Koto: The National Musical Instrument of Japan

  • 2 min read
Koto: The National Musical Instrument of Japan

Koto is a Japanese zither instrument with 13 strings. Koto is played using fingerpicks which are worn on the thumb, index, and middle fingers. The strings of the instrument are tuned by moveable bridges on the body. Players can change and ‘wobble’ the pitch of a string by applying pressure to it.

A koto is around 6 feet (180cm) in length and, traditionally, players kneel next to the instrument while performing. Due to its size, playing the instrument is relatively physically demanding. In modern performances, the instrument is laid on a stand, allowing players to use a chair or stand up while they play. 

Koto: The National Musical Instrument of Japan

Koto is derived from the older Chinese instrument guzheng, which was first introduced to Japan in the 7th century. The guzheng is also the ancestor to a number of similar zither instruments across Asia such as the gayageum in Korea and the dan tranh in Vietnam. In Japan, the koto began to flourish in the 16th century when a number of schools were opened for bourgeois students. Some of these schools still operate today. 

When Western music was introduced to Japan at the beginning of the Meiji period, the popularity of the koto began to decline. Were it not for innovators such as Michio Miyagi, the instrument may have fallen into disuse. Miyagi is credited as the first composer to combine Western music with traditional koto music. Miyagi composed over 300 new works for the instrument and also invented the 17-string bass koto, which is a staple in koto ensembles today. 

Koto: The National Musical Instrument of Japan

Koto spread across the world in the 20th century and it is now one of the world's most widely recognized Japanese instruments. Western artists such as David Bowie and The Rolling Stones made use of the instrument on recordings in the 1960s and 1970s, contributing to its status internationally. 


About the author: 

Diarmuid O'ConnorDiarmuid O'Connor
Diarmuid is a writer and musician from Ireland, based in Tokyo. When not working on music in studios around the city, Diarmuid can be found in the bouldering gym, at the cinema, or enjoying a cold one in the local izakaya.

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