Japan has a rich history bursting with culture of all forms, and its musical legacy is a rich tapestry of many styles, genres, and subgenres.
Ranging from the traditional music genre known as hogaku, which translates literally as ‘home music,’ to all kinds of instrumental and folk music (minyo), there are lots on offer from the world of Japanese music.
String instruments feature heavily in Japanese music, giving it its quintessential sound that is recognizable the world over.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at five of the most popular and widely known Japanese string instruments.
The koto is the national instrument of Japan, so it’s well deserving of a place on this list of Japanese instruments. A descendant of the Chinese string instrument the guzheng, it also bears resemblance to other Asian string instruments such as the Vietnamese dan tranh and the Mongolian yatga.
The koto was played in the Japanese imperial court since its first appearance some time in the Nara period, between 710 and 794.
Traditional kotos have 13 strings and 13 movable bridges, though some bass kotos can have 17 strings, and more modern variants on the koto have been known to include up to 20 strings.
Typically measuring around 70 (177cm) – 75 inches (190cm) in length and 7 – 8 inches (17 – 20cm) in width, the koto is traditionally made from paulownia wood, a hardwood known for its easy workability and lightweight properties.
In the 17th century, a blind musician named Yatsuhashi Kengyo transformed the popularity of the koto with his innovative playing. He became known as the ‘Father of Modern Koto,’ and even gave rise to kumiata, a subgenre of koto music which he pioneered.
The Koto has long been associated with romantic music due to its tender, harp-like sound, but has found places in modern ensembles playing jazz, fusion, and pop music.
The sanshin is the national instrument of Okinawa, a Japanese island with its own rich history and culture. Although, it descended from the Chinese sanxian, and is a prototype of what would come to be known as the shamisen, a similar but subtly different instrument.
Sanshin were traditionally made with a snakeskin-covered round body and three strings. The name sanshin directly translates to ‘three strings.’
The strings themselves are known as the male string (the lowest in pitch), the middle string, and the female string (the highest in pitch), and sheet music for sanshins is often written in Chinese characters, known as ‘kunkunshi,” rather than normal musical notation.
A longstanding part of the Ryukyu culture, the traditional Japanese instrument sanshin is still played today at important events and ceremonies.
A sanshin will typically measure around 31 – 35 inches (80 – 90cm), and they are known for their proclivity to slip out of tune while playing. They have no frets, and are played with a plectrum traditionally made from bull horn which fits over the musician’s finger when playing.
Similar to the sanshin, the shamisen has somewhat overtaken its predecessor in terms of widespread popularity. It was brought to Japan in the Edo period, around 1603 to 1868.
The shamisen measures in at around a 1 meter (39 inches) in length, slightly longer than the sanshin, and with a rectangular shaped body as opposed to a round one.
It also differs in the animal skin stretched over the body – whereas the sanshin uses snakeskin, the shamisen is typically made from cat or dog skin.
The build of the shamisen can vary, depending on the type of playing the instrument will be used for. Typically, shamisen built for kabuki theater accompaniment will have a longer and thinner neck, to produce a more agile and virtuosic sound.
Just like the sanshin, the name shamisen also translates to mean ‘three strings.’ These strings are often made of silk or nylon, and again, like the sanshin, they have no frets on the neck. Shamisen are played using a large plectrum known as a bachi, which can be used for percussive effects on the body as well as the plucking of the strings.
The biwa is a short-necked lute and a descendant of the Chinese instrument the pipa. They look very alike – they both have a large, pear-shaped body, a short neck, and four strings.
It is another instrument played with the large plectrums used in Asian music known as bachi, although the biwa cannot be struck for percussive tones like the shamisen. So, for that purpose you might need an additional percussion instrument.
The whole instrument is carved from one piece of wood, and the size and shape of the finished biwa is entirely dependent on the style of music the instrument is being made for.
Typically, the biwa is used in Japanese court music, Gagaku, or as an accompaniment to the long narrative tales of Japanese folklore, such as The Tale of the Heike.
The tonkori is an instrument originating from Sakhalin, now part of Russia. It was played by the Ainu people who hailed from Hokkaido and the northern regions.
It is fretless, and the body is made from one piece of Jezo spruce wood. The instrument is tuned in a reentrant fashion, meaning that the pitches of the strings do not ascend or descend continuously.
Unusually, the strings of the tonkori are not pressed at all during playing. Rather, each string is pitched uniquely and played open, which gives the instrument its ethereal and dreamy sound. The strings themselves are made from vegetable fiber, deer tendon, and gut.
Tonkori are approximately 47 inches (120cm) long and 4 inches (10cm) wide.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Japanese string instruments, but the five featured here are some of the most popular and well-known, and all have long-established histories and cultural heritages that span many regions and sometimes countries.
The shamisen and the koto are probably the most influential musical instruments when it comes to the shape and sound of Japanese music, which is a beautiful and many-faceted thing.
It’s also interesting to note that all of these popular Japanese string instruments are plucked and not strummed. This particular timbre is what gives Japanese music its notable and traditional sound, which is recognizable almost instantly.