17 Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments you Should Know

There are more than thirty traditional Japanese musical instruments consisting of various wind, string, and percussion instruments, some of which are more than 3000 years old! Many were initially played in ensembles in Japanese court music but playing the Sho, flutes, and Koto (zither) subsequently became an art that samurai and the nobility were expected to learn.

Traditional instruments are central to Japanese folk music, religious practice, and culture but a lot of them have also been used extensively in contemporary western music.

Japan has a rich musical tradition that continues to the present day. Traditional Japanese music was first passed down orally by masters to their students, who learned by observing and feeling how their teachers played. In this article, we take a closer look at how they are made and played and some people who made them famous.

1. Shamisen

The Shamisen (which is also known as a samisen) is a type of three-stringed musical instrument that resembles a western banjo in appearance but is actually a type of lute.

While it is usually plucked with a type of plectrum known as a Bachi, it can also be played percussively by striking the skin stretched tightly over the drum of the body.

The Shamisen is used in many genres of Japanese music including geisha music, ningyo joruri puppet shows, folk songs, and kabuki theater, and can be played alone or as an accompaniment to vocals.

It comes in three different neck sizes – thick, medium, and thin, and there are also variations in skin and string thickness and the bridge’s weight.

The size of the fretless neck depends on the genre and its musical requirements.

2. Shakuhachi

The Shakuhachi is a type of bamboo flute blown at the end and has finger holes to form the notes.

It resembles a recorder but doesn’t have a noticeable mouthpiece as the stem is just cut at an angle for blowing.

It makes a range of low-pitched and high-pitched sounds that depend on its tuning and length.

Initially, it was used in Japanese dance and court music (gagaku) before being further refined and was even played by Komuso monks as a meditation and in sacred solos between 1603 and 1868.

Others also played it in non-religious settings, and it became an ensemble instrument played with the Shamisen and sou.

Japanese composer Tozan Nakao, influenced by Western music, wrote a number of new pieces for it in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

3. Tsuzumi

The Tsuzumi (also called the Kotsuzumi) is an hourglass-shaped hand drum that was used in Japanese folk music, kabuki theatre, and a type of classical Japanese dance-drama called Noh that originates from the 14th century.

It has a wooden body with two drum heads on either end linked by a cord system.

The skin over the two ends of the drum is stretched taut, and the cords can be released or squeezed to lower or raise the pitch much like the African djembe drum.

It is very sensitive to ambient humidity and temperature, so the player usually fine-tunes it at the venue.

Interestingly, the drum heads need a certain degree of moisture to achieve the desired sound quality and so the player will apply pieces of paper moistened with his saliva to the skin of the drum head to add humidity.

Some of the Tsuzumi still in use today are centuries old, and a new instrument can take years to be properly broken in.

4. Biwa

The Biwa is a four-stringed Japanese lute with a short neck that was commonly used in Japanese court music in the seventh and eighth centuries.

later versions were played by the blind Japanese lute priests of the Heian period and it was also played as background music for story-telling

The bowl of the body is tear-shaped similar to the Western lute but there are more than seven variations of the instrument, and it is made of different kinds of wood, depending on the type of Biwa. 

The Biwa had almost fallen into disuse by the 1940s until Japanese musicians collaborated to revive it.

Japanese composers began to include it in their compositions in the 1960s, one notable example being Toru Takemitsu, who combined it with Western orchestral performances.

5. Koto

The Koto is a type of Japanese zither that is the national instrument of Japan.

Typically they have 13 strings – but you can get them with more too, and they were initially played in Japanese court music.

The Koto is about one-hundred and eighty centimeters long and is made of Paulownia wood.

It’s played by plucking the strings with the right hand using a plectrum or with three fingers wearing fingerpicks and is tuned by moving the position of the wooden bridge.

It has a number of notable players including Yatsuhashi Kengyo, who lived between 1614 to 1865, was a notable blind musician who created a new style of koto music.

You also have Michio Miyagi, another blind musician, and composer who was the first to combine koto music and western music and is responsible for keeping the instrument alive.

Later composers such as Kimio Eto, Tadao Sawai, and Kazue Sawai have ensured the visibility of the Koto in the modern world.

6. Kokyu

Next, we have the Kokyu which is the only Japanese stringed instrument played with a bow.

The standard version has three strings, and it closely resembles the Shamisen but is a bit smaller.

The Kokyu traditionally has an ebony neck with a body made of Styrax japonica or coconut wood. The body is then covered with snakeskin or cat skin stretched taut and the bow is strung with horsehair.

It was initially played in ensembles with the Shamisen and sou, but the Shakuhachi eventually took its role.

These days it is played as background music in folk songs and the performing arts.

7. Sanshin

Another Japanese stringed instrument, the Sanshin, closely resembles the Shamisen but is smaller and is the heart of Okinawan folk music.

It’s usually played with a cow horn or plastic plectrum on the index finger of the right hand, which plucks the strings.

The Sanshin has a snakeskin covering although in recent times faux snakeskin has been used in its construction because international wildlife protection treaties prohibit the export of snakeskin.

Genuine snakeskin can also tear and crack if the ambient humidity and temperature are too low, so synthetic skins have been developed.

It is played by people of all ages, even children, at festivals, parties, weddings, birthdays, and family gatherings.

The Sanshin is often a family heirloom passed down from one generation to the other and is regarded as a deity in the Ryukyuan culture.

8. Shinobue

The Shinobue is a type of flute made from bamboo with rattan bindings and is blown on the side like a western flute and has finger holes to make different notes.

There are twelve different kinds for playing in different keys with the lowest in the key of F, and the highest is in the key of E.

