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A Guide to 12 Traditional Japanese Instruments

There are many traditional Japanese instruments used to play Japan's traditional music, from those that were invented in Japan to others that evolved and developed into Japanese flavors and varieties over time after arriving from China and other places. This article will introduce the 12 most iconic traditional Japanese instruments.

1. Koto

First up is the koto, a kind of string instrument. There are many varieties of koto, which are categorized by shape and structure. Famous types include the yamato-goto (also called "wagon"), which was invented in Japan, as well as "so", a version of the koto which originally came from China. Most types consist of a body made from wood with strings stretched across the middle that are plucked either with a pick or with one's finger or fingernails to play music. Particularly, the yamato-goto was an instrument that was loved by aristocrats and used for entertainment since ancient times; however, since the Heian era (794 - 1185), it has become an instrument used mostly for religious ceremonies and festivals to honor the deities. Nowadays, it is mostly used to play gagaku (a type of Japanese classical music played at the Imperial court, temples, and shrines since ancient times).

2. Taisho-goto

The Taisho-goto is a uniquely-shaped type of koto that is similar to a guitar, setting it apart from the other koto varieties mentioned above. It was invented in 1912 after a famous Japanese flutist went overseas to perform and was surprised by Western instruments. This inspired him to develop new instruments, including the idea to add buttons to change the key, which he learnt from looking at typewriters!
While Japanese stringed instruments generally use silk strings, the Taisho-goto uses metal strings, and is constructed to produce notes of the Western 12-note scale on its keyboard. To play it, one must simply strum the strings with a pick while pressing the key buttons. The Taisho-goto is characterized by the pure sound created by its metal strings as well as for its ease of play, and can be used for a variety of musical genres, from children's music and enka (Japanese ballads) to pop music.

3. Wadaiko

Next up is the wadaiko (or "taiko"), a traditional Japanese percussion instrument. This kind of drum is made by stretching leather skin over a wooden body, and releases sound when the skin is struck with varying levels of force. The sound is loud and powerful. It is said that wadaiko were used by daimyo (feudal lords) during war times (Warring States period: approx. 1467 - 1568) to command troops and raise morale. In current times, wadaiko are used mostly for religious festivals, kabuki and noh (two types of traditional Japanese theater) performances, ceremonies at shrines and temples, and during summer festivals.

4. Kotsuzumi

The kotsuzumi is a type of drum that is used on stage during kabuki and noh performances to make a satisfying "tap" sound. The kotsuzumi is played by setting it on one's right shoulder, and then hitting it with the right hand while using the left hand to squeeze hemp ropes called "shirabeo." The shirabeo are squeezed by the drummer with every note, which tightens the surface of the drum to produce a pleasing echo.
If you ever see a kotsuzumi during a kabuki performance, pay close attention to the movements of the drummer. There will be times when they move their face closer to the surface of the drum before hitting it. This is where they actually breath onto the surface of the drum in order to control the humidity and thus adjust the sound. With minute adjustments such as this, they can create sounds that resonate further and clearer.

5. Shamisen

This three-stringed instrument has its origins in a Chinese instrument called a "sangen." It was developed during the Edo period (1603 - 1867), and is one of the instruments that represents the music of the early modern period in Japan. While it is a melodic instrument, it also contains some elements of a percussion instrument. It consists of a skin stretched over a rectangular body with a long protruding neck. Generally, it is played by someone in a kneeling position, with the body of the instrument resting on the right knee while stabilized by the right arm and then plucked with a plectrum, or pick, called a "bachi." You can hear the expressive sounds of this instrument at kabuki performances, in minyo (traditional Japanese folk music), and during the classical theater performance of ningyo-joruri (puppet theater accompanied by a shamisen).

6. Nohkan

The nohkan is a type of flute that is used during noh performances, along with the kotsuzumi, otsuzumi (large hand drum), and taiko. The nohkan, as seen in the bottom of the photo, is the only melodic instrument used on stage during noh performances, and creates a unique sound that produces a feeling of tension. You may find it strange that an instrument that is used in noh performances specifically produces sounds that invoke tension rather than pleasant, soothing melodies.
Actually, there are many historical figures and deities that makes appearances in noh theater. When such figures, who are not of this world, make an appearance on stage, the nohkan is used to play a high-pitched sound in order to completely change the atmosphere and create a sense of tension among the audience.
This is an instrument where you can truly feel the strength of the energy of the performer, as if they are talking via the instrument. If you ever get the chance to hear the nohkan during a noh performance, you will be impressed by its magnificence.

