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Japanese Instruments: The sound of Japan's history

There are a whole host of traditional Japanese instruments used to play Japan’s traditional selections of music. Traditional Japanese instruments are musical instruments often used in the traditional and folk music of Japan. They comprise a range of string, wind, and percussion instruments, from those that were invented in Japan to others that have evolved and developed into Japanese instruments and varieties over time after arriving from other countries such as China. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Japanese instruments and why people enjoy their sound and feel so much.


When it comes to Japanese instruments made from string, the koto is the most popular choice. These Japanese instruments come in a variety of shapes and structures. Most types of kotos consist of a body made from wood accentuated by strings which are stretched across the middle that are plucked with a pick or with fingers and nails to play the music. The koto was an instrument that was favoured by Japanese aristocrats and was often used for entertainment, however, since the arrival of the Heian era, it has become an instrument used mostly for religious ceremonies and festivals.


Japanese instruments can take on many different forms. The taisho-goto is an instrument that comprises of strings, similar to a guitar and buttons that are used to change key. While  Japanese instruments generally use silk strings, the Taisho-goto uses metal strings and is constructed to produce notes of the Western 12-note scale on its keyboard.


The percussion famiy is home to a whole host of popular Japanese instruments. Wadaiko is a popular type of Japanese drum that is crafted by stretching leather skin over a wooden body, and releases sound when the skin is struck with varying levels of force. In Japan today, wadaiko are used mostly for religious festivals, kabuki and noh performances, ceremonies at shrines and temples, and during summer festivals.


Alongside string and percussion instruments, Japan is also known for popular Japanese instruments that belong to the wind family. The nohkan is a type of flute that is used during noh performances, along with the kotsuzumi, otsuzumi, and taiko. The nohkan, is the only melodic instrument used on stage during noh performances and creates a unique sound that produces a feeling of tension. 


The biwa is a plucked string instrument that was first popular in China and then spread throughout East Asia. These unique Japanese instruments are said to have arrived in Japan from China during the Nara period. The instrument is comprised of a water-drop shaped body with a handle, and while there are generally 4 strings, 5-stringed varieties also exist.


Many Japanese instruments come from ancient tribes and cultures from all over the country. The Ainu are an indigenous people that live in Hokkaido, the northernmost region of Japan. The mukkuri is a simple instrument used by the Ainu that consists only of a piece of bamboo with a string attached. The indigenous Ainu people, who fear otherworldly beings and revere nature, would play the mukkuri while residing in the forests.


Japanese instruments can often be found in traditional Japanese shrines. The kagura-suzu, is a type of bell that is rung as a way of purification and invoking the divine spirit. The miko , the shrine maiden, uses this instrument as she dances the traditional kagura-mai dance. The kagura-suzu has a clear and dignified sound as it is often used during Shinto rituals.


Sanshins are stringed Japanese instruments that are used in Okinawa. The Sanshin consists of a wooden body with a section of snakeskin, in which three strings of differing thickness are plucked to produce music. If you want to hear the unique sound of the sanshin it is recommended that you visit restaurants that serve Okinawan cuisine in large cities like Tokyo, as sometimes you will be lucky enough to hear the sanshin. 
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