Geisha playing traditional Japanese musical instruments – early 1900s

Vintage postcards are a wonderful record of past traditions, clothing and lifestyles and this Japanese card from the early 1900s is a perfect example. It pictures two geisha playing Japanese instruments – the girl in the blue kimono is playing the shamisen, a three-string lute with a fretless fingerboard, whilst the other is playing a koto, the national instrument of Japan and one of the traditional instruments played by geisha. During the previous century the traditional woodblock print had been the most popular medium for contemporary Japanese images, but by the early years of the twentieth century millions of postcards were produced for Japanese and foreign collectors, featuring images that recorded the rapidly changing Japanese society. Postcard collection in the country enjoyed enormous popularity during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 1905, when the government issued and sold picture postcards to promote the war effort.

I found this lovely example of a hand-tinted collotype postcard on a Roman market stall recently. The card is uncirculated, so cannot be precisely dated, but the undivided back, and vignetted image with space for a message on the front of the card, rather than the back, puts it sometime between 1900 when a revision of the postal act allowed private (non-governmental) postcards to be published, and 1907 when the first divided back postcards (allowing for both address and message on the reverse of the card) were introduced in Japan.

Reverse of postcard

Japan had joined the Universal Postal Union (Union postale universelle) in 1877 and this postcard continues to include the UPU information on the reverse of the card in Japanese. Reading from right to left: Bankoku yūbin kumiai hagaki, literally, all countries (universelle = bankoku) postal (postale = yūbin) union (union = kumiai) card (carte = hagaki). Huge thanks to my email friend Gaye Rowley, who lives in Japan, for the translation of the Japanese inscription.

Whilst researching this post I came across this video of the instruments in use (or or click here to watch on YouTube).

Check out eBay for more Geisha postcards

Find more vintage postcards over at Beth's postcard blog The Best Hearts are Crunchy and join other collectors on Postcard Friendship Friday.

Postcard Friendship Friday


That is a beautiful card. I can even imagine it with Japanese characters written down the right side as if the sender had sent a message. There's something so beautiful about the characters.

Strangely the words I need to type for this are:

from Akview
Grace Bailhache said…
Hello Beth,

Japan is such a mystery for me and I love the fact that they have this incredible facility to leave in a world where ancestrals traditions leave aside modernity.

The Geisha is very intriguing and I guess missunderstood outside of Japanese culture. Your postcard reminds of the movie memories of a Geisha, the beauty of clothes, moves.

I have never been there, but one of my cousin had this opportunity and sent a me a beautiful postcard.

Your choice is a great inspiration.

Happy FFP !

VioletSky said…
There is lots of room for writing on this card, much more than many of of our cards would have (it seems strange because I would think Japanese would take up less room than, say, English or French)
Beth Niquette said…
Oh, Wow! What an incredible find! How perfectly lovely. Thank you so much for your description of its history. I agree with Grace that this is a great inspiration!

Happy Postcard Friendship Friday!
Maria said…
This postcard is really nice! I love receiving postcards that tells about culture and tradition. And I really think kimono is beautiful -- I have one postcard of Japanese women in kimono so far and I wish to get more.
Grace Bailhache said…
Oh I'm sorry Deborah I just noticed that I called you Beth last time....Ouch !!!