It has a high-pitched and haunting sound on which graceful trills and melodies are played and is an iconic sound of traditional Japanese music.

It is played in local instrumental ritual music at agricultural and religious festivals and in bon dance songs as well as to accompany singing in kabuki theatre.

9. Hichiriki

The Hichiriki is said to have been introduced to Japan from the Tang Dynasty of China in the early seventh century and was played in Japanese courtly dance and court music.

It is a type of double-reed wind instrument with a bamboo body and is around eighteen centimeters long.

It works like the western oboe and has seven finger holes on the front and two thumb holes at the back.

The player controls ornamentation and pitch using his embouchure.

Notable Japanese players include Hitomi Nakamura and Hideki Togi however, it has also been played by western musicians Joseph Celli, Thomas Piercy, Alan Hovhaness, and Richard Teitelbaum.

10. Hyoshigi

The Hyoshigi is a wooden percussion instrument consisting of two bamboo or hardwood sticks around twenty-five centimeters long, which a player holds in each hand.

The sticks are then clapped against each other to create a cracking sound and are often used to get the attention of the spectators at an event or performance

As such you’ll often see them used in music for ningyo joruri puppet shows, kabuki theater, and even sumo wrestling!

The instrument is also used to indicate the start and end of Japanese festivals and street performers called Kamishibaiya (performers of a type of street theatre that was popular in Japan before television) will use it to attract children to buy candy and entertain them with stories.

11. Sho

Made of several lengths of bamboo pipes, the Sho (a type of Japanese mouth organ) is a wind instrument thought to have been introduced to Japan between 710 and 794 AD.

Initially, it was used in Japanese court music, but it is still used in contemporary music today.

The seventeen bamboo pipes are clustered together in a base with a free metal reed called the shita. The pipes are tuned with resinous wax holding small lead shot.

Like a harmonica, sounds can be made by both exhalation and inhalation, which allows for extended uninterrupted play.

One notable player is Mayumi Miyata who uses specially constructed instruments that give a broader range in pitch.

John Cage, the famous twentieth-century American composer, wrote several pieces for Mayumi Miyata.

Also, Bjork used the Sho as a primary instrument to create the soundtrack for the film Drawing Restraint 9, which tells an unconventional Japanese love story.

12. Mokugyo

The Mokugyo – or “Fish Drum” is a wooden drum with a handle shaped like a stylized fish used as a rhythmic accompaniment for Taoist and Buddhist chants.

It is usually made of camphor wood which is hollow inside and is a type of slit drum.

Small ones are handheld, while large ones are placed on cushions on the floor and then they are struck with a stick with a cloth-wrapped end to create the sound.

Buddhists sometimes call it the “Wakeful Drum” because it is used to keep meditators from falling asleep.

The Mokugyo is used in Japanese kabuki and more recently has made an appearance in jazz and classical music.

13. Kagura Suzu

Kagura Suzu

The Kagura Suzu is a set of handbells that is used in kagura dance.

It consists of a handle to which up to fifteen crotal bells are attached in tiers of seven, five, and three with the standard number of bells being twelve.

When performing the kagura dance, the shrine maiden holds it in her right hand, shaking the bells over her head.

Shinto shrines sometimes have a larger version of the instrument suspended from a front rafter that can be rung by a worshipper using ribbons or a rope hanging from it.

The word Kagura means “god entertainment” and the instrument is of great antiquity.

14. Uchiwa Daiko

The Uchiwa Daiko is a simple drum that resembles a ping-pong bat.

It is sometimes called a fan drum (the word Uchiwa means fan, while a daiko, or taiko, is a drum).

The skin is usually made of cowhide which is stretched taut over the round part, and it has a wooden handle.

It is beaten with a stick and comes in various sizes ranging from twenty to forty-five centimeters in diameter.

The drum has been used in Nichiren Buddhism by monks while chanting and appears in kabuki theatre and folk performing arts.

15. Bonsho

Bonsho is a large bronze bell used in Buddhist temples to send signals, alarms and announce the time.

It varies in size between one and two meters and are typically decorated with inscriptions and raised patterns.

The Bonsho originated in China and plays a key role in Buddhist New Year ceremonies and Bon festivals.

They are struck on the outside with a beam suspended on a rope or with a handheld mallet.

Bonsho has a clean, clear tone that reverberates for up to ten seconds after being struck.

The decay phase of the sound lasts for around a minute, and numerous harmonic overtones are detectable while it is tolled.

The sound of the bell is low and sonorous and carries over as much as twenty miles!

16. Horagai

The Horagai is the classic conch shell trumpet that has been used in Japan for centuries.

It can produce between three and five different notes due to a wooden or bamboo mouthpiece attached to the shell’s apex.

Metal mouthpieces are sometimes used, but in freezing temperatures, these can stick to the lips.

Buddhist monks have used it for around a thousand years and yamabushi, Japanese warrior monks, used it to communicate with each other between the mountains and accompaniments to chanting.

17. Nohkan

And lastly, the Nohkan is another transverse flute traditionally made from smoked bamboo that is used in kyogen farce and Noh plays, festivals, kabuki theatre, and long songs (nagauta).

The sound it creates is high-pitched, and it is played either together with the tsuzumi, a hand drum, or solo.

Nohkan means Noh pipe, and in modern times, it has appeared in concerts and nontraditional ensembles such as orchestras and jazz groups.

Summary

As you can see from the list of Japanese instruments above, there are a wide variety of types of instruments with lots of them still in use today. S

Some of them have crept into western music genres like jazz and New Age music whereas others are kept for traditional purposes.

We hope you enjoyed learning about them and encourage you to check out more of the musicians that play these amazing instruments on YouTube!

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.