It has been said that if you want to understand an ancient culture, then take a look at its traditional music and the instruments it is played with.
We are going to be looking at some of the musical instruments of Japan. And as we do, we will see how closely they are aligned with the traditions, customs, ceremonies, and religions of the country.
The instruments usually fit into three categories – String, Wind, and Percussion, with some of them dating back nearly 3000 years. Some of these instruments were initially played in social circles and ensembles at Japanese courts. And some of these instruments, we shall look at, became an art form that the nobility and the Samurai were expected to master.
Central To Japanese Culture
The instruments that evolved over the years are at the heart of traditional Japanese culture and, of course, Japanese music. Interestingly, some of these instruments have been utilized in modern Western music.
For many hundreds of years, the music was handed down orally to students. As were the designs and manufacturers of the instruments. The students learned by observation and the way the teachers played.
The part they played over this long expanse of time cannot be overemphasized. Music and art, in general, have become inseparable from the culture of the country because of these instruments.
Too Many To Include
There are too many to include here, so we will select instruments from two categories.[bl]
- Those that are still being used.
- Those that have had major cultural influences.
Even with these two groups, we will have to miss out on some because there is not enough space to cover them all.
Not Just For Music
As these instruments evolved, they were used for a variety of reasons and not just for music. Some Japanese instruments are specifically used for:[bl]
- Religious ceremonies and rituals.
- Telling stories.
- Traditional Japanese theater.
- A call to war.
So, let’s start by dividing the instruments into String, Wind, and Percussion sections. We will start with the stringed instruments.
Stringed Instruments of Japan
No better place to start than one of the most famous of all Japanese instruments. The Koto is a nationally recognized zither made from a specific wood known in Japan as “Kiri.” You will also find them manufactured with Paulownia wood.
A Range Of Sizes
You can get Kotos in a range of sizes determined by how many strings they have. The most common you will see are the 13 and 17-string versions. But there is also a 21 and a 25-string version.
The sound of the instrument can be affected by the materials used for the strings. Modern materials like plastic are used by some. Others prefer the more traditional silk string. Silk is more expensive and won’t last as long, but many players think the sound is more traditional.
You tune the instrument by adjusting the movable bridges that were traditionally made from ivory. Each string has its own bridge that will need to be adjusted before you can play. The strings are plucked in a very formal and traditional way using three fingers.
Whilst the Koto has been a resident traditional instrument in Japan for centuries, it arrived as an instrument called the “Guzheng” from China. The Chinese ancestor to the Koto only had five strings initially, but there are seven string versions.
Originally, in Japan, all stringed instruments were called “Koto” as a general description. However, with the advent of more stringed instruments, the word Koto began to refer to one particular instrument. Here is a Koto ensemble playing traditional Japanese music.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f7BtQFAzzE[/yt]
Once again, an instrument that found its way to Japan via China. This is what we would call a lute. It has a very short neck and usually has four strings, although there are five-stringed versions. The instrument is played using a large plectrum-style implement called a “Bachi.”
There are three different styles of Biwa. The Classic, the “Edo” or Middle Biwas, and today, the Modern Biwa. They are designed for different purposes, but the main use of the instrument in the past was always as an accompaniment to storytelling. The Biwa is considered a traditional Japanese instrument, and its development has moved in line with what the instrument had been used for.
The music for the Biwa is written around the Pentatonic scale, sometimes called the five-note scale. That means that for each octave, there are five notes in the scale.
Tuning is adjustable and can move up or down in steps or half steps. There are no fixed tuning patterns as you would find on Western instruments. You will find that there are sometimes extra notes added to the scale. However, the main core of the instrument is Pentatonic.
The Biwa is an instrument that went out of favor just after the Second World War. However, these days, a dedicated group of traditional Japanese musicians is reintroducing it back into mainstream Japanese traditional and Folk music. You can enjoy the sound of the Biwain in this Youtube video.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Apy_qE59H8[/yt]
Another well-known Japanese instrument with a recognizable design to the Western eye as it resembles a banjo or guitar. Although, the neck is usually considerably longer and much thinner than either guitar or banjo. The strings run from the body to the top of the neck over a resonant body.
