Traditional Japanese musical instruments

Traditional Japanese musical instruments have survived relatively unchanged from the 5th century to the modern-day and showcase the rich history of music and its place in history in Japan.

Music in any culture is a fantastic way to become better acquainted with the history of a place. It can tell you a lot about the people, the activities at the time as well as the importance of social gatherings and the materials that were available at the time.

The most popular instrument in Japan is the koto.  It is considered Japan’s national instrument. The koto is a Japanese thirteen or more stringed instrument that is plucked with the right hand and pushing or pulling the strings with the left hand to change pitch while the koto rests on a platform.

On top of this, any lyrics or meanings behind particular pieces of music give an unparalleled insight into the country’s past cultural and historical experiences.

In order to better understand cultural Japanese music, you can learn a little bit about each of the traditional instruments used to make music by Japanese musicians.

Not only will this allow you to appreciate the songs and the different harmonies, but also to get a better understanding of the music’s deeper meaning as a whole. 

So, here we will tell you the basics of some of the most popular and recognized traditional Japanese musical instruments as well as give you some examples of where you can hear this type of music.

Where can I hear traditional Japanese music?

Before looking for more information about the traditional instruments themselves it is best to listen to the music. This way you can gain an appreciation for the complexity or simplicity of a particular piece, the way the instruments intertwine with each other, or simply how they stand apart and give the music its own unique flavor.

One of the most common ways to hear traditional Japanese music in Japan is to actually attend a concert rather than listen online. Some of the most common places to do this are shrines, art events, or even festivals (matsuri).

If you are not able to visit Japan to listen to traditional Japanese music there are more and more traveling traditional Japanese musicians or groups. 

One such example is the Wagakki band which mixes traditional Japanese music with modern music. Otherwise, online alternatives such as videos on Youtube are a great way to better quaint yourself with the style of music.

What are traditional Japanese musical instruments?

Traditional Japanese musical instruments cover a wide range of different sections of an orchestra such as wind, string, and even percussion.

Taiko Performance in Houston

So, to make the information easier to understand we will break the following section down into these categories to help you easily identify the different instruments and how each is similar and or differs from another. 

The 6 common traditional musical instruments in Japan today:

  • Shakuhachi  an end-blown flute that is made of bamboo
  • Koto a plucked half-tube zither instrument
  • Sanshin a three stringed Okinawan instrument and precursor of the shamisen
  • Shamisen a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument
  • Biwa a Japanese short-necked wooden lute with 4 or 5 strings
  • Taiko a word used to refer to any drum 

Wind instruments

Also known as “blown instruments” in Japan, wind instruments in traditional Japanese music range from simple to very complex.

For example, one of the simplest instruments is called the “Shinobue” and is a straight single piece of wood with holes cut out along the piece.

This particular instrument changes in sound according to its length, but overall it has a bird-like sound and is similar to a flute. 

One of the most popular wind instruments in traditional Japanese music is the “Shakuhachi”. Nicknamed the “Japanese flute” this wind instrument has been used throughout history as a tool to aid meditation by monks. It is traditionally made from bamboo and has four holes on the front and one in the back.

The sound is then produced by blowing down vertically into the pipe. 

A “Sho” is a rather more complex wind instrument, made up of 17 different pipes made from bamboo. Each of these pipes varies in length from the others and they are all connected together at the base.

You can play this instrument in a similar fashion to a set of windpipes and a sound will be produced no matter if you are breathing in or out. 

Percussion

Also known as “drummed or hitting instruments” in Japan, traditional Japanese percussion instruments vary in size from a small handheld drum all the way to a very large rounded drum that requires a stand.

The three most well-known types of drums in traditional Japanese music are:

Tsuzumi is a small handheld drum in the shape of an hourglass and is unique to Japanese traditional music. Both ends of the drum can be used to play the music as a piece of leather is stretched along both and tightened with a string called a cho.

Japanese tsuzumi drum being played in Shinto Meiji-jingu shrine

This instrument is rather versatile as its sound can be adjusted according to how tight or loose you make the leather with the string.

Perhaps one of the most decorative drums is the “Tsuridaiko” which is hung on a small stand and mainly used for traditional performing arts such as in a bugaku orchestra.

The drum is typically 12cm thick and 60cm across and when hung on the stand it is played by hitting the face of the drum with two drumsticks. This particular percussion instrument also goes by the name of “Gakudaiko”.

The final percussion instrument to discuss here is the largest, the “Odaiko”. This drum is very common to spot in temples and shrines and it is made up of a large wooden drum with two pieces of leather stretched over both ends.

Its use in sacred places means that it is often also referred to as a “palace drum”. This particular drum is played by hitting the leather with drumsticks and can produce a powerful sound.

String instruments

String instruments make up the vast majority of traditional Japanese musical instruments, one of which (the Koto) is even considered to be the national instrument of Japan. Much like the traditional percussion instruments, traditional string instruments vary greatly in size from a small handheld instrument to one that needs to be laid on a stand to be played. 

One of the most popular traditional Japanese string instruments that are still in use today is the “Shamisen”. This is a type of lute-like instrument that uses three strings. The strings are stretched from end to end on the instrument, giving it a similar appearance to a guitar or violin. The “Shamisen” originates from the Edo period and originally came from China. 

Over the years the “Shamisen” has undergone changes making it adapt to more modern ways. For example, the instrument was once covered in cat skin.

This style eventually faded away and was replaced with other forms of skins on the mainland.

The mainland Shamisen was first found in Okinawa and was named the Sanshin Although very similar to the Shamisen it’s still commonly covered with snakeskin.

Another string instrument, the “koto” is regarded as the national instrument of Japan. This large instrument needs to be played by placing it on the ground and plucking the strings.

Traditionally there are two types of “koto”, one with 17 strings and one with only 13 strings. However, a modern “koto” can come with a number of different strings, and versions can even be found with 20, 21, or 25 strings. 

Made from kiri wood and usually around six feet in length, the “koto” is said to be one of the more romantic traditional Japanese instruments and is not dissimilar in sound from a harp.

One final string instrument to consider is the “biwa”.

The “biwa” is a small lute-style instrument with a short neck and is played by plucking the strings using a large plectrum. The “biwa” was often played as a way to accompany the telling of stories and although it was popular in Japanese court music in the 7th century it wained in popularity during the Meiji era.

Like the “koto”, the “biwa” has several different types depending on the number of strings.

There are many versions of the biwa however the most common have between three and five strings and has between four and six frets. Modern musicians have attempted to reintroduce the “biwa” into Japanese music by infusing its sound with Western-style music. 

Conclusion

Traditional Japanese musical instruments are incredibly varied and can be used to explain not only the cultural traditions of the country over time but also its history.

Although many of the traditional Japanese instruments are out of favor with the youth of today in a preference for modern western-style instruments, there are some musicians who are trying to revive traditional instruments by giving them a new lease of life with fusion.

This means that you can now often experience traditional Japanese musical instruments in the form of rock music, or sometimes even pop music. 

One of the best ways to experience traditional Japanese musical instruments is to visit Japan and attend a concert at a shrine or temple, art event, or traditional festival. However, unfortunately for most people, this cannot be achieved and so a good alternative is appreciating the music online.

You can aim to give yourself a better understanding of the music and culture by reading more about each of the traditional instruments, allowing you to both recognize their sound and their look.

Once you get a feel for the complexity of these traditional instruments you will surely recognize the beauty of traditional Japanese music both as it was and in the modern-day.

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.