The Japanese Koto

Geisha once played Japanese koto, kneeling over the wood and strings and plucking alone or with other players. What is the appeal of this traditional instrument?

Looking like nothing more than a huge wooden zither, the koto is a Japanese musical instrument that requires years of study to master and someone big to carry it! Its unmistakable tones are often heard alone but also with other traditional instruments such as the shamisen (guitar), shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and the taiko (drum). Previously played by Geisha and women of the Samurai class, it was also used as an accompanying instrument to traditional Japanese theatre. The koto has withstood the test of time through school lessons and these theatrical performances but is really only commonly heard at New Year. Modern Japan makes way for the modern instruments of popular music and orchestras.

The history of the koto

Like many aspects of Japanese culture, the koto originated in China. The original koto was played in China in the 5th to 3rd centuries BC and only had 5 strings. The string count increased to 12 and then to 13 to give greater flexibility of sounds and it was this 13-string version that was first transported to Japan during the 6th century AD.

In Japan, the koto came to be heard most often in conjunction with the shamisen and the shakuhachi but, from being a group instrument, it became appreciated for its own qualities and played as a solo instrument as well. Very little changed about the koto or its playing until the early 20th century when a blind artist, Michiyo Miyagi, who had studied in Korea, incorporated other Asian and Western musical ideas into koto music. He experimented with rhythm, other instruments, meter and voice to produce a whole new element within Japanese music which he passed on to his students at the Tokyo Academy of Music.

The instrument

The koto is around 2 metres long and about 20 centimetres across. The 13 strings are actually only two lengths of string, threaded backwards and forwards through the holes at each end of the instrument. One length creates 6 strings and another creates the remaining 7. Leftover lengths are not cut, but rather coiled neatly away at one end in case spare string is needed. The result, stretched across the curved face, was originally made from silk but is now made from nylon. Some old or expensive kotos are decorated with mother-of-pearl, gold leaf and carvings.

When playing the koto, the thicker end rests on the floor in front of the musician while the thinner end is placed on a block or pillow. The musician wears traditional kimono and kneels on tatami mats in front of the instrument when playing. In more recent times, the instrument is sometimes placed on a stand while the musician sits on a chair.

Because of its shape and size, the parts of the koto were originally named after parts of a dragon. The "˜ryuko' or "˜dragon's back' was the wooden body of the instrument. The "˜ryubi' or "˜dragon's tail' was the space at the end for the leftover string when the instrument had been threaded. The "˜tsume' or claws were worn on the index finger, middle finger and thumb of the right hand to pluck the strings while the bridges or supports were run up and down strings with the left hand to vary the tone. The "picks" or "tsume" were made from ivory. The bridges were notched at the top to hold the strings Both the playing technique and the names for the parts of the koto continue to be used.

Here and now

Playing the koto is an art that requires many years of study. Few people today can really claim to be masters of the art. Most cultural centres around Japan do demonstrations of koto playing and some also have classes where you can learn to play yourself. If you are ready to try something completely different, enrol and give it a go!

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