Traditional Japanese Instruments   和楽器

Date of publication :
Koto and shamisen players

Japanese women playing the shamisen (left) and koto (right).

Taiko players

Taiko players in Tochigi.

Monks playing shakuhachi

Komuso monks playing the shakuhachi

Goddess Benzaiten

Statue of the goddess Benzaiten playing the biwa.

The sound of Japan

Unusual and haunting sounds: discover five traditional musical instruments that have marked the history of the Japanese islands.

  • Shamisen

The shamisen (meaning "three strings"), is a plucked string instrument that is present in many Japanese shows. Along with performing the rhythmic parts in Bunraku and Kabuki, the shamisen became the favored instrument of geishas.

The introduction of the shamisen to Japan dates back to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868). This lute-like instrument has a long neck, three nylon or silk strings, and a hollow body covered front and back with a skin... traditionally dog, snake, or cat skin!

  • Taiko

The term taiko encompasses a broad range of percussion instruments including different sizes and styles depending on the region.

Taikos (Japanese drums) were found with Haniwa terracotta figurines in burial tombs from the Kofun period (250-538). Also, showing the incredible influence of the taiko, or wadaiko, it was also used to mark the passage of troops in battle, and for performances of Noh and traditional festivals.

  • Koto

The koto entered the Japanese Imperial Court in the Nara period (710-794). The instrument, somewhat cumbersome, is a long zither around 2 meters long, which is plucked and played by lying it on the ground.

Dubbed a Japanese harp, the koto's lyrical sound mixes well with the shamisen, shakuhachi, and percussion to help with the sounds of Bunraku or Kabuki.

  • Biwa

A four-stringed lute with a rounded body, the biwa is the favorite instrument of the goddess of music and poetry, Benzaiten. It's style has evolved over the ages.

The sound of the biwa has long accompanied folk tales and war stories.

  • Shakuhachi

First used for Gagaku - court music - the shakuhachi became a religious instrument, which meant only some monks were allowed to play in the thirteenth century.

But later, this long bamboo flute became accessible again, and is frequently used solo or alongside the koto and shamisen. You can even find the shakuhachi in some contemporary music.

Haru no umi Michio Miyagi

Comments Read comments from our travellers


Nice music but as others also commented, the instruments could not be seen perfectly.

Japanese instruments

This is a good article but I can’t see pictures of them so I do not know what they look like.


Good article but no pictures of the instruments