This page gives a brief overview and general description of the most prominent and unique Japanese traditional string instruments.
Shamisen or samisen (and also referred to as sangen) means ‘three strings’ and the instrument thus has three strings. The shamisen derived from the Chinese sanxian. Shamisen are played with a large triangular-shaped plectrum, called a bachi. The bachi is often used to strike both string and skin, creating a highly percussive sound. Different types of plectrums produce distinct tone colors for specific types of music. In some genres the shamisen is not played with a bachi but plucked with the fingers.
The strings of the shamisen are traditionally made of silk but nowadays nylon strings are often used, since they last longer than silk and are less expensive.
The construction of a shamisen follows the model similar to that of a guitar or banjo, with a neck and strings stretched across a resonating body. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and slimmer than that of a guitar or banjo and is usually divided into three or four pieces that fit and lock together, so that they can easily disassembled.
The drum-like square body of a shamisen is hollow and amplifies the sound of the strings. The front and back of the body is covered with skin. The skin used depends on the genre of music and the skill of the player. Traditionally, skins were made using dog or cat skin but the use of animal skins has gradually fallen out of favor and contemporary shamisen skins are often prepared with synthetic materials, such as plastic.
Shamisen has a distinctive sitar-like sound called sawari, which is the resonance from the thickest string lightly touching the neck. The sound from the strings, body and sawari combined, produces the unique shamisen sound.
The construction of the shamisen varies in shape and size depending on the musical genre in which it is used. There are three basic sizes which are named after the thickness of the neck (sao): hosozao (‘thin neck’), chuzao (‘middle neck’) and futozao (‘fat neck’).
Sanshin literally means, like shamisen, ‘three strings’ and also has the same origins from China. It is an Okinawan musical instrument and antecedent of the more widely known shamisen found on mainland Japan. The sanshin is considered the soul of Okinawan folk music and it is said that there is a sanshin in almost every Okinawan home.
The body of the instrument is smaller than that of a shamisen and is covered with snake skin. Traditionally, the skin of the Burmese python was used, but due to CITES regulations, the skin of the ‘python reticulatus’ is nowadays also used.
The popularity of the sanshin is rapidly expanding all over the world, and players desire to have a most traditional sanshin (not to mention the legal issues). For this reason a type of sanshin with a hybrid skin called kyokabari style has been developed. This sanshin has a natural python skin that is fitted and stretched with a strong, synthetic reinforcement fabric underneath. It also proves a great compromise for the use of sanshin in dryer, colder or hotter climates.
Traditionally players wear a plectrum (bachi) made of material such as the water buffalo horn, on the index finger. Today some use a guitar pick or the nail of the index finger. Long, narrow bamboo plectra are also used, which allow a higher-pitched tone.
The koto, also known as Japanese harp, stems from the similar Chinese instrument called zheng.
Koto music was introduced into Japan during the Nara period (710–794) and developed in the imperial court. It gradually entered the homes of the rising commercial class, where it was considered a sign of refinement, reflecting the status of its owner.
A koto is usually about 190 centimeters long but the length depends on the number of strings it has. The most common type of koto uses 13 silk (currently nylon is more common) strings stretched in parallel over the body. The instrument is tuned by sliding movable bridges (ji) and sounds are made by plucking the strings with finger pick plectra (tsume) worn on the thumb, index and middle finger of the right hand.
One of the most common materials for the body of the koto is paulownia wood (kiri).
The koto are often beautifully decorated with metalwork, inlays or scenes from classic tales.
During and after the Meiji period (1868-1912) when western musical styles started to influence Japanese culture, the koto lost some of its popularity but nowadays there is a renewed interest in the Japanese koto worldwide and it is often played along with western instruments too.
The biwa, Japanese short-necked lute, is related to the Chinese pipa, an instrument that was introduced to Japan in the late 7th century. Over the centuries, several types of biwa were created, each having a certain size plectrum (bachi), a specialized purpose, a unique performance technique and varying numbers of strings and frets.
The biwa is characterized by its graceful, pear-shaped body. The instrument has a shallow, rounded back and four or five silk strings attached to slender lateral pegs. The biwa, played with a large wedge-shaped plectrum (bachi), offers a bass-like accompaniment.
The taishogoto or Nagoya harp, is a Japanese stringed musical instrument. The name derives from the Taisho period (1912–1926) when the instrument first appeared. The taishogoto, having the structure that combines a guitar with a piano, is said to have been invented because western pianos and violins were very expensive at that time.
The main identifying feature of the taishogoto is that it has scale buttons which look like typewriting keys. These buttons are arranged in the same way as a piano.
While holding down the scale button with the left hand and picking the string with the right hand, the note is emitted. To get the desired sound, the taishogoto needs to be tuned like a guitar.
Currently there are various types of taishogoto, including stylish models and electric ones that can be connected to an amplifier.
Kokyu, Japanese fiddle, is a traditional Japanese 3-stringed instrument. It is the only Japanese instrument that is, like a violin, played with a bow. Kokyu , like the shamisen, has its origin in Okinawa and is similar in construction to the shamisen, appearing as a smaller version of that instrument. The neck is made of ebony and the hollow body is often made of coconut traditionally covered with cat or snake skin. 4-stringed versions of the kokyu also exist.