Japanese String Instrument: 7 Traditional Instruments You Must Know

Music plays a key role in Japanese culture. Characterized by having a diverse and flourishing music history, Japanese music has become one of the richest not only across Asia but across the globe.

Music also offers an amazing influence on many Japanese subcultures including their media, fashion, economy, and lifestyles. Additionally, traditional Japanese music has also become an effective way of entertainment and self-expression.

Japanese instrument has also played an important part in the success of Japanese culture. Japanese stringed instrument, in particular, contributes to reshaping and reestablishing Japanese traditional music.

Many know that these stringed instruments produce a unique and enchanting sound that best resembles Japanese culture. Moreover, string instruments were used in their folk music pieces.

As stringed instruments continue to flourish and develop the richness of Japanese music, it is interesting to learn some of them. In this article, we have enumerated 7 well-known Japanese Stringed Instruments. If you want to learn more about them, keep reading until the end.

japanese stringed instrument

1. Koto

Koto is Japan’s national musical instrument. This stringed instrument resembles numerous stringed instruments from other countries such as the Gayageum of Korea, Dan Tranh of Vietnam, and Mongolia’s Yatga.

Koto has an elongated body measuring 71 inches long and 7.9 inches wide. Paulownia wood is being used in constructing the Koto main piece. Koto consists of 13 bridges and 13 strings.

Traditionally, the bridges of a Koto are made up of ivory. However, plastic and various types of woods are now being used for the bridge. Meanwhile, the strings are usually plastic or silk having the same size and tension force.

Koto, traditional Japanese harp
Koto, traditional Japanese harp.

These strings are plucked using either fingers or a pick. Typically, Koto is used and played while sitting down with the musical instrument placed either at the side or in front of the musician.

As time goes by, and as music styles continue to evolve, Japanese Koto has undergone different modifications and development. Yatsuhashi Kengyo has become a great influence in the innovation of Koto and was later known as the Father of Modern Koto.

He came up with an innovative form of Koto music known as Kumi ata. Another version of the Japanese Koto was later introduced by Keiko Nosaka. This new version has an increased number of 20 or more Koto strings.

Back in the day, Koto has been widely used by the aristocrats for entertainment purposes and in classical music performances. Though Koto has become more associated with romantic music, many musicians are already using this stringed instrument in jazz and pop music.

2. Biwa

Biwa is a Japanese stringed instrument that is similar to a lute. It is characterized by having a pear-shaped lower body and a short neck.

It is usually around 23 to 42 inches in length and has 4 or 5 strings with varying thickness to produce different distinct sounds. Biwa is played using a big plectron known as Bachi. Biwa is commonly used as stories and musical accompaniment and in solo performances.

Biwa
Biwa, Japanese stringed instrument.

Biwa originated in China and was first introduced in Japan during the Nara period (710-794AD). Over time, more and more versions of Biwa have been developed and introduced to the Japanese culture. Biwa now comes with a wide variety of choices with different sizes, numbers of strings, shapes, sounds, and purposes.

3. Gottan

Gottan also known as hako or ita is a Japanese stringed instrument commonly used in Kadozuke. Kadozuke is a type of Japanese entertainment where the performers visit houses and play music in return for money or food. Additionally, Gottan is also popular in street performances across Japan.

Gottan is usually made up of Japanese cedar and has three tuning pegs and three strings. The sound produced by this stringed instrument is characterized as light, subtle, joyful, and warm which makes it perfect in performing festive and Japanese folk songs.

4. Shamisen

Japanese woman playing Shamisen
Japanese woman playing Shamisen.

Shamisen is a Japanese translation of the English phrase “three strings”. This stringed instrument was introduced in Japan during the period of Edo (1603-1868) and become popular in Japanese traditional theater like the kabuki and bunraku. Moreover, shamisen is also used as an accompaniment in vocal performances.

The body piece of the shamisen is made up of 4 hardwood pieces attached together to construct a square frame. Snake, dog, or cat skin is being pasted and covered to this frame to form a drum-shaped body. Nowadays, plastic has been popularly used instead of animal skins.

Meanwhile, the neck part of shamisen is composed of 3 to 4 wood pieces securely attached together and holds three strings made up of nylon or silk. The length of the shamisen neck is similar to that of a guitar or a banjo but without any fretboard and frets.

