Famed for its lilting, plaintive vocals and evocative storytelling, traditional Japanese music also features a wide range of unique and beautiful instruments. Some have enjoyed global recognition and fame, like the taiko and the shamisen. Others, like the mukkuri, are little known outside their regions of origin.
Historically, Japanese instruments have played an important role in court life, theater, and spiritual and religious events. Today, they figure prominently in festivals, ceremonies, performances, and rituals.
With percussive, stringed, and wind instruments all represented, the spectrum of traditional Japanese instruments is varied, and the sounds they produce are colorful and unique.
Here are twelve of our favorite Japanese traditional instruments – some you’ll surely recognize and a few you may not have encountered before.
Though the word taiko literally means “drum” in Japanese, it’s become the term for a specific family of barrel-shaped drums as well as the word describing a traditional drumming ensemble.
The first recorded use of taiko was in the 6th century CE when the drums were played in festivals and as a form of communication. The drum has a mythological origin story as well.
Shinto legend holds that the sun goddess Ameratsu sealed herself away in a cave in a fit of rage and was only lured out again when Ame-no-Uzume – a deity of joy, revelry, and the arts – danced upon an empty barrel of sake, The rhythm of her feet created a deep, soul-pounding beat that soothed the angry goddess and echoed to this day in the jubilant, powerful thrumming of the taiko.
There are many different types of taiko drums, from small handheld drums to huge floor drums played with large sticks called bachi. They’ve been used in military settings to inspire troops and communicate messages, in theater and performances to create ambiance or generate tension, and in local festivals and rituals to accompany dancers and spiritual ceremonies.
The biwa is a stringed instrument with a short neck and a rounded body. It’s a type of four- or five-stringed lute, and it’s been a fundamental feature in Japanese music and narrative storytelling since the 7th century CE.
Like many Japanese instruments, the biwa has a history of use in spiritual and religious settings. Blind monks (called biwa hōshi or “lute priests”) would pluck biwa as they traveled, reciting epics and poetry and bringing spiritual purification to villages nationwide. The instrument also provided musical accompaniment for scripture readings.
Despite its historical and cultural significance, Japanese interest in the biwa has declined in recent years. Many modern-day Japanese people associate the instrument with degenerates, vagabonds, and antiquated tales of war and woe.
As a result, contemporary biwa players are relatively rare, and many Japanese people can’t recognize its unique sound when they hear it.
As one of the most internationally famous Japanese instruments, the shamisen enjoys more popularity in its home country than many other traditional folk instruments. The shamisen has three strings and a long neck, and it’s played using a bachi as a plectrum — the same device used as a mallet to play taiko.
Shamisen are fretless, and their bodies are hollow and covered on both sides by skin, much like a banjo. On traditional shamisen, these covers were typically made of dog or cat skin, but modern instruments usually favor synthetic materials. Silk strings are used for professional performances, while cheaper and more durable nylon strings are used for practice, learning, and casual playing.
Unlike the biwa and many other instruments, the shamisen is traditionally played by both men and women. It’s used to enhance narrative storytelling, kabuki (dramatic dance theater) performances, and various instrumental ensembles.
The shamisen was prominently featured in the 2016 film Kubo and the Two Strings, a stop-motion animated movie that follows a young boy (Kubo) wielding a magical shamisen on a quest to find his father’s armor.
Reminiscent of the European recorder, the shakuhachi is a wooden flute played vertically and typically fashioned from bamboo. The instrument is tuned to the pentatonic scale; however, experts can produce virtually any pitch thanks to shakuhachi’s incredible versatility. Shakuhachi has four holes for finger placement on the front and one thumbhole on the back.
The main reason for the shakuhachi’s tonal flexibility compared to an instrument like the recorder lies in how it channels to air. With a recorder, the air is blown into a rigid mouthpiece, giving the musician limited control over the shape of their mouth while playing.
On the other hand, a shakuhachi is played by blowing air across the top of the instrument – the same way one would produce sound from a bottle. Experienced musicians can vary their mouth position greatly, approaching the instrument from various angles and bending their lips to create different notes and tone qualities.
