A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Instruments


Carolyn Edelmuth

I am continuously amazed by the range of distinctive sounds in traditional Japanese music. Ever since my move to Japan, I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand a range of performances: from the commanding beats of the taiko (太鼓: Japanese drums) to the poetic performance of the biwa (琵琶: Japanese lute). Japanese music draws from its deeply historic roots, but has also skillfully evolved in more modern, creative expressions today. Read on to learn more about this lesser-known aspect of Japanese traditional culture and hear firsthand the power of Japan’s music.  

The elegant dragon zither: koto 琴

The body of the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, is thought to look like a dragon and each section corresponds to a part of the dragon’s body. For example, the top is called the ryuukou ( 竜甲) which means dragon’s shell and the bottom is the ryuufuku (竜腹), the dragon’s stomach. Introduced to Japan from China, the name koto used to describe all stringed instruments, but now exclusively refers to this instrument, which is Japan’s national instrument. The koto was originally used in the imperial court and was an important part of gagaku ( 雅楽: elegant traditional music).

Traditionally, the koto was reserved for men and for a time was specifically reserved for blind men; many famous composers and accomplished musicians were blind. Since then, it has become accepted for women to play koto, who have had a large influence on the evolution of the instrument.

Koto has an evocative sound that expresses a range of emotions: from melancholic traditional compositions to energetic and modern songs and Western music like jazz. The musicians skillfully work this multi-stringed instrument, making koto performances as beautiful visually as they are aurally.  

Our host Yasuko, playing the koto in the above video, is an expert koto player with years of experience and a great YouTube channel! Learn more about koto with Yasuko, here.

The poetic Japanese lute: biwa 琵琶

Like the koto, the biwa was used in court for gagaku performances—but was also used by traveling storytellers performing hougaku (邦楽: accompaniment music), by Buddhist monks in memorial services and for shoumyou (声明: chanting). There are more than seven different types of biwa that are categorized by the number of strings, number of frets and the type of bachi (撥: plectrum or pick).

While they are often grouped together, biwa and koto have completely different styles and sounds: the biwa is traditionally used for storytelling, where performers recite poetry or stories while playing accompanying music. The combination creates a captivating experience that requires years of experience to master. Biwa is an elegant instrument influenced by its complex history of performance and theatre.

The video features a performance by our host Nobuko, who originally trained as an actress but ultimately found her calling in the art of the biwa. Try your hand at the biwa and find your inner bard with Nobuko.

The versatile flute: shakuhachi 尺八

The shakuhachi produces a versatile array of sounds inspired by nature. These end-blown bamboo-flutes were originally played only by monks known as komusou (虚無僧: “emptiness monks”), of the Fuke sect of Buddhism. Komusou traveled around Japan, wearing woven baskets on their heads to hide their identity, playing somber music and asking for alms.

The character, 尺, is shaku, an old unit of measurement and 八, means ‘eight’, thus shakuhachi means “1.8 shaku”, referring to its length. Shakuhachi come in a variety of sizes because they’re made from the root end of bamboo (真竹: madake). In the process of making shakuhachi, shokunin ( 職人: craftsmen) have to look for the ideal piece of madake. This process changes based on each instrument, so shakuhachi can’t be mass produced. Nowadays, komusou no longer exist, but at some temples, monks dress up as komusou for special occasions. These days, there are also many international shakuhachi masters and this soulful instrument makes appearances in a variety of genres, including traditional Japanese music, world music, jazz and samba music!

The video above is a piece called “Yamato-Choshi”, composed by a shakuhachi-playing monk and performed by Yuya Sekiya. Curious about the process of making shakuhachi? Learn from our host Wataru, who specializes in making these one-of-a-kind instruments.

The electrifying drums: wadaiko 和太鼓

Wadaiko, the drums that have a defining role in Japanese culture, encompass a wide variety of drumming styles and drums. The thundering sounds of larger wadaiko were ideal for military purposes to motivate soldiers (during the 1500s), to make announcements and to set a marching pace. After war-times, wadaiko were adapted and used in Buddhist and Shinto rituals. Ceremonial wadaiko performances have a mesmerizing quality created by the hypnotic combination of the drums and somber chanting of the monks. Wadaiko are still important to traditional performances and rituals, but these days, the most popular form of wadaiko is kumi-daiko (組み太皷: ensemble drums). Developed as modern performance style by Daihachi Oguchi in 1951, kumi-daiko is played by groups with choreography and different sizes of taiko. Like a dance troupe, wadaiko  groups coordinate their outfits, poses, stick handling and movements. Through the reverberations from the drums, you can feel the contagious energy of the wadaiko. If you’re looking for an electrifying musical performance, experiencing wadaiko live at a Japanese matsuri (festival), or trying out our wadaiko experience with Yukihiro, is a must-do.

The group in the video above, KODO, includes some of the underclassmen of our host, Yukihiro. He has been teaching for decades, and has even taught the Black Eyed Peas!

Nothing compares to hearing these instruments firsthand. If you get the chance, don’t pass up seeing a traditional, or even a modern performance incorporating these iconic Japanese instruments. You can also try your hand at playing these Japanese traditional instruments yourself at one of Detouur’s experiences!