Musical instruments of Japan

We all know what a guitar is, we all know how drums work, and just about everyone can play chopsticks on a piano. However, many people don't know that there are tonnes of musical instruments from many different regions steeped in thousands of years of tradition. Instruments that have been crafted and perfected over centuries and are instantly recognisable in their respective regions. However, within mainstream music, it is rare that these instruments ever get the attention they deserve.

So with that in mind, we take a look specifically at the lesser-known instruments from the country of Japan. We aim to show you the regions finest selection of instruments and explain just what they offer. Here is our guide to the traditional instruments of Japan.

Koto

Koto

The Koto is a half tube zephyr instrument and is regarded as the national instrument of Japan. These instruments usually have 13 strings and several moving bridges. However, they can have 17 strings in some cases. These instruments are typically made from Paulownia wood, and musicians will tend to pluck three strings to make melodies.

Shamisen

 Shamisen

The Shamisen is a three-string instrument that is often used to support the kabuki. It has a small soundbox, a long, thin neck with no frets and traditional models would use dog and cat skin for the resonating body. However, more modern instruments tend to be made from plastic. These instruments are often used during puppet shows.

Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi

This music instrument is an end-blown flute traditionally made of bamboo. This instrument was popular from the 7th to the 10th century and had a renaissance in the 15th century. This instrument is tuned to the minor pentatonic scale and is considered superior in tonal quality and volume to other flutes of the region.

Biwa

 Biwa

The Biwa is a pear-shaped, lute styled instrument that is commonly used to accompany narrative storytelling. The Biwa tends to have four or sometimes five strings and originated in the 7th century. This instrument is also usually played with a Bachi instead of with fingers.

Taiko

Taiko 

Taiko is a broad term for any traditional Japanese drum. These drums are meticulously handcrafted and can take years to manufacture. The drum base tends to be made from a dried-out trunk of a zelkova tree, and then the drum heads are usually made with cowhide. These are usually played alongside vocals, woodwind and string instruments.

Nohkan

Nohkan is another Japanese flute that is made from bamboo traditionally. It was first seen in the 15th century and was synonymous with Kabuki theatre. It is constructed with a mix of tapered smoked and burned bamboo to improve the acoustic sound, and the instrument has seven finger holes.

Shinobue

The Shinobue is another Japanese flute that is best known for its unique high pitched sound. It is traditionally made from bamboo or hardwood, has seven finger holes and can be played as an ensemble or solo.

Tsuzumi

The Tsuzumi is an hourglass-shaped Japanese drum with two drum heads and a series of cords that can be pulled tight or let loose to alter the drum's tone. The base is traditionally made of cherry wood, while the drum heads are made with horsehide.

Hichiriki

This double reeded Japanese flute is revered as a sacred instrument and usually features in Shinto wedding ceremonies. It is crafted like an oboe but sounds more like a clarinet due to the cylindrical bore and bamboo. The sound of this instrument is regularly described as 'haunting'.

Tonkori

The Tonkori is a plucked string instrument that is constructed in the shape of a sword. It has a long neck with no frets, five strings, is made from Jezo spruce wood, strings made from deer tendon and during construction, a pebble is placed within the body cavity of the instrument, granting it a soul.

Sanshin

Sanshin

The Sanshin is often referred to as the Japanese Banjo, and rightly so. The shape and design are very similar to the mainstream instrument, and the sound is similar too. However, the instrument only has three strings, commonly has a resonating body made of snakeskin from a Burmese Python. The wooden frame is usually made from an Okinawan Ebony tree.

Kakko

The Kakko is a traditional Japanese drum often laid on its side, supported by two stands. The drum is played with beaters known as Bachi instead of the palms and fingers of the hand. This drum varies from a traditional Taiko as the skin on the drum head is always taut to produce a consistent sound.

Wooden fish

The wooden fish is a percussion instrument also known as a temple block used by monks in east Asia. It was mainly used for religious ceremonies and scripture reading and would often be used as a metronome for those partaking in Sutra chanting.

Shime daiko

Shime daiko

Then lastly, we have a Shine Daiko, a small drum with broad drum heads. This drum is played with Bachi. The drum heads are taught thanks to the construction process where they are stretched over iron hoops, then the body, then bound to each other. As a result, this produces a much more high pitched sound to the traditional Taiko.

So that is our guide helping you understand and appreciate the wide variety of Japanese instruments throughout history. What did you make of this guide? How many of these instruments do you know? What other regions would you like to see us cover? Let us know in the comments section below and as always, thank you for reading.

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