Woman Playing a Shamisen
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1661-1672
Hanging scroll; ink, color and gold on paper
Gift of Mrs. Robert P. Griffing, Jr.,
in Memory of Robert Allerton, 1965
The complex iconography of the Yoshiwara has made identification and interpretation of images such as this an immense challenge for scholars. Courtesans are often distinguished by their kimono sash (obi), which they typically tied in front, as opposed to women outside the sex industry, who tied their sashes in back. The fact that this woman’s sash is not obviously tied in front leads us to believe that she might be a geisha (female entertainer) or sumptuously dressed commoner rather than a courtesan. Geisha, however, did not rise to public attention until the 1770s.
In the various roles that they assumed in the Yoshiwara, many women, including apprentice courtesans (shinzō), adolescent assistants (kamuro), and chaperones (yarite), wore their sashes tied in back. The fact that this woman’s hair has been arranged in a hyōgo-wage style leads us to presume that she is a resident of the Yoshiwara and is possibly connected with the Hyōgoya Brothel, where this hairstyle supposedly originated.
The long sleeves (furisode) of her kimono identify her as a young apprentice courtesan. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, shinzō were forbidden from sexual activity with customers and were often assigned tasks such as musical entertainment. Here, the shinzō plays a three-stringed shamisen, which she strums with an ivory plectrum. The opulence of her kimono and the Chinese-style chair upon which she sits reflect the economic success and cultural sophistication of the Yoshiwara district.
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