9 Musical Instruments Of Japan (You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

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  • Discover the delicate art of Japanese instruments
  • Learn Japanese musical culture and tradition
  • Get to know 9 main traditional Japanese instruments
  • Also, check out our guide to the wonderful musical instruments of Israel and Cordillera

Traditional Japanese instruments are musical instruments utilized in Japanese folk music.

They include string, wind, and percussion instruments. Japanese culture and art are inseparable from these instruments.

Some of them are maybe forgotten or buried in history, and there is always a secret craftsman or a player who makes them and plays them in a secret mountain village—keeping the tradition alive.

What Are The Traditional Musical Instruments Of Japan?

Make no mistake — there are a wealth of traditional Japanese musical instruments that have been invented throughout history.

Many are even considered sacred and used for different purposes outside of simply “making music”, such as war, religious ceremonies and rituals, story-telling, theater, and other forms of art.

Here are nine traditional Japanese musical instruments for you to discover:

  1. Koto
  2. Shakuhachi
  3. Biwa
  4. Taiko
  5. Shime-Daiko
  6. Shamisen
  7. Gottan
  8. Horagai
  9. Kokyu

1. Koto

Koto is the national Japanese zither. Kotos are made from a wood called Kiri in Japan, also known as Paulownia wood, and are commonly 18 mm long.

Although 13 or 17-string kotos are the most common types, there are 21 even 25-string kotos. Koto is considered one of the most famous Japanese string instruments.

Several materials are used to create the strings. Plastic strings come in wide different varieties.

Despite their higher cost and shorter lifespan than current strings, silk strings, typically yellow, are still produced. Some artists like them because they believe they have a different sound from modern strings.

Koto has movable bridges made from ivory for each string, and the player must tune it properly before starting to play.

The players pluck the strings using three fingers, and koto has strict traditional methods to play it.

Chinese guzheng was the ancestor of the koto. The first version had five strings, which later increased to seven.

The term “koto” was used in Japan when the koto was originally introduced as a general term for all Japanese stringed instruments.

The definitions of words altered as Japan’s variety of stringed instruments increased since the once-simple concept of koto could not adequately describe them all.

2. Shakuhachi 

The shakuhachi is one of the most important traditional Japanese wind instruments. It’s conventionally made from bamboo roots, but modern shakuhachis can also be made of hardwood.

Unlike other flutes, which are played by blowing across the top to produce a pitch, the shakuhachi is played by blowing straight into the end.

It is a flexible instrument that can play various notes, but it is naturally tuned to a minor pentatonic scale, which is common in East Asian music.

The shakuhachi produces a harmonic spectrum that includes fundamental frequency, odd harmonics, and some blowing noise.

The sound emits from several holes, and along with the natural asymmetry of bamboo, produces a unique spectrum in each direction.

The shakuhachi was popular across medieval Japan, but its popularity was particularly associated with Zen Buddhism, a religion that, like the flute, had Chinese beginnings but was distinctively interpreted by Japanese people over decades. 

3. Biwa

A traditional Japanese short-necked wooden lute is used in narrative storytelling. The biwa is a plucked string instrument that originated in China, traveled throughout East Asia, and finally reached Japan.

A biwa commonly has four (sometimes five strings) and is played with a big wooden plectrum called a bachi. 

There are 3 types of biwas: classic biwas, middle and edo biwas, and modern biwas. Traditionally, various biwas have different purposes and are therefore designed differently in Japanese culture.

The biwa, considered one of Japan’s primary traditional instruments, has influenced and been inspired by other traditional instruments and compositions throughout its long history, resulting in a variety of musical genres played with the biwa. 

Biwa music is built on a pentatonic scale (also known as a five-tone or five-note scale), which means that each octave comprises five notes.

This scale contains added notes on occasion, but the core remains pentatonic. Tuning is not fixed in biwa. Tones and pitches can move up and down full steps or microtones. 

By the late 1940s, the biwa, a Japanese tradition, had been nearly completely abandoned for Western instruments; nevertheless, interest in the biwa is being restored thanks to joint efforts by Japanese musicians.

4. Taiko

Taiko indicates several different Japanese percussion instruments. In Japanese, the name taiko refers to any type of drum.

Still, outside of Japan, it is especially used to refer to any of the many Japanese drums known as wadaiko, as well as the style of ensemble taiko drumming known as kumi-daiko.

Taiko construction differs between producers, and depending on the procedure, the drum body and skin preparation can take many years. 

As some of the most important Japanese percussion instruments, Taiko drums were employed in Japan as early as the 6th century CE, during the latter half of the Kofun period, and were most likely utilized for communication, festivals, and other ceremonies.

Taiko was frequently used to inspire troops, give out orders or announcements, and set a marching pace in medieval Japan; marches were normally timed to six paces per drum beat. 

Taiko has also been used in Japanese theater for rhythmic purposes, the overall atmosphere, and ornamentation in certain circumstances.

Taiko is still used in gagaku, a classical music style often performed in local temples and shrines. Traditional dancing is a component of gagaku, and it is led partly by the taiko’s rhythm.

