Traditional Japanese musical instruments 和楽器

Japanese melodies: 5 iconic instruments

Asian, and especially Japanese music has its own unique stories and sounds. The land of the rising sun is rich in traditional musical instruments, which have passed through centuries and contributed to its identity and culture. Discover five traditional musical instruments that have punctuated the history of the Japanese archipelago.

  • Shamisen (三味 線)

With its great richness of timbre, the shamisen ("three scented strings"), is a plucked string instrument.

Derived from a Chinese musical instrument, the sanxian, the shamisen is very present in the art of Japanese performance. It gives rhythm to the pieces of Bunraku, Kabuki and becomes the flagship instrument of the geishas.

The introduction of the shamisen to the Japanese archipelago dates back to the 16th century in Okinawa, ie the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868).

This small lute with a long and thin neck is made of three nylon or silk strings. The resonance box, square in shape, is traditionally made of sandalwood and covered with taut skin ... formerly of cat, dog, or snake as FiberSen (and a new synthetic skin called Ripple) has replaced the old practice.

This string instrument measuring between 1m and 1.50m is often compared with the American banjo.


Des shamisen

By Midori - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  • Biwa (琵琶)

Short-necked, four-stringed lute with a shallow, rounded body, the biwa is the instrument of choice for the goddess of music and poetry, Benzaiten. It was introduced in the 8th century with the arrival of Chinese influences, and its style evolve over the ages. The melody of the biwa has long accompanied tales of war. It has now become a rare and expensive traditional instrument, due to its sharp construction: it is carved from a single piece of wood and its mastery requires many years of practice ...

This instrument gave its name to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, due to the resemblance of the shape of the lake to its silhouette.



By Kazuhisa OTSUBO - Flickr: Japanese lute / 琵琶, CC BY 2.0,

  • Taiko (太 鼓)

The term taiko encompasses a wide range of percussion instruments, the size, and style of which may vary depending on the region. The word taiko simply means "drum" in Japanese.

Already represented on the haniwa - terracotta figurines in the tombs of the Kofun period (250-538) - the incredible power of taiko or wadaiko ("Japanese drum") - was used to mark the pace of troops during battles, then for Noh theater performances and traditional festivals.

Since the 20th century, taiko is a Japanese instrument best known internationally, where it is practiced. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see and hear taiko during matsuri. The practice of taiko requires a lot of energy and movements, which is why it is often considered in Japan as a martial art or a dance.


Joueur de taiko

By Elijah van der Giessen from Edmonton, Canada - - image description page, CC BY 2.0,

  • Shakuhachi (尺八)

First used for Gagaku or "court music" - in the 13th century, shakuhachi becomes the religious instrument reserved only for monks. Designed in bamboo, this long straight flute of about 50cm has 5 holes and a beveled edge. It produces a sound very representative of Japanese tones.

Later, the shakuhachi became very popular and frequently used for solos, or alongside the koto and shamisen. We can even find the shakuhachi in contemporary music.


Joueur de Shakuhachi

By Dmitri Shvetsov - Contact us/Photo submission, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  • Koto (琴)

The koto entered the Japanese Imperial Court during the Nara period (710-794). The instrument, somewhat bulky, is a long zither with plucked strings of nearly 2 meters, placed horizontally. It is possible to play this instrument while sitting or standing. The strings, 13 in number, are made of silk and are plucked with scrapers. There are now variations of the koto, especially with more strings, or smaller sizes.

Nicknamed "Japanese harp", the lyrical sound of the koto mixes with shamisen, shakuhachi, and percussions, to accompany the pieces of Bunraku or Kabuki.



Le koto japonais

By Smgregory, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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