Like many Japanese instruments, shakuhachi evolved from a similar Chinese instrument – in this case, the Chinese bamboo flute was first brought to the islands in the 7th century CE. During the feudal era, they gained popularity among Zen Buddhist monks called komusō, “priests of nothingness” – mendicants from the Fuke sect. These monks played shakuhachi as a form of breathing meditation called suizen.
Though Fuke Zen was banned during the Meiji period and eventually died out, the shakuhachi became one of today’s most popular Japanese folk music instruments. It’s frequently used in film scores and regularly featured on jazz records.
The koto – famously known as the national instrument of Japan – is a zither-like descendent of the Chinese guzheng, brought over in the 7th or 8th century CE. Modern-day koto typically have either thirteen or seventeen strings, with the latter group forming the bass in koto ensembles.
Considered a romantic instrument, the koto was popular among the wealthy and featured prominently in Japanese court music in ancient times. An 11th-century narrative called The Tale of Genji features a man who falls in love with a woman he hears playing the koto from far away; however, in reality, women were forbidden from playing the instrument until much later.
The innovations of composer and performer Michio Miyagi (1894-1956) preserved the koto from being lost in the wake of Westernization. Miyagi wrote over 300 pieces for the instrument; in fact, his song Haru no Umi (“Spring Sea”) is played annually in Japan to ring in the new year.
Though the rise of Western music has somewhat lessened the koto’s popularity in its home country, this unique and beautiful instrument has piqued the curiosity of musicians worldwide since the 20th century. David Bowie featured the koto in his instrumental piece “Moss Garden,” Dr. Dre used a synthesized koto on two tracks of his 1999 album 2001.
While many Japanese instruments require a high degree of skill and practice, virtually anyone can play the naruko, as this is a simple percussion instrument. It has a wooden body shaped like a ping-pong paddle, with one or more wooden clappers on a hinge that slap against the body when the instrument is swung, creating a clicking sound.
Imagine the sound of tap shoes on a hard surface: that’s pretty close to the sound naruko makes.
Interestingly, naruko was first invented as a form of pest control rather than for making music. Farmers used them as noisemakers to frighten birds away from their crops.
Today, the little wooden clappers are famously featured in the annual Yosakoi Dance Festival in Kochi Prefecture. Participants perform traditional dances while swinging brightly-colored naruko. The clicks from the clappers provide a stirring and energetic counterpoint to the dancers’ pounding feet.
The horagai is one of the more unique Japanese instruments. It’s best described as a sort of crude trumpet made from the shell of a large mollusk called a conch. Samurai used Horagai to send signals across the battlefield and by Buddhist monks in various rites and rituals.
Many coastal and island nations – Greece, India, Hawaii, and Peru, to name a few — have a history of using conch shells as instruments. While most cultures’ shell trumpets can play only a single note, Japan’s horagai is unique in producing anywhere from three to five tones. This is thanks to the horagai’s mouthpiece, a wooden or bronze attachment at the top of the shell’s spire.
Thanks to its rich history of use in religious ceremonies and military procedures, the horagai holds great cultural significance in Japan and is still taught in some schools today. Recognizing the instrument’s historical importance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City keeps a horagai in its traditional Japanese musical instruments collection.
The kokyū is singular among all Japanese stringed instruments in that it’s the only one played with a bow rather than a plectrum or finger-plucking. It derives from the Malaysian rebab and typically has three strings. Most kokyū have a square-shaped body, but the Okinawan version is typically round-bodied.
The kokyū’s neck is long and made of ebony, while the tiny body is fashioned from coconut or Japanese snowbell wood. Both sides of the body are covered in skin – traditionally cat skin in most regions and snakeskin in Okinawa. The bow is usually made from horsehair, and performers hold the instrument upright on their knees while playing.
Sankyoku is a traditional form of chamber music that often accompanies a vocalist. Together with the koto and the shamisen, the kokyū is one of the main instruments featured in a sankyoku ensemble. As of the 20th century, the shakuhachi has largely replaced the kokyū in these ensembles.
More recently, the kokyū has enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to the invention of a four-stringed version that significantly expands the instrument’s range. Though seldom played outside Japan, kokyū has been featured on recordings and live shows by a few non-Japanese jazz and blues musicians, most notably the American multi-instrumentalist Eric Golub.
