Behind the Biwa; The Japanese Lute

Music has been a large part of human interest and activity, and this can be seen from past usage of instruments, dating as far back as 43,000 years ago. While the ancient ancestors of humans started off producing melodies using flutes, humans eventually discovered other instruments to create music, and these instruments (though somewhat similar sometimes) vary from country to country.

Notable ancient musical instruments include the lyre and harp, though these are both of Greek origin. Asia has its fair share of instruments that, when played, are automatically identified with the specific nation that they come from. For Japan, one of those musical instruments is the Biwa.

The Biwa; A Classic Japanese Musical Instrument

The biwa is the Japanese version of a lute. A lute a string instrument that is plucked to produce sound. Its neck can be both unfretted as well as fretted, leading to a signature head that bends backward. It's cavity or sound hole (in most lutes) dips deeply and is encased with a rounded back.

The box of the Japanese biwa specifically does not typically have a circular sound hole; they come in two separate crescent moon shaped holes nearer its distinct short neck. The material used to make it is usually a combination of hardwood and softwood. The fret count of the biwa is generally at four or five, and these frets consist of prominently protruding layered blocks of wood.

To play the biwa, you will need a plectrum – or in Japanese, “bachi”, which is a flat and flexible, triangular wedge that helps the player pluck the strings. Depending on the type of biwa you use, the subtleties in the design and material of the plectrum vary.

What the Biwa Is Used For

Back when it was popular, the biwa was one of the many instruments used to perform the oldest kind of classical music native to Japan called “Gagaku”; or court music. The music in a gagaku would often pertain or represent something mythological or religious nature, especially themes pertaining to Shintoism. It could also aid a storyteller in dramatization when he or she tells a narrative (mostly about battles, hardship, disasters)

The History of The Biwa

The roots of the biwa are directly linked to the pipa, a similar traditional instrument that hails from China. The biwa has been around since the 7th century and has had many different variations of styles for different purposes. The one that is most famous, and was the first of its kind to be originally derived from the pipa is known as the gaku-biwa, used specifically for previously mentioned gagaku.

Japan is made up of different regions. In the Kyushu region, a kind of biwa that was physically characterized as thinner and more portable than the usual gaku-biwa was crafted. It was named “moso-biwa”, or “kojin-biwa”, and was often played during religious and traditional observances. Simultaneously, the Ritsuryo was losing its stronghold on most of Japan, so those who specialized in playing court music ended up becoming Buddhists. They would come across the moso-biwa that would be played during ceremonies, and combined it with the gaku-biwa to create an entirely new biwa; the heike-biwa.

The Developing Biwa

The heike-biwa was mostly used when one would narrate The Tale of the Heike, an epic about battles between clans during the Genpei war. The aspects that the heike-biwa kept from the gaku-biwa were its shape, while the variable it borrowed from the moso-biwa was its small, size, as well as the kind of plectrum used to play it. It was most popularly used during the Kamakura period, which occurred from 1185 to 1333.

The moso-biwa would continue to evolve, with musicians and craftsmen making more variations such as the chikuzen-biwa and satsuma-biwa. The chikuzen-biwa was usually played by Buddhist monks during light exchanges such as singing and storytelling, but it was also used for formal occasions and sacred rites, such as memorial services. The satsuma-biwa catered more to the Satsuma Domain’s samurai, as it would be played for the samurai to practice discipline, and for cerebral exercise and clarity, perhaps before battle.

From the 1500’s onwards, variations of the biwa would continuously pop up, though not much was said about them in literature. Three specific styles/groups of playing emerged that combined vocals along with playing the instrument; “zato”, which is practiced by a group of biwa players (sometimes priests) who are visually impaired, “chofu”, which is more commonly and casually played, and “shifu”, which entails how samurais would perform and practice with a biwa.

The Biwa Throughout the Meiji and Taisho Period

The two kinds of biwa variations that ended up becoming mainstream were chikuzen-biwa and satsuma-biwa, while the instruments themselves received upgrades in construction, as well as the songs themselves. The chikuzen-biwa and satsuma-biwa were two ways of producing Japan’s traditional string instrument that would be enjoyed during the Meiji period. During this notorious period, however, it did go up against tough competition.

Because the Meiji period saw great changes from Japan’s step into the light of globalization and trade, much of Japan was fixated on products and cultures of foreigners at that point. Music from the biwa almost faded out completely from the music industry, if not for musicians (one of them being Tsuruta Kinshi) who went out of their way to keep the biwa culture alive by modernizing the use of the biwa. He did this by collaborating with composers from the West make songs that allow the biwa to have a modern twist.

During the Taisho period, a new form of biwa called the Nishiki biwa was played by Japanese women. They would still use the biwa to sing songs of war, especially with the Russo-Japanese battle going on at that time. Famous examples of these songs are “Takeo Hirose”, and “203 Hill”.

