17 Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments You Should Know

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Did you know that in Japan, there are more than 30 traditional Japanese musical instruments date back over 3,000 years? Indeed, musical Instruments in Japan has a long deep tradition, and Japanese music still continues today. Despite the centrality in Japanese folk music, religious practice, and culture, many traditional Japanese musical instruments have found widespread use in modern Western music as well.

So, what are the Japanese musical instruments? What instruments are used in Japanese music? In this article, we’ll answer these questions thoroughly by examining the history of 17 types of Japanese musical instruments.

1. Biwa

When the Biwa nearly died out in the 1940s, a group of Japanese musicians banded together to bring it back to life. Popular in Japanese court music during the 7th and 8th centuries, the Biwa is a four-stringed lute with a short neck.

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In the 1960s, Japanese composers such as Toru Takemitsu began incorporating these Japanese musical instruments into their works; Takemitsu is particularly notable for fusing Western orchestral performances with Japanese traditional instruments.

Although the tear-shaped bowl of the body of the Biwa is reminiscent of the Western lute, the instrument comes in more than seven distinct forms and is crafted from a variety of woods. The blind lute priests of Japan’s Heian period played a later version of this piece to accompany their tales.

2. Bonsho

The deep, resonant tones of the Bonsho bells can be heard from as far as twenty miles away. In Buddhist temples, the massive bronze Bonsho is utilized for a variety of purposes, including announcing the time and serving as a signal or alert.

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These Japanese musical instruments are usually between a meter and two meters tall, depending on the design, and it has carved lettering or raised patterns. The outside is pounded on with a mallet or a beam slung from a rope. The sound of a bonsho can be heard clearly for up to 10 seconds after it has been hit. After that, there are several discernible harmonic overtones in the sound, and its decay phase seems to last for around a minute.

3. Hichiriki

According to legend, the Hichiriki was first brought to Japan from the Tang Dynasty of China in the early 7th century, when it was used in Japanese dance and court music.

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Like a standard Western oboe, these Japanese music musical instruments has 7 front-facing slits for fingers and two rear-facing slits for thumbs. The bamboo body of these double-reed wind Japanese musical instruments make it around 18 centimeters in length.

4. Horagai

For centuries, Japanese musicians have blown on the Horagai, traditional Japanese musical instruments they’ll trumpet. For close to a thousand years, it has been utilized as a means of communication and accompaniment for chanting by Buddhist monks and yamabushi, the Japanese warrior monks who lived in the mountains.

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The shell’s tip serves as the mouthpiece, allowing for the production of three to five distinct tones. Sometimes, metal mouthpieces are used, although they can get stuck on the lip when it’s freezing outside.

5. Hyoshigi

Next in the list of japanese musical instruments, The Hyoshigi is a traditional Japanese wooden percussion instrument that is played by striking a pair of sticks together. Each stick is about 25 centimeters long and made of bamboo or oak. Sticks are slapped together to make a cracking sound, which is used to attract the focus of the audience at a show or performance.

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Consequently, they are frequently featured in the musical accompaniment of kabuki theater, sumo, and ningyo joruri puppet plays. The Japanese musical instruments are also used by Kamishibaiya to draw in youngsters and sell them candy while telling them stories.

6. Shamisen

The Shamisen (or samisen) is one of a 3-stringed Japanese musical instruments that sounds similar to a lute but looks like a western banjo. It is both solo musical instruments of Japanese and an accompaniment to vocals in a wide variety of musical contexts, from geisha music to ningyo joruri puppet shows and kabuki theater.

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There are 3 different neck thicknesses (thick, medium, and thin) are available, as are a range of skin and string types and bridge weights. The skin is strained tightly over the container of the body, and it can be played both as a stringed instrument (plucked with a Bachi) and as a percussion instrument (struck with a mallet). The length of a fretless guitar’s neck is variable, depending on the player’s preferences and the music’s technical demands.

7. Sho

One of the most well-known American composers of the twentieth century, John Cage, produced many compositions featuring Sho In addition, Bjork’s score for the film Drawing Restraint9 also features heavy Sho use.

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The Sho, a sort of Japanese mouth organ, is bamboo-piped wind Japanese musical instruments that may have been brought to Japan between the years 710 and 794. Its origins can be traced back to the music of the Japanese court, but now it can be found in a wide variety of musical genres.

The Shita is a foundation that holds 17 bamboo pipes and a free metal reed. Resinous wax containing tiny lead shot is used to tune the pipes. You can play it for long periods of time without stopping because, like a harmonica, you can make sounds by inhaling and exhaling.

8. Shakuhachi

Between the years of 1603 and 1868, Komuso monks used the Shakuhachi as a form of meditation and for sacred solos, after its initial use in Japanese dance and court music (gagaku).

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The Shakuhachi, bamboo flute with finger holes Japanese musical instruments, is played by blowing into its open end. Depending on the tuning and the length, it can produce a wide range of sounds, from deep bass to piercing highs. It may look like a recorder, but the mouthpiece isn’t even there; the stem is simply angled for blowing.

Tozan Nakao, a Japanese composer who listened to Western classical music, created several new pieces for the genre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Others played it outside religious contexts, and it eventually joined the Shamisen and sou as a standard trio.

9. Tsuzumi

Some of the Tsuzumi Japanese musical instruments that are still in use today were made hundreds of years ago, and it can take a new instrument years to become properly broken in.

