When taking in the majestic landscapes and sights of Japan, a person cannot help but imagine hearing a calming song or piece of music playing in the background. Japanese traditional music has always been associated with nature, given its use of mellow instruments.
Contrary to popular belief, the world of Japanese music exists beyond serenity and makes use of far more tools to produce diverse styles.
About Traditional Japanese Music
In general, traditional Japanese music refers to Japan’s folk music, which can be categorized to fall either in theatrical or court music:
Given that Japan has more than one form of theatrical drama, the country also has several kinds of music to complement all these plays. The main types of Japanese theatrical music are appropriately named after the kinds of performances they are used in and are referred to as noh and kabuki.
Noh, also known as nogaki, features an instrumental ensemble referred to as hayashi-kata. This ensemble performs alongside the yokyoku, which is responsible for creating vocal music. Some instruments used in noh music include stick drums, hourglass-shaped drums, and bamboo flutes.
Some of the highlights of kabuki theater include the singing, dancing, and elaborate makeup of its male cast. Initially, kabuki made use of the same instrumental ensemble used in noh theater but soon started including other kinds of instruments, particularly stringed ones.
At present, three different categories make up kabuki music:
Geza refers to the sound effects and music played by an ensemble situated on the right side of the stage/theater house and hidden behind the kuromisu, a black bamboo curtain. This type of kabuki music has three subcategories known as uta (features stringed instruments and vocals), aikata (features stringed instruments), and narimono (features several kinds of musical instruments).
The main acting and dancing performances of kabuki theater are accompanied by shosa-ongaku music, which is played by an ensemble right on the stage. Several music styles are included in this form of kabuki music such as kiyomoto, tokiwazu, nagauta, and takemoto.
The first three styles are used for the dancing portions of kabuki theater, while Takemoto is used for the acting performances. During the performance, the actors read/recite their lines to the beat of the takemoto music.
3. Ki and Tsuke
Distinct sounds known as ki and tsuke are done in kabuki theater using two square oak boards. The ki sound is produced when both oak boards are struck against each other, while the tsuke sound is produced when they are struck against a board made from hardwood.
Court music, or known as gagaku in Japan, is considered to be the country’s oldest form of traditional music. Dances, songs, and various Asian music are incorporated into gagaku, which mainly consists of two distinct styles known as kigaku (instrumental music) and seigaku (vocal music).
Gagaku literally means “elegant music” in English. This type of music was brought to Japan by China during the same time Buddhism was introduced. For centuries, it has been played at the Imperial Court and has been developed to form three main repertoires:
Kuniburi no utamai – which refers to folk songs and dance music associated with Shinto, the native religion of Japan
Komagaku – which refers to music that was developed during the Heian Period and is based on traditional Korean music
Togaku – which refers to an early form of music and dance based on the Tang Dynasty music from China
At present, court music remains alive in modern Japan either as kangen (concert music) or bugaku (dance music). Kangen features string, wind, and percussion instruments, while bugaku does not make use of any stringed instruments.
Japanese String Instruments – Biwa, Koto, and More
When a person is asked about Japanese or Asian music, stringed instruments are probably among the first thoughts that would pop into his head. Unsurprisingly, Japan has different kinds of strings, most of which date back centuries ago.
The biwa is a pear-shaped, short-necked, and fretted lute that is often used for telling stories, specifically narratives. In Shinto, the instrument is closely associated with Benten, the goddess of education, poetry, eloquence, and music.
The gottan, which is also known as hako, is a three-stringed instrument which makes use of solid Japanese cedar wood for all its parts. It is often used for folk songs with a cheerful and light repertoire.
The ichigenkin, or sumagoto, is a zither that features a single silk string stretched across its slender body made from kiri wood. The instrument is played using a tubular plectrum and ivory device which are respectively used by the right hand to pluck the string and by the left hand to depress the string.
The junanagen is a seventeen-stringed zither that was created by Michio Miyagi in 1921. It is also referred to as the bass koto, given its deep sounds.
The koto is considered to be Japan’s national instrument. Its origins can be traced back to the Chinese zheng instrument. It also shares similarities with the yatga of Mongolia, the gayageum of Korea, and the dan tranh of Vietnam.
It features thirteen strings which are strung over movable bridges, laid across the body of the instrument. Three finger picks placed on the middle finger, index finger, and thumb are required to play the koto.
The kugo, or referred to as konghou in China, is an angled harp that was primarily used for togaku music throughout the Nara Period. After the 10th century, the instrument was considered to have gone extinct but has recently been revived by Mamoru Fujieda, a Japanese composer.
The shamisen, which also goes by the names samisen and sangen, is a three-stringed instrument based on the sanxian of China. It comes in varied shapes and sizes, which depend on its purpose.
For kabuki music, shamisen instruments often feature a thin neck, while for folk songs and puppet theater, the shamisen is often built to have a thicker and longer neck. Its strings are plucked using a plectrum known as bachi.
The taishogoto is another zither that differs from the others in terms of its strings. Instead of using raw silk strings, this instrument features metal strings, as well as metal keys.
The tonkori is a plucked instrument that typically features five open strings which are neither fretted nor bridged. It served as one of the primary instruments of the Ainu people, who lived in Hokkaido and Sakhalin.
During the 1970s, the instrument was considered to have died out but, similar to the kugo, has been revived in recent years.
