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About Japanese Traditional Musical Instruments

On most of these webpages are included some short music ' wav ' files of some traditonal japanese musical instruments.   

Starting on the ' MAIN ' page, is a sample of TAIKO drums .

On the ' Shihan Shigeru Ishino BIO ' & the ' DOJO LOCATION ' pages are samples of the SHAKUHACHI , the japanese bamboo flute.

On the ' Shinan Masayoshi Kori Hisataka BIO ' pages is a sample of the KOTO , a japanese zither.

On the ' DOJO MEMBERS ' pages is a sample of the SHAMISEN , a japanese lute.

On the ' DOJO EVENTS ' page is a musical sample of the KOTO , playing ' Sakura ' (Cherry Blossoms). One of Japan's most popular tunes, the welcome beauty (and warmth) of Springtime, symbolized by the beloved cherry tree in bloom.

koto kanji
The ' KOTO ' is one of the oldest Japanese instruments, brought to Japan from China in the 7th or 8th century when Japanese scholars were sent to China to learn about their cultural and political system. One of the musical instruments borrowed from China was the Cheng, Chinese word for Koto.

Originally, the koto was played by blind court musicians as part of a chamber ensemble.
In the Edo Period(1603-1867), performance was regarded as one of accomplishments of woman, and many of daughters of decent families practiced koto from a young age.
During the same period, YATSUHASHI-KENGYO (1614-1685), one of the blind KOTO masters, transforming the koto into a solo instrument. Thus he has been known as the father of modern KOTO music. He made many compositions for KOTO music, and many of them are played even now.

In 20th century, Michio Miyagi (1894-1956), also a blind koto /i>player, introduced styles of western music into koto composition.
Around 1920, he introduced the 17- string bass koto . This instrument was originally used for accompaniment, but today there are many solo pieces for the 17-string koto particularly in the Sawai school which is an offshoot of the Miyagi School.
His world-famous composition named Haru-no-umi, " The Spring Sea ", was originally composed for KOTO and SHAKUHACHI, the bamboo flute.

There are two main schools of koto music, Yamada
, originally popular in the Kanto plain around Tokyo, and Ikuta , more popular in Kansai, the area around Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya.
Although originally, there was differences in the length of the koto , now both schools use the same kind of instrument. The main differnences today are in the shape of pick, and thus the technique.

In the Yamada style, the tips of the picks are used, the player's knees rest evenly against the koto. In the Ikuta style, the left edge of the thumb's pick and the right edges of the finger picks are used, so the optimum sound can be achieved by sitting at a 45 degree angle to the left.

The Sawai school belongs to the Ikuta tradition and often uses a stand for the instrument rather than kneeling. There are also differences in notation and repertoire between the Yamada and Ikuta schools, but in both cases, string numbers are used rather than pitches. The Yamada is said to be the more classical tradition.

The koto is roughly two metres long and usually has 13 strings arched over independently movable bridges which sit on a hollow body of paulownia wood. These days, synthetic fibre such as tetron is used for strings, as silk strings are expensive, and cannot be stretched as tightly.
The strings are struck with ivory or plastic picks attached to the thumb, index finger and middle finger of the right hand with leather bands. The thickness of all the strings is the same.

The koto, is said to resemble a dragon and even today, the koto's body parts are still referred to as dragon-head, dragon-back, dragon-legs, etc. Two sounding holes are cut out of the backboard.

Shakuhachi ink
The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute. The name shakuhachi is derived from " ishaku hassun " which means one "shaku" and eight " sun "(1.8 Japanese feet). Although shakuhachi refers to the standard size instrument and its actual length (54.5 cm or 21-1/4 inches), it is also used in the generic sense to refer to many different sizes ranging from 1.3 shaku (39.4 cm) to 2.5 shaku (75.7 cm) and longer.

The shakuhachi is made from the root portion of a thick-walled bamboo called madake in Japanese (scientific name, Phyllostachys bambusoides). The bamboo is cut below ground level and the roots form a natural bell for the instrument. If the roots are damaged, they may be shaved off, but the general practice is to leave the small root protrusions intact. For a number of reason modern shakuhachi are usually made so that they can be taken apart at the center: first, to construct a flute of the proper length with the right placement of holes in relation to joints, a portion is usually cut from the center of the bamboo, and second, it is easier to work on the bamboo when it is only half the total length.