7. Shakuhachi

This a bamboo wind instrument that is categorized as being in the flute family of tatebue (end-blown wind instruments). It is played by placing one's lips against the diagonally cut upper tip of the instrument and blowing to produce a sound. While there were several varieties of shakuhachi in the past, nowadays the fuke-shakuhachi is the most common. The standard variety has 5 finger-holes and is around 54.5cm in length, but there are also long and short types as well. While it is said to have an uneven sound due to its simple design and the natural materials it is made from, it also has a high degree of tonal freedom, allowing it to make a variety of sounds and be used in various ways.

8. Biwa

The biwa is a plucked string instrument that was first popular in China and then spread throughout East Asia. It is said to have arrived in Japan from China during the Nara period (710 - 794), and is even thought to have roots that trace back to Persia. It is generally 60 - 106cm in length and made from wood. The instrument is comprised of a water-drop-shaped body with a handle, and while there are generally 4 strings, 5-stringed varieties also exist. In Japan, the biwa is generally plucked with a bachi instead of the fingers, and is often used to play gagaku. In addition, it is used as musical accompaniment when blind monks recite scriptural texts, or when reciting The Tale of the Heike, a war chronicle from the Kamakura era (1185 - 1333).

9. Mukkuri

The Ainu are an indigenous people that live in Hokkaido, the northernmost region of Japan. The mukkuri is a simple instrument used by the Ainu that consists only of a piece of bamboo with a string attached. Just from its looks, its hard to imagine exactly how it is used to produce music.
First, the looped string is held in the left hand, and the single string is pulled with the right hand. Flicking the string while it is being pulled results in the creation of a "twang". Furthermore, the thin part of the bamboo piece is placed in front of one's wide-open mouth, causing the sound to resonate while the string is pulled and flicked. This is how the mukkuri is played.
Without using one's mouth, the mukkuri can only produce a single sound, but different sounds can be made by utilizing different mouth shapes, tongue movements, and taking breaths. This is the true beauty of the mukkuri! The Ainu, who fear otherworldly beings and revere nature, would play the mukkuri while in the forests. It is also sold in souvenir shops in Hokkaido, so buy one and try it out for yourself if you have the chance!

10. Sho

Gagaku is a traditional type of music that first developed in Japan around 1000 years ago with influences from various countries in Asia and along the Silk Road, and is still played to this day in its original state. The sho is one of the instruments used in gagaku.
Said to have led to the development of the pipe organ and accordion, the sho consists of a bundle of 17 bamboo pipes, 15 of which are affixed with a metal reed. The instrument produces sound when air is inhaled or exhaled, causing the reeds to vibrate.
As it is mostly used to play chords, its sound accentuates the sounds of other instruments and is described as “a light shining down from heaven.” Furthermore, it is said that its shape resembles that of a ho-o (legendary bird similar to a peafowl) with its wings raised.

11. Kagura-suzu

If you've been to a Japanese shrine, you've probably stood in front of a shrine and rang a bell as a way of purification and invoking the divine spirit. The Kagura-suzu, another type of bell, serves the same purpose. For example, the Kagura-suzu is rung by the miko (shrine maiden) as she dances the Kagura-mai during Shinto rituals. Since it is used in Shinto rituals, the Kagura-suzu has a clear and dignified sound.

12. Sanshin

The sanshin is a stringed instrument that is used in Okinawa. It consists of a wooden body with a section of snake skin, wherein three strings of differing thickness are plucked to produce music.
Ryukyuan music played in Okinawa largely uses a 5-note scale (C, E, F, G, B, C), and that scale when played on a sanshin produces a characteristic, warm sound. If you visit Okinawa, you simply must hear the sounds this instrument can produce, which almost sounds like an aural representation of the kind citizens and natural beauty of Okinawa.
You can find several restaurants that serve Okinawan cuisine in large cities like Tokyo. Sometimes they will play live music with a sanshin, so it is recommended to research Okinawan styled restaurants if you are interested in hearing this instrument.

In addition to concerts, the instruments introduced in this article can also be heard at festivals and events held all over Japan. Please be sure to check them out during your visit to Japan!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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