Home Culture Shamisen


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Shamisen is a traditional Japanese musical instrument, with three strings, whose resonance box has a cat or snake skin top. It took the place of the biwa (ancient Japanese balalaika) in narrative music due to its more powerful sound.
In the sixteenth century, composers began to appear for the instrument, who began to write the songs on scores.

Shamisen, also called Sangen, literally means (three strings), It has three silk strings and a large reed (called bachi). In addition, Shamisen has a characteristic sitar sound called (sawari), the resonance of the thickest string lightly touching the neck. The sound of the strings, body and sawari combine to make the Shamisen unique.
The Shamisen is similar to a guitar or banjo in its structure, but is played with a pick called bachi and has an extremely distinctive sound. The Shamisen’s neck is thin and the body looks like a drum. It spread widely in the Edo period and is now played not just in Japan but all over the world and played alongside ethnic and electronic musical instruments.

The Shamisen, originated from the Chinese instrument called Sanxian, and arrived in Japan from Okinawa. In China and Okinawa it is made with snake skin, while in mainland Japan cat and dog skin is used. It is an instrument often played by geisha in kabuki theaters, in puppet plays, in theatrical music, and also in folk songs of many regions.

It can be played alone or with another Shamisen or in conjunction with other Japanese instruments, it is played with Nagauta singing and is also used as an accompaniment to drama, mainly in Kabuki and Bunraku events.


The construction of the Shamisen varies in form depending on the genre in which it is used. The instrument used to accompany kabuki has a thin neck, facilitating the agile and virtuosic requirements of this genre. The one that used to accompany puppet plays and folk songs has a longer, thicker neck, to match the more robust music of those genres.

The 3 models that distinguish in dimensions are Hosozao, Chuuzao and Futozao. Each instrument is used in certain genres.

  • Hosozao: for playing Nagauta and Kouta style, it has a smaller and thinner neck, commonly used in kabuki performances and maiko and geisha feasts.
  • Chuuzao: stop play Jiuta and Minyo style, it has an intermediate neck, a type of music very old traditional.
  • Futozao: for playing Tusgaru Shamisen and Gidayu style, it is the longest and thickest, ideal for playing vibrant and loud music.


The Okinawa region was the birthplace of Shamisen in Japan, in Okinawa it is known as Sanshin. They came through China and Korea before the Nara period (710-794 CE) and then modified and adapted.

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