.


Gerry with the save!!

One thing I’d like to clarify. I thought 皮四つ always referred to cat skin, with the four indicating the four nipple holes found on the host grade of skin.

Am I incorrect?


Found some more info. Looks like the name is Kikuoka Eikichi. His great greats have a home business refurbing / making shamisen for Kabuki actors. Location seems to be Kikuoka Sangen Store Address: 3-12-12 Negishi, Taito-ku, Tokyo. There’s an article about his grandson: https://www.kabuki-bito.jp/special/tepco/37/no1.html. Doesn’t seem like there’s an email.

I’m going to send some pics and a letter and see if they made it, just reskinned it, or if it is their make at all. The mystery is that my grandmother was using it in the 1930’s assuming it is the same instrument. If this is original maker label, then I have a feeling she lost all of her things before being shipped of to prison. This would have been a post camp purchase. Fun investigation! Thanks for the input!


Christopher, you are right: yotsu refers to the four nipples on a good cat skin. It’s quite a while since I’ve thought about this stuff, so I went and checked, and my source tells me that “kami yotsu” is the best quality catskin (nipples included), and “shimo yotsu” is the lower qualtiy one (fake nipple marks sometimes added). The word “kawa” refers to dog skin, and it comes in kami, naka, and shimo quality levels. This makes me wonder if the writing on this shamisen, “Kawa yotsu” means cat on the front, dog on the back (there’s a mullet joke in there somewhere). I learned from Kyle a year or so ago that goat is replacing dog when it comes to natural skins - I wonder what they are calling that.
Jason, interesting follow up! The “Ei” in “Eikichi” isn’t the same character that is written inside the shamisen, but this kind of thing happens with old name spellings, so it is is possibly the same person. Even if she played the instrument in the 30s, it might have been sent back to Japan for reskinning. And if the work was done in 1940, it predates the Japanese internment camps but a very short margin. That means she managed to get it back after the war, which makes it more amazing, since, as you mentioned, a lot of Japanese people lost everything when they were sent to the camps. Please keep us updated - I’m sure a lot of people would be interested to hear what the shop can tell you about all of this!


Gentlemen. I believe there are four nipples on bachan の shamisen. I am speechless in light of this awesomeness.

Under a 10x loupe the surface of that front skin has a repeating pattern of three pores. The rear skin has a much more random pattern of similar sized pores that seems very different. Both are a cream color but I believe these are different materials.

I inspected my wife’s (definitely not my) friend Fukuzawa Yukichi (see below) and I believe the that front skin is Neko. Crazy.

I definitely will update when the factory responds. Thanks for the input gents!