The shamisen is a three-stringed Japanese lute. Originally from China, it seems to have been introduced in Japan in the 16th century. Its presence on the archipelago was first observed in the Ryukyu Islands, in the South of the country.

The shamisen is a chordophone and has a sound box covered with cat or dog skin. It is played both by women and men, even though the shamisen is traditionally associated with women. In the beginning, this instrument was used to accompany folk songs, then it found its place in chamber music.

The shamisen is played with a plectrum (bachi). The notes are produced by pressing the strings on the fingerboard with the index finger, the thumb and sometimes the middle finger. There are other playing techniques, such as the uchi, which does not require a plectrum.

The timbre is another important characteristic of the shamisen. The instrument is designed to increase the length of the sound and to produce a distinctive buzzing (sawari), with a short nut that allows the first string to touch the neck. The buzzing depends on the string and its tension; the instrument must therefore be finely tuned. The other strings are not in direct contact with the neck but, because of sympathetic resonance, the buzzing can be heard when they are played. The modified timber supposedly reproduces the "impure" sounds of nature, such as water or wind. This aesthetics can be explained by the importance of nature in the Japanese culture as well as by the desire to be in symbiosis with nature rather than to dominate it by imposing the "pure" sound of music over the "impure" sound of nature.

Traditionally, the absolute pitch of the tuning is insignificant. The intervals between the strings (usually fourth or fifth) determine the tuning of the instrument. The pitch depends on several criteria, like the singer's tessitura. The three main types of tuning are the following:

1.      Hon tyôsi (basic tuning): for instance, C, F, C

2.      Ni agari (tuning with a raised second string): for instance, C, G, C

3.      San sagari (tuning with a lowered third string): for instance, C, F, B flat

There are several types of shamisens, which differ in weight, neck and sound box width, string thickness, bridge and plectrum shape and material. Each type of instrument is named according to the width of the neck and is associated with a specific style and repertoire. The futozao has a thick neck and is played in a more percussive style than the other types of shamisens; the chuuzao has a medium neck and is mainly used to accompany lyrical songs and to play narrative pieces; the hosozao has a thin neck and is associated with the music of kabuki (classical dance-drama) and with kouta (short folk songs).

The shamisen exhibited in the MIM is a hosozao. The extremity of its thin neck gently and progressively curves backwards. This instrument was donated to the museum in 1877 or 1878 by the curator Victor Mahillon and his brother Joseph.