Shamisen

Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Japan has several traditional musical instruments that have withstood the test of time and still remain a valuable part of its culture and heritage. Here are some that are still popular up to this day.

Koto

Rishab Bhatnagar KCP Summer Short 2017

The koto is consodered to be the national instrument of Japan. The koto was first introduced to Japan in the 7th century and 8th century from China. It is a stringed musical instrument that was adapted from the ancient Chinese plucked zithers the guzheng and se and it is also similar to the Mongolian yatga.

Rishab Bhatnagar KCP Summer Short 2017. | KCP Flickr

The koto is usually 71 inches in length with 13 strings strung over movable bridges used for tuning. There is also a 17-string koto used as a bass instrument in ensembles.

 

Biwa

This Japanese lute is three feet long and is usually made of rosewood, quince, or mulberry. Its strings are made of silk stretched over frets of bamboo and wood. It has its origins in China, Korea, and India over a thousand years ago. During the 9th century, blind musicians used the biwa as an accompaniment to their religious chants. It was also later used in the 12th century by Heike clan players in their storytelling. Through the years, the biwa has been used to add drama and ambience to stories told before a live audience. Its unique sound expresses powerful notes that go well with the narrative passages.

Biwa | KCP Flickr

 

Shakuhachi

A bamboo flute with five holes for the fingers: four in the front and one at the back. The stalk is made from the root end of a bamboo tree. This wind instrument makes a haunting and hollow sound. The shakuhachi has remained popular throughout history because of its versatile and classic appeal.

Bamboo flute | KCP Flickr

Similar to the flutes of India, China, and the Middle East, it was introduced to Japan in the latter part of the 7th century A.D.  In the 17th century, Zen monks played the shakuhachi as a way to meditate. At the end of the Edo period, it became a secular instrument and was used for small chamber ensembles. Today, the shakuhachi has influenced music in other parts of the world, including jazz and New Age music.

Taiko drums

Taiko drums.

Taiko

These large percussion instruments have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. They were originally found in shrines and temples, and they were played in religious ceremonies and festivals. The rhythmic and booming beats of taiko drums can resonate to far distances. Taiko come in many varieties. One of the most famous is the enormous ōdaiko, which is probably the largest drum in the world.  Over the last four decades, taiko drumming has become a performance art.

Shamisen

Shamisen.

Shamisen

Also called samisen or sangen, this is a three-stringed lute often played with a plectrum, or bachi. It is played by plucking the strings, like a banjo or a guitar. The strings are stretched across the body, and the neck of the shamisen is slim and fretless. The body is called a do and looks like a drum. Stretched animal skin covers the front and back sides. The strings are traditionally made of silk but modern versions use nylon. The shamisen is commonly used in many kinds of performances, including storytelling and music genres.