Construction of the shakuhachi is an exacting process requiring many steps. The bamboo is cut, the oils are removed, and it is aged from six months to two years, or sometimes longer. Often the natural curve of the bamboo requires alteration. The internal nodes must be hollowed out using special chisels and files. Gauges are used to achieve the interior diameter required for correct pitch and sound. Even though the exterior diameter may vary considerably, the interior is accurately constructed and generally tapers slightly inward toward the base. Of course, proper placement of the holes is a very important step, and the application of special lacquer to the interior requires considerable skill.

The most important part of the shakuhachi -- the sharp blowing edge-- is cut obliquely and has an inset of water buffalo horn, ivory, or (more recently) black acrylic plastic. The air stream is focused-- split-- over this sharp edge, setting up vibrations in the air, causing the sound.

Although the standard shakuhachi is five holes, four in front and one in back, there are also seven- and nine- holed flutes. Starting with all fingers closed, the standard shakuhachi produces the pitches D F G A C. However, on many flutes, especially older ones, the tuning may not correspond to Western pitches. Three full octaves are possible on the shakuhachi , although generally only a little more than two octaves are used.

Because of the individual characteristics of each bamboo, no two flutes are alike and an element of chance enters into the construction of an excellent shakuhachi. This element, and the high degree of skill and experience necessary to construct a flute are two reasons for the high cost of a good shakuhachi. The shakuhachi is simple looking but very expressive, being capable of a truly remarkable range of pitch, tone color, and dynamics.

According to some legends, the shakuhachi was brought from China to Japan more than a thousand years ago by a Zen priest. During the Edo Period (1615-1868) the shakuhachi was played by wandering priests called ' komuso '--' priests of emptiness and nothingness '. The komuso used the shakuhachi as a way of ' blowing Zen '.

Today, performances of traditional music are common and new pieces are being written for shakuhachi solo and ensemble, and for shakuhachi in combination with other Japanese and/or other instruments from around the world.

This information about the shakuhachi was obtained from John Kaizan Neptune's web site.

Takezawa Danroku
The shamisen or sangen is a three-stringed banjo-like lute. The instrument is made of four boards of Chinese quince or oak, through which a stick made of red sandalwood or Indian redwood is inserted. The skin covering both sides of the body is usually cat skin, but dog skin is used as well. Three strings of different thicknesses are strung between pegs and the lower end of the stick at the center of the lower board of the body. The strings are plucked and struck by a plectrum, generally made of ivory or tortoise shell, in the shape of a Ginko tree leaf. There is both an upper and lower bridge. When the lowest string is struck, because it does not rest on the upper bridge, in addition to the tone one hears a trailing sound caused by the other vibrating strings. The sounds produced by the right hand plectrum together with left hand techniques of plucking, stopping and sliding give a wide variety of timbre to the shamisen.

The body (do) of the shamisen is placed on the player's lap with his left hand holding the neck at a certain height and pressing designated places along the throat (sao)to produce the desired tones. A shamisen player's middle and index fingers often become grooved where they press down on the strings. This has a name, the ' itomichi ',or ' string path '.

Pictured at right is Takezawa Danroku, who was designated as a living national treasure in l996 He heads the troupe of shamisen players.

This information about the Shamisen was obtained from The Shamisen page.

Taiko 2

Taiko 4
Taiko is a drumming style of Japanese origin. While various taiko drums have been used in Japan for over 1400 years, and possibly much longer, the style of taiko best known today has a relatively short history, beginning in the 1950's. Taiko refers to both the modern art of taiko drumming (kumi-daiko), and to the taiko drums themselves.

Literally, taiko means "fat drum," although there is a vast array of shapes and sizes of taiko.

People are sometimes confused by the frequent usage of the word ' daiko ', which is a suffix used to indicate a type of drum, a taiko group, or a style of taiko playing, in a compound word. When used in a compound word, the "T" sound in taiko changes to a ' D ' sound. Thus, a taiko group from Edo would be called ' Edo-daiko ', for example.

Japanese taiko as we know them today bear strong resemblance to Chinese and Korean instruments, which were probably introduced in the waves of Korean and Chinese cultural influence from 300-900 AD. It has been speculated that the predecessor of the tsuzumi style of taiko may come from as far as India, and came to Japan along with Buddhism.

However, the waves of cultural influence stopped for the most at around the year 900, and development from that point can basically be attributed to native Japanese craftsmen. Taiko, although continuing to bear similarities to Chinese and Korean drums, have evolved into unique Japanese instruments.

