Koto, or sō, is one of the most representative traditional Japanese instruments. However, many centuries ago, the word, koto, was used to describe all string instruments. Currently, there are two kanji characters – 琴 and 箏 – for koto, but originally, they were used to describe two different instruments.
The common koto (箏) was first imported into Japan from China during the Nara period (710 – 794) and was being played to perform gagaku – Japanese imperial court music. In the Heian period (794 – 1185), it was used to accompany songs. The earliest examples of kumiuta – the oldest genre of Japanese song music – were composed during the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333).
Tsukushi school of koto music was founded by Kenjun – an influential koto master who studied both gagaku and koto music of the Kyūshū area – during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 – 1600). During the Edo period (1603 – 1867), Yatsuhashi Kengy? compiled kumiuta as well as dan music and built the foundation of classical koto music. Yatsuhashi’s achievements were further developed and followed by many other blind musicians. Ikuta Kengyō broadened koto techniques and started to pair koto with shamisen. Yamada Kengyō incorporated elements of jōruri (Japanese ballad music), which had been popular in Tokyo at the time, and founded his own school of koto music that focuses on singing.
During the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), a new genre of music that were influenced by western music flourished in Japan. This genre is called gendai hōgaku (modern music for traditional instruments) and was pioneered by Michio Miyagi and Kin’ichi Nakanoshima. In addition to the traditional 13-string koto, 17-string (also known as bass koto), 20-string, 25-string and 30-string kotos have been developed since then and expanding the repertoire. During the development of koto music for many centuries, a vast repertoire ranging from various styles of classical music to innovative contemporary music was created.
Koto’s body has been made of paulownia wood for many centuries because the material is very light, moisture-proof and highly resonant. Thirteen strings are strung to the body, and the pitch of each string can be adjusted using a moveable bridge called koto-ji. Strings are plucked with picks that are attached to the right thumb, index and middle fingers. The shape of the koto is often compared to a dragon, and each part has a name that corresponds to the imaginary animal’s body. The strings were originally made of silk, but currently, tetron (a type of nylon) strings are commonly used. Since the sound of silk strings is very warm, those that are extremely durable are currently being developed.
Written by Yoko Reikano Kimura / Translated by Hikaru Tamaki