The history of traditional music in Japan is rich and varied. Many musical forms were imported from China more than a thousand years ago, but over the years, they were reshaped into distinctively Japanese styles of expression. Instruments were adapted and newly created to meet local needs, and the most important of these were the shamisen, shakuhachi, and koto.
The shamisen resembles a guitar; it has a long, thin neck and a small, rectangular body covered with skin. It's got three strings, and the pitch is adjusted using the tuning pegs on the head, just like a guitar or violin. The strings aren't plucked with the fingers; a large triangular plectrum is used to strike the strings. The shamisen is frequently used as an accompaniment to songs of various types.
The shakuhachi is a flute made of bamboo that's played by blowing on one end. There are four holes in the front and one in the back, and so it's sometimes called a "five-holed bamboo flute" in English. These five holes are enough to produce a complete range of sounds; in fact, it's the small number of holes that gives the shakuhachi its distinctively poignant tone.
The koto, meanwhile, is a large, wooden instrument with 13 strings. It's around 160 centimeters (63 inches) to 200 centimeters (79 inches) long and about 20 centimeters (12 inches) across. It has a curved face, and the pitch is adjusted with movable bridges placed under each string. It's played with picks worn on the fingers, similar to those used in playing the guitar. The left hand presses down on the strings to bend notes and create other effects.
Historians think the koto was born around the fifth to third century B.C. in China. Originally it had only 5 strings but increased to 12 strings and then to 13. It was the 13-string koto that was carried to Japan during the Nara period (710-794).
Initially, it was performed in ensembles with other stringed and wind instruments, but eventually it came to be performed by itself. It's also commonly performed with the shamisen and shakuhachi or as accompaniment to songs.
Sadly, modern Japanese rarely hear these traditional instruments being played live these days. A number of elementary and middle schools hold classes in traditional music, though, and arrange outings to theaters and concert halls to see and hear traditional performing arts.
Of the traditional instruments, the koto is probably the most familiar and popular. During the New Year holidays "Haru no Umi," a duet with the shakuhachi, is commonly piped in as background music, and during the cherry blossom (sakura) season, one often hears renditions of the popular tune "Sakura, Sakura" performed on the koto.
Photos: (top left) Shamisen; (top right) a plectrum used in playing the shamisen; (middle) shakuhachi; (above) traditional instruments are sometimes featured in ensembles with Western instruments, like the flute.
(Photos courtesy of Midori Yamamoto)