Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments   和楽器

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Shamisen players


Biwa and Koto

Japanese Music: Five Iconic Instruments

Japanese music has a rich history and a very unique sound. The land of the rising sun has many iconic musical instruments. These unique sounds have played a big part in the history and culture of Japan over the centuries. Discover the five traditional instruments of Japan.

The Music of Japan

Historically, Japan is a country of refinement, art and culture. Court music appeared there as early as the 5th century. It has always been closely linked to entertainment and events, such as theater, dance or festivals. There are several genres of traditional music, such as gagaku, traditional court music, noh (linked to Noh theater and comprising several subgenres), joruri, narrative music, or nagauta, used for kabuki.

Japan has many musical unique instruments, which give the very identity of Japanese music. Let yourself be carried away by Japanese music through the history of five musical instruments. 


  • Shamisen (三味線)

The shamisen (meaning "three strings"), is a plucked string instrument that is played during many Japanese shows. 

Derived from a Chinese musical instrument, the sanxian, the shamisen is very present in Japanese performing art. Plays the rhythmic parts of Bunraku, Kabuki and also became the favored instrument of the geisha, ​​who often sing whilst playing.

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

This small lute-like instrument has a long neck, three nylon or silk strings, a hollow body traditionally made of sandalwood and is covered front and back with a skin.

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





  • 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 when Chinese influences arrived, and its style evolved throughout history. The biwa melody has long accompanied war stories and folk tales. It has now a rare and expensive traditional instrument because of the craftsmanship involved in making it: it is cut from a single piece of wood and requires many years of training.

This instrument gave its name to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, as its shape resembles the instrument's silhouette.

  • 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 burial tombs from the Kofun period (250-538) - the incredible power of taiko or wadaiko ("Japanese drum") - was used to mark the pace of the troops during the battles, Noh theater performances and traditional festivals.

Since the 20th century, taiko has been one of the best known Japanese instruments internationally. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see and hear taiko during matsuri. The practice of taiko requires a significant amount of energy, which is why it is often considered in Japan as a martial art or a dance.


taiko drummer



  • Shakuhachi (尺八)

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. Made from bamboo, this long straight flute of about 50 cm has five holes and a beveled edge. It produces a sound very representative of Japanese music.

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

  • Koto (琴)

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. It is possible to play this instrument while sitting or standing. The 13 strings, are made of silk and are plucked with scrapers. There are now variations of the koto, with more strings, or smaller in size.

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


Japanese Koto

Discover the combined sounds of the koto and shakuhachi in this video:

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