The 7 Most Popular Traditional Japanese String Instruments

Music is an essential part of Japanese culture, as it influences the economy, the media, and even the fashion industry. 

Many of the traditional Japanese instruments were initially used as a means of self-expression and to reduce boredom. These instruments transformed Japanese culture, and are still being used in contemporary society – not just in Japan, but throughout the world. 

The 7 Most Popular Traditional Japanese String Instruments

This guide will take an in-depth look at seven of the most prominent traditional Japanese string instruments. We’ll also look to answer a few of the frequently asked questions. 

1). Shamisen 

The first instrument on our list is the shamisen, a plucked string instrument with a long neck and no frets. This Japanese instrument is a three-string lute, with three tuning pegs and a wooden body. 

While the design and neck length of the shamisen is similar to that of a guitar or banjo, the neck is fretless and significantly thinner. 

The instrument is thought to be a variation of the Okinawan sanshin, which itself originated from the sanxian, a Chinese lute that entered Japan through the Okinawa Islands. 

To play the shamisen, a bachi is used to pluck the strings which provides a unique, cultural Japanese tune. The instrument is great for playing solo, and can also be used in ensembles. 

2). Koto 

Regarded by many as the national instrument in Japan, the koto is a stringed instrument that’s played while placed flat on the ground. 

The popular instrument is descended from the Chinese guzheng, and also has a striking resemblance to the gayageum from Korea and the Vietnamese dan tranh. 

The koto is relatively easy to spot due to its large, elongating body which spans up to 71 inches in length and a width of around 7.9 inches. 

Most traditional kotos are made of paulownia wood and come with 13 bridges and 13 strings, although some varieties of the instrument now come equipped with 17, 20, or even 25 strings! 

The strings of the koto are made out of either silk or plastic and are all of similar size and tension, while the bridges – which used to be made from ivory – are now made from plastic and wood.  

Since its introduction to Japanese culture, the koto has experienced a fair amount of innovation and development.

This is mainly due to the influence of great artists such as Yatsuhashi Kengyo and Tadao Sawai. 

3). Tonkori  

The next traditional Japanese string instrument on our list is the tonkori. This instrument is made of wood from a dark-bark bruce, and originated from the Ainu tribe who are considered to be the original inhabitants of northern Japan. 

The tonkori is typically composed of five strings and two bridges – one located at the top and another at the bottom.

The instrument doesn’t have any frets, and is approximately 47 inches long and four inches wide. 

This popular traditional instrument was on the verge of complete extinction during the 1970s, but has experienced an impressive resurgence over the past decade. 

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind this revival is Oki Kano, a famous modern performer of the instrument. 

4). Gottan 

The gottan is an instrument you may well have heard of if you’re familiar with Kodozuke, a popular door-to-door kind of entertainment for casual musicians. 

The instrument has long been used in Japanese culture for this purpose alongside the aforementioned shamisen (see number one). 

In terms of its sound and design, the gottan is a relatively simple instrument with three strings and three tuning pegs. Its body is made completely of solid wood, with the sound produced from the instrument described as light, warm, and cheerful. 

5). Sanshin

As touched upon when discussing the shamisen earlier in our list, the sanshin is a traditional Okinawan instrument closely related to the Chinese sanxian. 

The instrument consists of a body, neck, strings, and tuning pegs. The body of a sanshin is usually covered with snake skin, and the instrument has a twang which is perfect in traditional Ryukyuan folk music or at special ceremonies.

Interestingly, the name ‘sanshin’ actually translates to ‘three strings’. These strings are usually made from either silk or nylon, and are known individually as the female string, the middle string, and the male string.

The female string produces the highest notes, while the male string produces the lowest. 

The neck of the instrument is made using black ebony core. This provides the very best strength and durability, as well as an impeccable Japanese cultural sound.

6). Biwa 

The penultimate instrument on our list is the biwa, an instrument recognizable for its short neck and pear-shaped body. 

The traditional Japanese instrument is played using a wedge-shaped plectrum known as a bachi, and comes equipped with either four or five strings, all of varying thickness. 

The biwa can be used in both solo performances and in ensembles, and was mostly used to tell narratives and traditional stories.

With strings of varying thickness, the instrument can create a range of different sounds and tones. 

Japan was first introduced to this unique instrument during the 7th century, and its origin can be traced right back to a Chinese instrument known as the ‘pipa’.

Since its introduction, several versions of the biwa have been produced, all with different purposes. 

7). Kokyu 

The 7 Most Popular Traditional Japanese String Instrumentss

The final traditional Japanese string instrument on our list, and by certainly no means the least, is the kokyu.

This instrument distinguishes itself from the six others on our list by being the only one that’s played using a bow. 

In terms of its construction, it’s not too dissimilar from the shamisen, albeit a little smaller in length, measuring 28 inches. 

The body of the instrument is covered using cat skin, and it comes equipped with three tuning pegs and three strings. It’s worth bearing in mind that in some cases you may get a kokyu with four strings. 

Interestingly, the kokyu has another version from Okinawa which is known in their native language as ‘kucho’. This version of the instrument uses snake skin to cover the body. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Koto And Guzheng The Same? 

The koto is descended from the Chinese guzheng. Unlike guzheng strings, the strings on a typical koto instrument are all the same thickness, ranging in weight classes from 16 to 19 momme (a measurement for the density of silk fabrics).

What’s more, every string on the koto is set to the same tension, while this pitch is kept closely in control by the intricate placement of the bridges. 

What Is The ‘Shakuhachi’? 

The shakuhachi may not be a string instrument, but it’s one of the most popular traditional Japanese instruments.

More commonly known as the Japanese flute, this wind instrument has long been used as a spiritual tool for meditation practices by Zen Buddhists. 

It’s traditionally made of bamboo, and comes with four holes on the front and one on the back. To play the shakuhachi correctly, you’ll need to hold the instrument vertically. 

While it was originally used for spiritual enlightenment rather than public performance, the shakuhachi is now played by monks in several concerts and other public gatherings. 

Which String Instrument Is Considered As Japan’s National Instrument? 

The koto has long been considered the national instrument of Japan, from the earliest periods of Japanese musical history to the present day.

It can be played in both solos and ensembles, and its musical characteristics and physical structure have become powerful symbols of Japanese identity. 

How Heavy Is A Koto? 

The koto is similar in its construction to a guitar. Therefore, it weighs around six to eight kilograms, so it’s easy enough to carry around for people of all ages. 

What Are The Instruments Of Kabuki? 

Kabuki is a traditional type of Japanese dance and drama that’s often performed in theatres.

In terms of the music and the instruments that are used, there’s both onstage and offstage music to enjoy. 

The musicians play a range of traditional instruments such as the shamisen, japanese drums, and flutes.

All instruments are played live as part of the play, while narrators with a powerful delivery also share the stage with the actors. 

David Williams
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