As one of the most difficult Japanese instruments to master, the hichiriki is seldom encountered outside its native country. It’s considered a sacred instrument due to its prominent use in Shinto and can often be heard in traditional wedding ceremonies.
Part of what makes the hichiriki so challenging to play is its double-reed configuration (similar to the Western oboe and bassoon). Pitch control and stylistic playing are mainly achieved through embouchure or lip placement. It takes precision and muscle to produce a pleasing sound on the instrument.
That said, few things compare to the haunting beauty of a hichiriki when played by an expert. You’ll likely hear masterful hichiriki playing if you can attend a gagaku concert while in Japan; hichiriki are one of the main melodic instruments in this classical music style.
Kane is similar in form and function to the more globally familiar gong. Unlike the gong, however, the kane has a concave, dish-like shape with a flattened rim. It can either be suspended from a bar or held in hand, though the latter is more common.
To play the kane, musicians strike the bell with a special mallet traditionally made of bone. Hitting various areas of the instrument produces different sounds, each with its own name:
- Chon – striking the middle of the bell
- Chi – striking the bell’s inside edge
- Ki – reversing the stroke after striking and hitting the bell a second time
Like many percussion instruments, kane is often used as a signaling device. Shinto and Buddhist temples use kane to toll the hour and inform locals that a special event is about to occur – much like bells are used in Western churches.
One of the most intricate and beautiful Japanese percussion instruments, mokugyo, are woodblocks carved to look like fish. The carvings are often highly detailed, with each fish’s scales distinctly outlined. Mokugyo may be painted or left natural, though the wood is polished and sanded smooth in either case.
Mokugyo is used in Buddhist ceremonies to maintain a steady rhythm while chanting. Due to their lack of eyelids and the fact that they never sleep, fish hold a special significance in Buddhism as symbols of wakefulness and attention to devotion. Mokugyo is often depicted holding a round pearl or ball in their mouths that symbolizes the universe.
The tone produced by striking a mokugyo varies depending on the instrument’s size and shape, with larger mokugyo producing a deeper, darker sound. The mallet may also be dragged along the fish’s scales to create a rattling sound.
Some temples sell handmade mokugyo, allowing visitors and tourists to take home a beautiful and functional piece of art that bears cultural and religious significance to Japan.
The mukkuri is a fascinating instrument that is native to Japan – more specifically, to the Ainu, the people indigenous to Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurils. Similar in design to the Western jaw harp, the mukkuri is made of bamboo, with two cords dangling from either end. It’s played by vibrating the reed inside the mouth and pulling the string to produce different pitches.
As a result of Japan’s push toward cultural and ethnological homogeneity, the Ainu population has largely been assimilated into the broader Japanese identity. Many people of Ainu descent aren’t aware of their heritage, and many traditional Ainu practices have been lost over time. In 2008, it was estimated that there were only about a hundred native speakers of Ainu remaining in the world.
Thanks to the efforts of Umeko Ando – a prominent Ainu musician who lived from 1932 to 2004 – the unique sounds and songs of the mukkuri have been preserved in multiple recordings. Daisuke Hare, a student of Ando’s, continued her work by organizing the first mukkuri competition in 2004.
Mukkuri is traditionally played by women and is notoriously tricky to master. Among the Ainu, they are often accompanied in performances by tonkori, stringed instruments with four or five strings.
Celebrate the Beauty and History of Traditional Japanese Instruments!
Music has played an essential role in various facets of Japanese culture for thousands of years. Japan’s musical history is rich and varied. Several Japanese instruments have figured prominently in Japan’s military, religious, and social history.
Many of these instruments are no less important to Japanese culture today. No street festival would be complete without a taiko ensemble’s deep and soul-stirring rhythm. The classical resonance of gagaku music would feel hollow without the evocative murmur of the hichiriki.
And lesser-known instruments – like the Ainu mukkuri and the resourceful horagai – help to preserve elements of Japan’s history and cultural-sociological makeup that might have otherwise been lost to time.
No trip to Japan is complete without taking the opportunity to bask in the treasure trove of distinctive and enchanting instruments waiting to be discovered. Let the singular sounds of traditional Japanese instruments stimulate your senses and add a whole new dimension to your experience of this unique and beautiful country.
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