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The Tsuzumi (also spelled Kotsuzumi) is a hand drum used in traditional Japanese music, kabuki theater, and the 14th-century classical Japanese dance-drama known as Noh. Like the African djembe drum, the pitch of this drum can be adjusted by loosening or tightening the skin over its two ends and its cords.

There are two drum heads, one at each end, that are connected by a cord system and mounted on a wooden body. For the drum heads to produce the desired sound, a certain amount of moisture is required. To achieve this, the drummer will sometimes apply pieces of paper moistened with his saliva to the drum head’s skin.

>> Read more: How to buy guitars from Japan? Everything you need to know

10. Koto

The Koto Japanese musical instruments, a zither native to Japan, is revered as the country’s official musical instrument. Approximately 180 centimeters in length, the Koto is crafted from Paulownia wood. The strings are plucked with the right hand and a plectrum or the first three fingers of the picking hand, and the Japanese musical instruments are tuned by adjusting the location of the wooden bridge.

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They were first used in the music of the Japanese court and typically had 13 strings, though more stringed versions do exist. Yatsuhashi Kengyo, who lived from 1614 to 1865, was a famous blind musician who developed a new technique for playing the koto. Another blind musician and composer, Michio Miyagi, is credited with saving the koto by fusing its traditional sound with that of the West.

11. Mokugyo

A hardwood drum with a handle in the form of a stylised fish, the Mokugyo provides a rhythmic backdrop to Taoist and Buddhist chants. The Mokugyo is one of Japanese musical instruments used in Kabuki that has recently been adopted by jazz and classical musicians.

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It is a sort of slit drum often crafted from hollow camphor wood. Both the small and the large ones are played by striking them with a stick whose end is wrapped in fabric. The smaller ones are played while holding them, and the larger ones are played while sitting on cushions on the floor.

Some Buddhists even refer to it as the “Wakeful Drum” since it is played during meditation to prevent slumber.

12. Kokyu

Among the types of japanese instruments, the only Japanese stringed instrument that’s played with a bow is Kokyu. There are three strings on the regular model, and it looks and sounds a lot like a Shamisen, except it’s a little smaller.

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Before the Shakuhachi came along, it was often performed alongside the Shamisen and sou in ensembles. Nowadays, you can hear these Japanese musical instruments in the backdrop of folk songs and shows.

Typically, the Kokyu’s body is crafted from Styrax japonica or coconut wood, while its neck is fashioned from ebony. Next, a taut skin of either a snake or a cat is wrapped around the body, and horsehair is used to string the bow.

13. Sanshin

Similar to the Shamisen in sound but smaller, the Sanshin is the backbone of Okinawan folk music and another Japanese stringed instrument. The right hand’s index finger acts as a plectrum to pluck the strings, and is typically a cow horn or plastic plectrum.

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Although traditionally made from real snakeskin, modern Sanshin Japanese musical instruments have instead been crafted using faux snakeskin due to international animal conservation accords that forbid the export of real snakeskin. Synthetic skins have been produced as an alternative to genuine snakeskin, which can shred and fracture in low humidity and temperature conditions.

Because of its revered status in Ryukyuan society, the Sanshin is generally kept as a family relic and passed down the generations. Everyone from toddlers to grandparents also enjoys playing it at celebrations big and small.

14. Shinobue

The Shinobue Japanese musical instruments are a bamboo flute with rattan bindings that is played by blowing through the side holes and bending the bamboo reeds to produce a variety of tones.

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There are 12 different keys, with the lowest key they may be played in is F, and the highest is E. It is often used in bon dance tunes, religious and agricultural festivals, and kabuki theater to accompany singing.

As a symbol of traditional Japanese music, its sound is instantly recognizable due to its high pitch and frightening quality, which is exemplified by the elegant trills and melodies played on it.

15. Kagura Suzu

In kagura dancing, performers ring a set of handbells called the Kagura Suzu. Larger versions of these Japanese musical instruments, which worshippers can ring with ribbons or a rope, are sometimes hanged from the front rafters of Shinto shrines.

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12 crotal bells are typically affixed to the handle, however up to fifteen bells can be used. The bells are held in the shrine maiden’s right hand as she performs the kagura dance and shaken above her head.

16. Nohkan

The Nohkan is a transverse Japanese musical instrument’s flute typically constructed from smoked bamboo and utilized in kyogen comedies and Noh plays, festivals, kabuki theater, and extended ballads (nagauta).

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It is used in tandem with the hand drum known as a tsuzumi or on its own for its distinctively high-pitched sound. The Nohkan, or Noh pipe, has made a comeback in concert settings and outside its typical contexts, such as with orchestras and jazz bands.

17. Uchiwa Daiko

The Uchiwa Daiko is a straightforward drum shaped like a ping pong paddle. It’s also referred to as a “fan drum”. It has a diameter between 20 and 45 cm and is hammered with a stick.

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The Uchiwa Daiko is commonly used for the skin, which is stretched tightly over the oblong portion, and a wooden handle is included. Nichiren Buddhist monks have been known to use drums during chanting, and the Japanese musical instruments are also included in kabuki and other forms of traditional Japanese performance.

Conclusion

In general, some of Japanese musical instruments are used for modern reasons, while others are retained for traditional ones. The above list of Japanese instruments should serve as evidence of the country’s rich musical heritage and widespread continued use of many of its traditional instruments. 

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