Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Japan Traditional Musical Instruments

Photo: Wolfgang Wiggers on Flickr

Japan Traditional Musical Instruments

Sanny Soedjatmiko Hartanto

Japanese calligraphy(書道), tea ceremony(茶道), flower arrangement (known as ikebana) are popular not only among Japanese but also among foreigners too. How about the Japanese musical instruments then? Do you know about Japanese instruments? If you have visited Japan before, or if you have seen a Kabuki show, maybe you have seen a few Japanese traditional instruments there. Let's learn more!



三(“san”) means three, and 線(“sen”) means strings in Japanese. So, shamisen literally means “three strings” in Japanese. This Japanese instrument consists of three strings plucked with a relatively big wooden plectrum called bachi in Japanese. This instrument is similar to the Chinese instrument sanxian. The shape of the shamisen looks like a guitar, because of its slim neck, and the body resembles a drum bounded with skin. It is also known that shamisen bounded with cat skin produces the best sound quality. The three strings are usually made of silk. There are many variations of shamisen depending on the size and the genre.

1. Hosozao, which is the smallest size of shamisen
2. Chuzao, which is a size up from the Hosozao
3. Futozao, which is the largest size of shamisen


Photo : Judy Merill-Smith on Flickr
This is a Japanese bamboo flute, which was traditionally used by Zen Buddhist monks as a spiritual tool. It has 4 holes on the front and one on the back, which resonated with feelings of solitude when played. You will see this instrument when you visit the Himeji Oshiro Festival. You will see some people play it there.


Photo : Wally Gobetz on Flickr
I love this instrument! It is the national instrument of Japan, which varies into two types, the 13 strings type and the 17 strings type. This instrument is similar to the Chinese Zheng, the Korean Gayageum, and the Mongolian Yatga. It is usually made from Kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa) and is about 180 centimeters long. So long!


Photo : Hajime NAKANO on Flickr
It is a jaw harp, which is made of bamboo, 10 centimeters long and 1.5 centimeters wide. It is known as a traditional Ainu instrument.



If you have visited to any festivals in Japan, maybe you have seen this instrument. It is a type of drum in Japan. This instrument is not only popular among Japanese, but it is also very popular among foreigners too.


Photo : antefixus U.E. on Flickr
If you have visited any Buddhist temple in Japan, you might have seen or heard this instrument there. It is a big shell similar to a trumpet. In the past, Japanese people used this instrument for some ceremonies or rituals. Not only that, but samurai also used this instrument for a signal during wars in the past.

At Last

Photo : Vinoth Chandar on Flickr
Those are the main traditional instruments in Japan. Don't you think it is cool? I have learned the shamisen and koto. Shamisen is easier to learn than the koto. For all of you who love Japan, I think it would be such an interesting experience to learn one of these traditional instruments in Japan!