In playing a shamisen, a triangular bachi is used to pluck the strings. This helps produce a percussive effect that results in giving a more cultural Japanese sound when playing a shamisen. Additionally, this stringed instrument can also be played in solo performances or even as a part of an ensemble.

5. Kokyu

Kokyu
Kokyu.

Unlike other Japanese stringed instruments that are usually plucked by using a finger or bachi, Kokyu is a stringed instrument that is played with the use of a bow. Kokyu is a smaller version of shamisen at 28 inches long.

The body of Kokyu is rectangular in shape that is made up of either japonica wood or coconut. It is commonly covered using snake or cat skin. Meanwhile, the neck part is constructed using ebony. Additionally, three tuning pegs and three strings are securely attached across its neck. Kokyu is played in an upright position and plucked using a horsetail hair bow.

In Japan, Kokyu is widely used as vocal accompaniment in the Sankyoku ensemble. Different modifications and developments of Kokyu were also introduced. Some increase the number of strings to expand the range. Because of its improved range, Kokyu is now making its spot on the list of instruments used in modern jazz music.

6. Tonkori

Tonkori is a fretless Japanese string instrument that is native to the Ainu tribe of the Hokkaido and the Northern region of Japan. It is made up of Jezo spruce wood and uses vegetable fibers, deer tendon, and gut for its strings.

Typically, a Tonkori has 5 strings attached to it but some variations offer more or less number of strings. These strings are arranged based on alternating pitch. This helps the instrument to produce distinguishing sound and tonal effects.

The Tonkori is also composed of 2 bridges which are placed at the top and another one at the bottom. The length of Tonkori is around 47 inches. Meanwhile, the width is 4 inches wide and has a thickness of approximately 2 inches.

Expert Tip: Tonkori is played in an angle position across the musician’s chest. Both hands are being used in plucking the open strings from both left and right sides. Tonkori is usually used as accompaniment in Japanese cultural songs and dances.

Moreover, it was traditionally used by both men and women. In modern times, Japanese Oki Kano becomes the most well-known Tonkori performer as he plays it in different contemporary performances.

7. Sanshin

Okiniwan girl on Kimono playing the Sanshin
Okiniwan girl on Kimono playing the Sanshin.

Sanshin is relative to the Japanese Shamisen. It is considered the national instrument of Okinawa, Japan. The body of this stringed instrument is usually made up of solid wood covered with snakeskin.

Lately, artificial Sanshin skin has been introduced in making the cover for the Sanshin body. Additionally, the strings of Sanshin are usually made up of silk or nylon. Meanwhile, the use of black ebony in making its neck provides strength and a more cultural tone to the sound produced by Sanshin.

Instead of a typical triangular pick, Sanshin strings are plucked using a finger-like bachi that resembles a large fang. The musician wears this on their index fingers as they pluck the strings.

Expert Tip: Sanshin is mostly used in momentous occasions such as weddings, festivities, and family gatherings. Playing this string instrument has also become a notable part of the Ryukyu culture. It is often linked with Deities and is being regarded as an instrument of inheritance.

As time goes by, more music styles are being introduced and accepted by many, especially by the new generation. Along with this, many advanced instruments and techniques start to pave the way in music culture in Japan and around the globe.

Nevertheless, the richness of Japanese music as part of their culture is still kept alive by their traditional musical instruments. Some people might already consider these Japanese stringed instruments archaic and outdated, but most Japanese still pay tribute to these instruments as they became an essential part of the Japanese culture.

These instruments continue to shape and establish the style and form of the present Japanese music. The efforts of many artists to use and revive all of these traditional instruments even up to this day is a clear reflection of how much they value their culture and traditions.

We, as music enthusiasts, get the chance to feel and have a whole different perspective on Japanese culture by listening to these traditional instruments. All of these stringed instruments keep the Japanese culture alive and relevant even in the modern era of Japan. These traditional stringed instruments are living proofs that the music indeed keeps everything alive.

So what are you waiting for? Make sure to have a touch and play these traditional Japanese stringed instruments the next time you visit the beautiful Land of the Rising Sun, Japan.

If you have any questions regarding our topic in this article, feel free to post them in the comment section below. Thank you for reading and remember, Music Makes Everything Better.

About Maggie Holding

Hello! My name is Maggie and I am a proud Editor/Author for PlayTheTunes. Coming From South Carolina, USA, my whole life I've sang and played the guitar and flute! I love music with a passion, and am ecstatic to help others in their own music journey!