Traditional Musical Instruments: Japan

Japan is land of culture and beauty. Engulfed in art and tradition, today the fynch travels to this specific country to talk about some famous traditional music instruments. As many of you might be aware, music has always been a huge part in Japanese culture; it is the core. With influences in the media industry as well in various fields such as fashion subcultures and economy, Japanese traditional musical instruments have been the life of every event and graced every hall where royals have set foot and performances of theatre have been performed.

Amongst some of the many, the fynch brings a few to limelight in today’s article. These include: Shakuhachi, Koto, Sanshin, Shamisen, Biwa and Taiko.


Amongst the most popular wind instruments, it is essentially a Japanese flute that has been used by the Zen Buddhists as a tool for spiritual and meditation practices that are known as ‘Suizen’ rather than public performances. The instrument that is made of bamboo has four holes on the front and one on the order to play one must hold it vertically.


In one of the previous articles, the Chinese Guzheng was talked about. The Koto holds an immense resemblance to it. It is also a string instrument that is placed on the ground and plucked in order to produce sounds as a melody. Traditionally, the Koto is available in two varieties: a 13 string type and 17 string type however in modern times one can find a Koto with up to 25 strings. The music played from this particular instrument is said to be romantic that is able to entrance audiences.


An instrument made with snakeskin from Okinawa produces music that is usually associated with island music that is different from the music of the Caribbean, with more of a twang to it. It is a three string instrument namely the male, middle and female string, with the male string producing the lowest notes and the female string producing the highest. It is often compared with the banjo but to differentiate this instrument, the way it is played is quite different; the sanshin is plucked and the notes used are Chinese characters. The music that is produced with this instrument can be heard in traditional Ryukyuan folk music or at graduations and other many special occasions happening in Okinawa.


This particular instrument is quite popular in today’s time and age. It is three string lute that is said to be a variation of the Okinawan sanshin. It is similar to the guitar in terms of the length of the neck of the shamisen, however, it has no frets. Modern Japanese musicians like the Yoshida Brothers contributed a lot by adding flare to their music and style to bring this instrument into the modern music scene. In the past during the Edo period, the instrument was popularly played in traditional theatre such as Bunraku and kabuki while also in vocal performances in styles such as Kouta, Jiuta and Nagauta.


This is a short necked lute that is played with a large plectrum known as a bachi. It was used in traditional Japanese court music called Gagaku since the seventh century. This instrument has many variations but usually it has three to five strings and four to six frets. The famous amongst these variations is the Satsuma Biwa. It lost its popularity during the Meiji era due to the introduction of modern music however, travelling Biwa players known as Biwa-hoshi were quite famous with stories accompanying the melodies. The most renowned is The Tale of Heike.


The Taiko drums are immensely famous and popular in the Japanese music scene. Played at summer festivals in Japan and Japanese culture ceremonies globally, these drums are found in many sizes and shapes. The Tsuzumi is an hourglass shaped rope tension drum, while Byo-Uchi-Daiko is a drum made from a single piece of wood but the dramatic Taiko is the Oo-Daiko. The Oo-Daiko are the large drums that one can see at the back of the Taiko ensemble. All of these drums are often played together in a Taiko ensemble called Kumi-Daiko, where each drum has a specific role and often voiced called help the performers coordinate.

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