Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Many traditional Japanese instruments originated in China.

Japanese traditional instruments consist of three basic types -- strings, percussion, and winds -- used in ceremonies and celebrations including Buddhist ceremonies and Imperial court music. The music varies from solo works to different types of ensembles used in chamber and theater music. Many of the instruments used in Japanese music have made their way into Western compositions as well.


The shamisen is a plucked three-string instrument that traces its origins to16th century China. The shamisen appeared in Kabuki theater in which performers would dance traditional Japanese dances and depict stories and legends through the music. Traditionally, the shamisen consists of red sandalwood with silk strings and a body made from animal skin.


The koto is another string instrument that came from China around the 6th century. Kotos traditionally comprise five strings each tuned to a note of the pentatonic scale -- a five-note scale that spans an octave. The modern koto has 13 strings made of silk or nylon. The koto appeared in ensembles with drums and winds or by itself as a solo instrument. Often, girls from samurai families would learn to play this instrument.


The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute constructed entirely of bamboo that also originally came from China. The instrument consists of four holes on the top covered by the pads of the fingers and one hole on the bottom for the thumb. The instrument receives its name from the description of its length; “shaku” means “foot,” while “hachi” stands for the number eight. Only Buddhist priests played this instrument.


The taiko drum often appears in Western music; the Japanese designed this instrument in the early 9th century. It consists of a cowhide head and uses a stick referred to as a "bachi" to strike the drum. Taiko are very large drums, and often more than one player will play a single drum. The drums emit a low, rich and full thundering sound and reportedly originally appeared on the battlefield. Taiko drumming has become very popular in modern Japan and the U.S.

Additional Instruments

There are several less commonly known traditional Japanese instruments. Among these are several plucked string instruments including the biwa, a pear-shaped lute, while the ichigenkin, junanagen, taishogoto and yamatogoto are all in the zither family -- flat-boarded instruments with strings that stretch across the board ranging in number from three to 17. The Japanese also had a harp called the kugo and a sanshin, which is similar to a three-stringed banjo. Additionally, there were various types of bamboo flutes, including the nohkan, hocchiku, and shinobue. Finally, smaller drums called the kakko and ikko as well as larger ones called odaiko and kodo were used in traditional ceremonies and Kabuki theater, which were plays about historical events, relationships, and ethical questions.


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