5. Shime-Daiko

Another member of the Japanese percussion instruments, the Shime-daiko — a small Japanese drum.

It has a short yet broad body with animal hide drumheads on both the top and bottom. The hide is stretched on metal jumps first, then over the body.

Both drum heads are connected with cords, similar to the Tsuzumi and African talking drums, for the drum heads are bound by each other. 

The shime-daiko, like the larger taiko drums, is played with sticks called “bachi” while suspended on a stand. Shime-daiko has a higher pitch than standard taiko. Shime-daiko drums are utilized in a variety of Japanese music groups.

For a gentler sound, those created for classical Japanese music have deer skin affixed to the center of the heads.

The Shime-daiko is not suitable for forceful drumrolls, but they are often extremely decorative and very easy to tune, making them comfortable to handle.

6. Shamisen

The shamisen is a stringed instrument. It is built like a guitar or a banjo, with a neck and strings strung over a resonant body. A guitar and a banjo have thicker necks than a shamisen.  

The body is shaped like a drum, with a hollow body wrapped in the skin, similar to a banjo. The skin utilized is determined by the genre of music and the player’s competence.

Skins were traditionally constructed from dog or cat skin, with cat skin preferred for finer instruments. Craftsmen haven’t used animal skin since the mid-2000s and instead use synthetic materials.

The shape and size of the shamisen vary depending on the genre in which it is utilized. The bachi utilized will also alter according to the genre, if it is used at all.

The main types of shamisens are hosozao, chuzao, futozao, and heike-shamisen, which all have various purposes by design. 

The shamisen is played and tuned differently depending on the genre. There are several shamisen styles in Japanese folk music, and tunings, tone, and notation vary.

Honchoshi, ni agari, and san sagari are three of the most well-known tunings in all genres.

7. Gottan

The gottan, also known as a box shamisen or a board shamisen, is a traditional Japanese three-stringed plucked instrument that is frequently thought to be a relative or descendant of the sanshin, a relative of the shamisen. 

The gottan’s musical repertoire is frequently light and cheery, with many traditional Japanese music folk songs. The instrument was used for door-to-door musical busking, similar to the shamisen.

The gottan originated in the southern region of Kyushu Island and has a very simple and calming sound. 

8. Horagai

Another interesting Japanese musical instrument is the Horagai (or Jinkai). Made of large conch shells, Horagai has been used as trumpets in Japan for centuries.

While the use of Horagai has decreased over time, some schools in Japan still teach students how to play this instrument.

Horagai can produce up to five notes, which are not very common for seashell trumpets. Often shell trumpets from other cultures are one-pitch instruments that can produce only one note.

With the wood or bronze mouthpiece attached to the apex of the shell, the horagai can reach different notes.

These shell trumpets were mainly used for religious and military purposes.

Buddhist monks use them in monasteries during meditation and ceremonies. In contrast, the famous Japanese feudal warriors, Samurais, used them for military purposes such as setting the rhythm for marching or motivating the troops in times of war.

9. Kokyu

As the only bowed Japanese musical instrument, Kokyu is a bowed lute with three or four strings and a skin-covered body.

The instrument looks like a small version is shamisen and is made of ebony in the neck and coconut or Styrax japonicus (Japanese Snowbell) wood covered on both ends with cat skin in the body.

The instrument is played in an upright position with a horsehair-strung bow. The tuning of kokyu features the same notes as the shamisen but an octave higher.

Kokyus are often played in sankyoku ensembles, in which the koto, the shamisen, and the kokyu are the main instruments.

However, after the 20th century, kokyus gave their role to shakuhachi in these ensembles. However, kokyu can still be heard in traditional Japanese music.


What Are The 3 Most Significant Instruments In Japan?

Shamisen, Shakuhachi, and the Koto are the 3 most significant traditional Japanese instruments.

They are all deeply rooted in Japanese culture and history. Shamisen and the koto are traditional stringed instruments, while the shakuhachi is a big flute made from bamboo.

What Is A Japanese Drum Called?

Taiko is generally the name of the percussion family of Japanese musical tradition. So, the Japanese drum is called the taiko.

All types of Japanese drums are called taiko, and they are deeply rooted in the region’s musical culture. Taikos were used on many different occasions, such as during ceremonies, military marches, public announcements, festivals, and many more.

What Do You Call The Temple Instrument Of Japan?

Although every instrument is sacred in Japan, the shakuhachi is a Japanese flute deeply interbedded with religious traditions and rituals.

Like in other cultures, Japan also has its bamboo flute, shakuhachi, which is considered sacred. The Shakuhachi is well-known for its meditative, calming, and mystical sound.

Wrapping Up

Japanese traditional instruments are very much embedded with Chinese culture. The musical instruments are mostly imported from China, and their origins can be found in Chinese forms.

However, some built strong connections with Japanese culture, evolved, and became inseparable parts of Japanese music and art traditions. And Japanese people took good care of them, that is for sure!

Before you head out, check out our post on instruments of Cordillera that you have probably never heard of!