The body, or soundbox, of the instrument is shaped very much like a drum. It is hollow to aid the sound projection and is wrapped in synthetic animal skin. Skins from real animals only ceased as a manufacturing option in the mid-2000s.
They are used in a variety of genres in traditional Japanese music. The genre will often determine the size and, sometimes, the shape of the instrument. There are also different sizes of “Bachi” or plectrum, depending on the genre.
The competence of the player will also determine the shape and size of the Shamisen. Special easy-to-play Shamisens are manufactured for beginners. There are four main types of Shamisen. Each is designed for a particular purpose:[bl]
There are also variations for tuning the Shamisen, much like the guitars of the West; the most widely used are known as:[bl]
- Hon Choshi.
- San Sagari.
- Ni Agari.
This is an instrument whose sound immediately conjures up visions of the more traditional Japan.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcqO0zkyQRo[/yt]
This is a stringed instrument native to the island of Okinawa and is very much a part of Okinawan culture. It is very similar in its design to the Shamisen but is built smaller. The Shamisen came after the Sanshin and was modeled on the same design.
Three strings are plucked. Traditionally, they used a cow horn to strum and pick the strings. Today, they are often played with a fitted plectrum that sits on the end of your index finger.
It used to be made with a snakeskin covering…
But that has been replaced by synthetic snakeskin. Snakeskin was used when there weren’t many options available. It was prone to crack and could tear easily. The synthetic versions are much more suitable these days.
This is very much a family instrument and is played at community gatherings, weddings, festivals, and parties. It is an instrument that is often passed down through the generations of a family as an heirloom. In the Ryukyuan culture, the Sanshin is considered a deity.
Musical Instruments Of Japan – Wind Instruments
Respected in Japanese tradition as one of the most important of all Japanese wind instruments. It is known as the “Temple Instrument of Japan.” All traditional Japanese musical instruments are revered. Some, like the Shakuhachi, are considered sacred because of their significance in the rituals and traditions of the country.
For centuries, it has been made from bamboo. And the more traditional designs still are. Some of today’s Shakuhachi are made of hardwood which produces a similar but not identical sound.
It is essentially what musicians in the West might call a flute…
However, unlike the flute, where you produce notes by blowing across the top, with the Shakuhachi, you blow into the end, possibly a little more like you would play a recorder.
The sound emits from the instrument through a series of holes in the body. When you hear it, you will hear a range of harmonics that occur naturally. Its natural tuning, like many other instruments from this part of Asia, is to a minor pentatonic scale.
However, you can also create other notes if required. The instrument is known for its mystical and meditative sound. It is a sound that has been at the forefront of Japanese traditions for centuries and is always associated with Zen Buddhism.
The Horagai is essentially a shell trumpet. Its use in Japan goes back centuries. It is made from large conch shells and can produce just five notes. That might not seem very many, but many shell trumpets will only produce one pitch.
The sound is created by blowing through a mouthpiece made from either wood or bronze. They have been used in the past in a variety of ways. From Buddhist monks in the monasteries to the Samurai in battle.
Their use has decreased over the years. However, there are schools in Japan that teach their students about the history of the instrument and even how to play it.
This is the closest thing you will get to a Japanese version of the mouth organ. It was introduced into Japan sometime around 750 AD and was initially used for Japanese court music. Its build is simple enough, with 17 bamboo pipes that are grouped with a metal reed. Sounds can be made, as with the harmonica, by exhaling or inhaling. This gives you the advantage of uninterrupted play.
Mayumi Miyata is a noted user of the instrument, often combining his work with Western instruments, as you can in Birds Fragments III. He has his instrument made especially to give it a broader range.
Another modern-day musician who has used the Sho is Bjork. She used a Sho as one of the primary instruments for the soundtrack to the film, Drawing Restraint 9, a Japanese love story.[yt]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzLaJuQMvmw[/yt]
Our last Japanese wind instrument to look at is the Shinobue. This is a flute-like instrument made from bamboo. It is very much like the flutes that we know today. You blow air in from the side, not from one end, and the finger holes change the pitch. You can have a different instrument for different keys. The highest is in ‘E,’ and the lowest is in ‘F.’
