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Pictures of Japanese Geisha

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A Geisha and Her Shamisen, 1955
Shamisens are three-stringed plucked lutes, traditionally favored by geisha (and their customers)

A geisha plays the shamisen, 1955

Orlando, Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The traditional musical instrument of choice for geisha is the shamisen, a three-stringed lute that is plucked with the fingers or with a fan-shaped plectrum (pick) called a bachi. The hollow sounding-board of the instrument is covered on the back and front with skin. Lower-cost shamisens often are covered with dog skin, while the higher end models have cat skin covers. Traditionally, the string pegs were made of ivory, but international laws against trade in elephant ivory mean that most modern shamisen pegs are made of plastic or wood.

Professional grade shamisen strings are made of delicate silk. However, student shamisen players learn on far more durable nylon strings.

The shamisen is a relatively new musical instrument in Japan. It was introduced into Osaka from China via the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa) in the 16th century. The Chinese model, called the sanxian, is similar in design and sound, but has a longer neck and a snake-skin cover. Geisha adopted the shamisen as their primary instrument; their favored genre of shamisen music is the kouta or "short song."

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