The yamatogoto, also known as azumagoto and wagon, is a zither that either comes with six or seven strings. According to historians, the yamatogoto separates itself from other Japanese zithers or strings by being a truly native one that is not based on any other Asian instrument.
It plays an important part in Japanese mythology, serving as the combined medium of the bows Ame no Uzume (the goddess of revelry, mirth, and dawn) used to coax Amaterasu (the goddess of the sun) out of hiding. At present, it is used for Shinto ceremonies and for playing gagaku music.
Bowed Instruments – The Japanese Kokyu vs The Chinese Erhu
When it comes to bowed instruments, there is some confusion with regards to the ones used in Japan and China, given that many of the former’s instruments were introduced by the latter.
Both countries actually have several bowed instruments, the most famous ones being the kokyu (for Japan) and the erhu (for China). The kokyu has Chinese origins but makes use of distinctly Japanese materials, sounds, and shapes.
One of the most obvious differences between the two bowed instruments is the number of strings they use. The kokyu features three, sometimes four, strings, while the erhu has two.
Furthermore, both instruments are played using a horse hair bow but do not make use of the same technique. For the kokyu, the bow is rubbed over and against the strings, while for the erhu, the bow passes through the strings and is never separated from them.
However, the terms kokyu and erhu are sometimes used to refer to various Asian bowed instruments. As such, a person may hear the word erhu in Japan or the word kokyu in China. Other terms used to refer to bowed instruments include huqin, leiqin, and zhuihu.
Japanese Percussion Instruments – Hyoshigi, Mokugyo, and More
A lot of traditional Japanese music relies on the use of percussions to define the correct rhythm, drama, and style. Similar to its stringed instruments, Japan also has a wide array of percussions that range from wooden to metal variants.
The hyoshigi consists of two bamboo or hardwood pieces that are typically connected to each other by a slender ornamental rope. These percussions serve as clappers and are played by striking both pieces together or against the floor.
They are often used in kabuki theater to point out that the performance is about to start. During the actual play, these instruments are also used to create different rhythms that imply stressful situations.
The mokugyo is a wooden instrument used by monks during rituals and ceremonies. It is often accompanied by the recitation of Buddhist mantras or sutras.
The shoko is a small gong made of bronze that is played using two horn beaters. The gong is held up by a vertical frame and comes in varied sizes. It is usually used in gagaku music but is also used in several Buddhist and Japanese folk songs. It is referred to as kane or sho for the latter forms of music.
The sasara is a clapper that consists of numerous wooden plates connected together by a cotton cord. There are handles on both ends to allow the player to move it in a wave-like manner. This percussion instrument is often used for kabuki music, folk songs, and rural dances.
The kokiriko is basically a pair of sticks that are struck together to create different beats and rhythms.
The kagura suzu, which literally translates to mean “divine entertainment bells” in English, is a three-tier percussion instrument that makes use of fifteen bells. The lowest tier features seven bells, the middle tier has five, while the highest tier has three. It is used in kagura, which is a Shinto ritual used to please and honor the gods.
The shakubyoshi features a pair of wooden slabs which are struck together to create a cracking sound. It is considered to be Japan’s oldest percussion instrument and was mainly used to keep track of the time and pace in gagaku music.
Taiko is a Japanese term used to refer to all kinds of drums. Its literal English translation is “great drum”. Some examples of taiko include the den-den daiko (a pellet drum), kakko (a small drum), otsuzumi (a hand drum), tsuzumi (a small hand drum), and san-no-tsuzumi (an hourglass-shaped drum).
Japanese Wind Instruments – Flutes, Horns, and More
Japan has a variety of wind instruments that come in the form of flutes, horns, and reeds. Japanese flutes serve as the traditional Japanese wind instruments and are referred to as fue. Other instruments are considered to be more modern developments.
Hocchiku – an end-blown bamboo fue often used for suizen, a form of meditation.
Nohkan – a high-pitched, transverse bamboo fue often used for noh music
Ryuteki – a transverse bamboo fue often used for gagaku music
Kagurabue – a transverse flute with either six or seven holes often used for kagura music and Shinto rituals
Komabue – a transverse bamboo fue often used for gagaku music
Shakuhachi – a transverse bamboo fue often used for suizen
Shinobue – a high-pitched transverse bamboo fue often used for noh and kabuki music
Tsuchibue – a globular, clay flue often used for folk songs and dances
Horagai – a conch shell which was often used for religious and military purposes
Hichiriki – a reed instrument often used for gagaku music
Sho – a free reed instrument which features seventeen bamboo pipes fitted into a metal base.
Finding Japanese Instrument Audio Samples or Instruments for Sale
With the increasing number of people getting interested in the traditions of Japan, be it music or any other medium, finding audio samples or actual instruments online is not a big problem.
Some sites where aspiring solo artists or multi-member bands can find more than ok Japanese instrument audio samples to incorporate into their music include:
Loop Masters (http://www.loopmasters.com/)
Sample Phonics (https://www.samplephonics.com/)
Looper Man (https://www.looperman.com/)
For those who want to purchase musical instruments, many online stores that specialize in Japanese products carry a wide array of string, wind, and percussion types. Some of the highly-recommended sites that ship internationally include:
Shimokura Music Global Site (http://www.shimokura-gakki.com/english/)
Rakuten Global Market (http://global.rakuten.com/en/)
Kotos and More (http://www.kotosandmore.com/)