This flute makes a sound that we are all familiar with in terms of Oriental music. A haunting flute sound that is high-pitched without being shrill. It is used for adding ornate musical passages to the music.
It is used in Kabuki theater, but it is also the favored instrument for many religious and community festivals.
Musical Instruments Of Japan – Percussion Instruments
The word “taiko” is often used to describe several different types of Japanese percussion instruments. Outside of Japan, it refers to a type of drum called the “Wadaiko” and is applied to a specific style of drumming called “kumi-daiko.”
The manufacture of these drums is a painstaking performance and can take many years for the preparation of the woods and skins. Drums will vary in design and are subject to the manufacturer’s preferences and procedures.
They Go Back A Long way
Taiko drums have been used in Japan since the 6th Century CE. They were often used in festivals and specific ceremonies. Today, they are often played in what is known as a “gagaku” style at local temples and shrines.
Some traditional Japanese dancing is often led by the rhythms of the Taiko. You will also see these drums used in specific types of Japanese theater. They were also an important part of life on the battlefield. Taiko drums would set the timing of marches and give out instructions to soldiers.
This is another member of the Japanese percussion family. It is quite a small instrument but is quite wide. There are drum heads on both top and bottom that are made from animal hide that is stretched over the head.
It is usually played with sticks with the Shime-Daiko positioned on a stand. In some ways, they might be similar to our Western bongos, except there is one drum and not two. The pitch of the drum is higher than the standard Taiko drum.
They are not really suitable for techniques like drum rolls. Rather, they are more of a decorative drum, again rather like bongos. They are popular because they are easy to tune and very easy to carry around.
Our final percussion instrument is the Tsuzumi, sometimes known as the Kotsuzumi. This is a drum that was featured in classical Japanese dance and drama productions known as “Noh.” That dates back to the 14th Century. You will also find it used in traditional Japanese folk music and Kabuki theater.
It has an interesting design that is hourglass-shaped. Made from wood, there are two heads, one on each end, that have a cord system for tuning. The skin over the drum heads is stretched very tight, and the cord can be used to adjust the pitch by tightening or loosening it.
It is an instrument that can be used to embellish the music. It is very sensitive to changes in temperature, so it is often tuned just before use.
An Interesting Practice
For the instrument to perform at its best, the drum heads on both ends of the Tsuzumi need to be slightly moist. To achieve this, the player will moisten pieces of paper with his or her saliva and stick the paper to the drum heads.
They are classical drums with a big reputation. Some of the Tsuzumi you will see in use today are hundreds of years old. It is one of those instruments that need time, centuries of it, to reach its optimum performance level. New instruments made today need years to be broken in.
Interested In Other Lesser Known Musical Instruments?
If so, check out our thoughts on Jamaican Music Instruments, Asian String Instruments You Should Know, Musical Instruments of the Medieval Period, Bowed String Instruments You’ve Never Heard Of, and Where Did the Accordion Originate for loads more information on musical instruments from around the world.
And, if you’re interested in playing a rather unique instrument, have a look at our reviews of the Best Melodica, the Best Ocarinas, the Best Hammered Dulcimers, the Best Mountain Dulcimers, the Best Hang Drums, and the Best Bagpipes you can buy in 2023.
Musical Instruments Of Japan – Final Thoughts
These instruments are very much a part of Japanese culture going back centuries. But they have quite a lot of Chinese culture in them as well. Most of the instruments originated in that part of the world, but they have become adapted to suit Japanese music. In Japan, traditions of the past are very important, and you can hear a representation with some Traditional Japanese Music.
There are other instruments lost in the mists of time that we don’t see anymore. However, I would think there is a good chance that in some out-of-the-way Japanese mountain village, some elder craftsman is still making them. And he is probably teaching someone else to carry on to ensure the traditions and skills of these instruments are not lost forever.
Until next time, let the music play.