The Koto

The koto is a unique Japanese musical instrument with an unforgettable sound that is instantly associated with traditional Japanese art and culture. It has a history in Japan of over 1200 years and is iconic in representing the nation’s traditional past.

It is no surprise that the Koto is Japan’s national musical instrument.

The instrument is made from kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa). It has 13 strings that are stretched over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. Players use three finger picks to pluck the strings can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges.

The instrument originated from the Chinese Guzheng but developed its own tradition in Japan since the 8th century. It was traditionally played as a form of entertainment in the imperial courts.

In the 16th century, Kenjun, a Buddhist priest from Northern Kyushu, began to compose for the instrument, calling the original style “Tsukushi” after the region where he lived.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685), a gifted blind musician from Kyoto, learned from Kenjun and transformed the limited repertoire by adding new techniques, making new tunings, and writing new compositions.

His most well-known composition, “Rokudan no Shirabe” (Study in Six Steps) remains as an often played classical koto piece even today. This piece is viewed by koto players as containing all of the basic techniques needed for koto playing.