The Different Types of Biwa

So far, the number of biwa types that exist have reached seven. They are chronologically categorized as types under the labels of “classic biwa,” the “middle and Edo biwa”, and the “modern biwa”. Under the classic biwa, there’s gagaku-biwa, gogen-biwa, and moso-biwa. The middle and Edo biwa contain the heike-biwa, and satsuma-biwa, Lastly, for modern biwa, there’s the chikuzen-biwa, and nishiki-biwa.

The Use of the Traditional Japanese Biwa in Music Throughout Time

The Heian period was when the use of the biwa was at its peak. The wars that would come after would make great tales to tell with the biwa was an accompaniment. However, these events ultimately changed the way the biwa was perceived in popular culture, as it was replaced with other instruments, such as the shamisen, which is also a lute, but with three strings.

Only during the Edo period did the crowd’s interest pick up again, mainly because of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and ruler of the Tokugawa period enjoyed listening to the biwa so much that he supported and financed many endeavors related to the instrument. Once the Meiji period dawned, many of these players who received support from the old government no longer could hold the same status. Despite the Taisho period seeing a small rise in biwa use, the Showa period saw it whittle down the most, especially after the second world war, when musicians sought out jobs that would support them more.

Different streams of biwa would slowly die out year by year, with only Kindai biwa really practiced now. Those who used it to tell stories had died during the war, so it was hard to incorporate the practice of adding vocalization with it into modern culture. What did uplift biwa music was the effort to revitalize it yet again in the 60’s, which meant adding it (and other traditional instruments) to music theory and composition classes? One song named “November Steps”, composed by Toru Takemitsu combines both the biwa with western instruments and has given inspiration to many JPop and western bands.

Listen to Music Played from A Japanese Biwa

While most popular music today makes use of a bass, electric guitars, drums, etcetera, there are still bands that are open to using traditional instruments such as the biwa to give the song a more Japanese feel it or give it a unique musical element. There are those who do covers of popular songs on YouTube using traditional Japanese instruments. It is also used as an accompaniment for Japanese-themed movies. One movie whose score contained strings from a biwa is the film “Seppuku”, which was shot in 1962. Surely, it is also used to score background music for some Japanese television shows and anime.

The biwa is sometimes even borrowed by other cultures. One notable album is Silenziosa Luna, classified as contemporary classical music, produced by Yukio Kojima, but composed by Carlo Forlivesi, who is an Italian musician.

Buying A Traditional Music Instrument: Find A Japanese Biwa For Sale

An authentic biwa does not come cheaply; and sadly, it is extremely difficult to find a biwa that one can practice in the same way one can easily purchase a classical guitar set of drums. The price of an authentic biwa can be anywhere from $1,000 (if you’re lucky) to $12,000. If you have that kind of money to spend and still want one, there are several sites you may visit, Ebay, Taiko-shop, and Rakuten Global Market are a paradise for traditional music lovers.

Collecting Antique Japanese Biwa

Perhaps you could call it a hobby of the rich to collect traditional and authentic Japanese musical instruments, as it is extremely expensive to purchase an actual biwa. Knock-offs are almost impossible to acquire too. For those who don’t have the money to spend on a biwa, you may work your way upwards to that aspiration. You can start with albums that have tracks of biwa, and old documents pertaining to the instrument, though those may be just as hard to find. There’s also the option of attending biwa concerts, and accumulating pictures of them from museums and displays.

Other Definitions of Biwa

Aside from being a musical instrument, the word “biwa” can pertain to other things, such as biwa the town, biwa the trout, biwa the drink, and Biwa, the restaurant.

The Town of Biwa in Shiga Prefecture

With only around 7,599 people living in this quaint town (data from 2003), Biwa, or “Biwa-cho” was once also a quaint town found in the district of Higashiazai, in the Prefecture of Shiga. It is found right across a lake, which is also named Biwa. That lake so happens to have a kind of trout that can only be found in that lake, which is called the Biwa trout. Biwa town no longer exists under the same name anymore, as it has since merged with another town called “Azai” last February 2006 to join what is currently Nagahama city.

Drink Japanese Biwa Cha Made from the Loquat Fruit

The loquat is a yellow fruit that grows from a plant often used for decorative purposes. The taste of the loquat is sweet when it is ripe and has a flavor that can be compared to the combination of mango, peach, and an orange.  It is like the shape of the actual biwa (in fact, it is called “pipa” in Chinese sometimes, just like the pipa instrument), which may be why it is similarly named after the drink. The drink “biwa cha” is not made from the fruit, instead of from brewing its dried leaves. It has many beneficial properties, such as being anti-inflammatory, being very good for the skin, and easing bronchitis.

From Parasol Bar to Biwa Parasol: Portland’s Loved Japanese Restaurant

Portland has had a Japanese restaurant for a full decade that has captured many people’s hearts (and stomachs) with its appealing menu of curry rice, udon, ramen, and okonomiyaki. Once split in half by its owners, with a second half known as Parasol Bar, the owners have decided to go back to basics by unifying both outlets to just one restaurant named Biwa. You can also walk in for a good old parasol hamburger or wafu steak. They also serve great cocktails.