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How the Koto Became Popular

Sachiko Hosoyamada discusses the historical popularity of this instrument.

The koto is the national instrument of pre-westernized Japan. Originally it was a Korean harp called the kudara-goto. It was brought to Japan in the middle of the fifth century.

Sachiko Hosoyamada plays the koto.
Photo: Thomas Peters
Sachiko Hosoyamada plays the koto.

This instrument is somewhat like a horizontal harp; it's about 185 centimeters long and 26 centimeters wide.

The body is made from a special wood called kiri, or paulownia. It has thirteen waxed silk strings of equal length, and each string rests on a movable bridge.

The strings of the koto are generally plucked with a small ivory piece—the plectra, which is fastened to the fingers of the right hand. Each string is tuned by its own movable bridge and forms a pentatonic scale. While the right hand plucks the strings, the left hand presses the strings behind the bridge to change the tone.

High school girls who play the koto.
Photo: Thomas Peters
These girls wear traditional Japanese clothing when they play the koto in their high school club.

Noble men played this instrument
It used to be popular among noblemen in the old capitals of Japan—Nara and Kyoto. Those noblemen later fled to the provinces to escape the battlefields.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685) established the basics of modern koto music. He composed "Rokudan no shirabe", the most famous piece for the koto.

Ikuta Kengyko (1635-1715) devised squared picks and established his style, which spread through western Japan.

About 100 years later, people used round picks to play this instrument. This style, called the Yamada style, spread throughout eastern Japan. In the Meiji era (1868-1912), many blind people played the koto as their job.

Much later, Michio Miyagi adapted Western music and developed koto music in the Taisho era (1913-1926). Nowadays people play the koto with orchestras, and it is a favorite pastime, especially among Japanese women.


More traditional Japanese arts:
Chado, the Way of Tea | Ikebana, Japanese Flower Arranging | Hyaku-Nin-Isshu, a Card Game | Kyudo, The Way of the Bow | The Challenge of Kendo | Koto, a Traditional Musical Instrument

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