A Beginner’s Guide to Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Whenever you want to study the culture, history and social views of a particular country, the best way to do it is by knowing about the different visual and performing arts that are prevalent in the country. Music is one such element of performing art that offers us an insight about the social culture of a nation. In Japan, music is all about refinement and the most popular music forms in the Nara period were Gagaku and Shomyo, also known as court music. Gagaku itself means refined and polished music. Many traditional musical instruments of Japan are very much in use today and they form the basis of the history of Japanese music. String, wind and percussion instruments are predominant in traditional Japanese music. Here we will take a look at some of the musical instruments that are native to Japan.

Japanese Musical Instruments

Biwa is a kind of short necked lute that was predominantly used in Gagaku. It is a string instrument and there are three different variations of the Biwa. One is the Gaku Biwa, and its main distinguishing feature is that the pegs for the strings are small and stuby. The second is known as the Chikuzen Biwa and these instruments have either four strings with five bridges or five strings with five bridges. The third type of Biwa is known as the Satsuma Biwa which is characterized by its large size with high bridges.

Shinobue is a flute that is made of bamboo and it is a wind instrument. Traditionally a Shinobue was used in Kabuki and Noh theater music as well as in Japanese folk songs. Unlike other flutes which are coated with bark, a Shinobue has a bare bamboo outer surface. Sometimes, the two ends of the Shinobue are enfolded with bark and the rest of the flute body is left as it is. To make the Shinobue look more attractive and to prevent the bamboo from splitting, it is sometimes lacquered. A Shinobue has seven finger holes although there are some Shinobues with six finger holes. Shinobue makes a very deep resonating and high pitched sound and it is generally used in Japanese theater and folk songs.

The literal translation of Taiko is “big drum”. Taiko is actually not any one instrument but a series of drums that are of varying sizes. A Taiko is mounted on a stand before they are played by a series of musicians. It is made out of cowhide and a Bachi is used to strike the surface of the Taiko. A Taiko drum has a deep rumbling sound and was supposedly used in the battlefield.

The Koto is perhaps one of the most easily recognizable Japanese musical instruments in the Western world. It is a stringed musical instrument which is about 1.9 meters in length with a width of 25 cm at the top portion of the instrument. The bottom portion of the instrument is a bit narrower than the top portion and is around 23.5 cm in width. There are 13 strings in a Koto which are attached along the length of the instrument. These strings are made of silk and these are strung on movable bridges. By varying the position of the movable bridges each string will produce a different pitch when played.

List of Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Here is a list of Japanese musical instruments.

  • Hichiriki
  • Hocchiku
  • Horagai
  • Hyōshigi
  • Ichigenkin
  • Ikko
  • Junanagen
  • Kakko
  • Kugo
  • Kokyū
  • Komabue
  • Kagura suzu
  • Kane
  • Nohkan
  • Ryūteki
  • Shakuhachi
  • Shamisen
  • Shō
  • Tsuchibue
  • Tonkori

Some of these instruments like the Koto, Shamisen and Shakuhachi are still played extensively in Japanese music. However, there are only a few musicians who still play Japanese musical instruments like Kokyū and Ikko.