Kids Web Japan

Traditional Japanese Music

The Shamisen and Shakuhachi

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 well-known traditional Japanese instruments are 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 has three strings, and the pitch is adjusted using the tuning pegs on the head, just like the guitar or violin. The strings aren't plucked with the fingers; a large triangular plectrum called a bachi is used to strike the strings. The shamisen is frequently used as an accompaniment to songs of various types.

A Shamisen
A Bachi used to play the shamisen

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, 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.

A Shakuhachi

The Koto's Chinese Origins

The koto, meanwhile, is a large, rounded wooden instrument with 13 strings. It's around 160 centimeters (63 inches) to 200 centimeters (79 inches) long and about 30 centimeters (12 inches) across. The pitch is adjusted with movable bridges (called ji) placed under each string. It's played with picks (called tsume) similar to those used when playing the guitar, but worn on the fingers of the right hand. The left hand presses down on the strings to bend notes and create other effects.

It's said that the koto was invented in China around the fifth to the third century BC. Originally it had only 5 strings, but this later increased to 12 strings and then to 13,and the 13-string koto was brought 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.

There are fewer opportunities to hear these traditional instruments being played live these days. However, a number of elementary and middle schools hold classes in traditional music and arrange outings to theaters and concert halls to see and hear traditional performing arts.

Koto music expresses customs or seasons that are meaningful to the Japanese people. During the New Year holidays, "Haru no Umi" (the Sea in Spring), 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.

Traditional Japanese instruments and Western instruments can be played together (photo by Nashida Mayumi, courtesy of Ishigure Masayo)