Reputedly, one of the first uses of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy - a use to which drums have been put in many cultures. Taiko were definitely used in battle to issue commands and coordinate movements by the 1500's; the taiko being the only instrument that could be heard across the entire battlefield. According to picture scrolls and painted screens of the time, one soldier would carry the taiko lashed to a backpack-like frame, while two other soldiers would beat the taiko, on each side. Both ' nagado ' and ' okedo ' style taiko were used in this capacity. A war taiko used by Shingen Takeda, a famous warlord of that era, still exists and is preserved by Osuwa-daiko. It is remarkable for the three large holes cut in the side of the nagado style taiko. This served to increase the volume of the drum, useful in battle.

In addition to the martial aspect, taiko have always been used in the most refined cultural settings as well. Gagaku music was introduced to Japan in the Nara periord (697-794) along with Buddhism, and was quickly adopted as the imperial court music. Gagaku is the oldest continually played court music in the world, and it is still being performed. The taiko used for Gagaku (kakko, san-no-tsuzumi, dadaiko, tsuri-daiko, ninai-daiko, ikko, furitsuzumi, kaiko) are some of the most elegant and beautifully decorated of all Japanese instruments.

The rumbling power of the taiko has also been long been associated with the gods, and has been appropriated by the religions of Japan. According to Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa-daiko, about four thousand years ago, in the Jomon period , taiko was used for to signal various activities in the village. Simple taiko beats would be used to signal that the hunters were setting out, or to signal that a storm was coming and that the women needed to bring in the meat and fruits they had drying. While there is no direct physical evidence to support this claim, Megumi Ochi, curator of the Taiko Kan Museum, believes this to be true since other cultures exhibit the same behavior. Because these signals were so important to the flow of daily life, the people were very thankful of the taiko, and began to believe that the taiko was inhabited by a god.

As this belief developed, only the holy men were allowed to beat the taiko, and as the Shinto and Buddhist religions developed in Japan, this custom remained. Thus the only instruments to be found in Shrines and Temples were taiko. One consequence of this association of taiko with religion was that taiko were played only on special occasions, and only by men who were granted special permission by the priests. All through this time, taiko were played singly, or in certain instances in pairs. Taiko ensembles were only developed much later.

Taiko has continued to find a place in religious ceremonies, both Buddhist and Shinto, and it is extremely common to find taiko in both temples and shrines. In fact, the Nichiren sect is credited with created the uchiwa style taiko, who used it as an aid in chanting. Some Buddhist sects use taiko to represent the voice of Buddhah, and Bon dancing in summer is centered around Buddhist rites. It was used in village Shinto rites to offer up prayers to the Gods. In addition, the village festivals were celebrated with the sound of drumming. These festivals developed a rich body of traditional taiko rhythms which are a now a never ending source of inspiration to modern players.

Modern Taiko as it is performed today, as an ensemble (kumi-daiko), is a post war phenomenon which was born in Showa 26 (1951). Daihachi Oguchi, who created the kumi-daiko style, is given much of the credit for the current taiko boom. Oguchi was a jazz drummer, who happened upon a old piece of taiko music. Deciding to perform the old music for the Osuwa shrine, Oguchi "jazzed it up" as he arranged it. Coming from a jazz background, he wondered why taiko were never played together, and broke with tradition by assembling a taiko drum ensemble.

By taking taiko of various sizes, Oguchi assembled a variety of musical voices which he quickly assigned roles in his arrangements. The high pitched shime-daiko carried the ji (backing rhythm). The Odaiko played a simple rhythm that firmly grounded the pulse. A variety of nagado-daiko each had propulsive riffs that pushed the music along. Topping this off was the metallic sound of the tetsu-zutsu (often called a canon in English), a bell like instrument consisting of three pieces of pipe of differing diameters welded together. Since many of his performers were not professional musicians, he also divided the rhythms into easier to play parts. In addition, each performer played on several taiko, set up in the fashion of a jazz drumset. Oguchi went on to lead the influential Osuwa Daiko, and spread his exciting taiko style throughout Japan, and then throughout the world.

Another taiko pioneer was Sukeroku Daiko, whose playing style was based on Edo-bayshi rhythms. In 1959, a group called Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko was founded under the auspices of the Yushima Tenjin shrine. The four founding members were Yoshihisa Ishikura , Yutaka Ishizuka (who received the stage name Saburo Mochizuki), Seido Kobayashi, and Motoei Onozato (who received the stage name Kiyonari Tosha). Sukeroku Daiko created a dynamic performing style emphasizing speed, fluidity and power that is highly emulated. They also brought a strong sense of choreography and flashy solos to the growing taiko movement. A scism eventually sent the founder their separate ways. At some point, a schism split the group up. Imaizumi-sensei maintained the Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko group and is still active. Seido Kobayashi went on to found Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, which is credited with being the first professional taiko group

Taiko got a boost in the 1970's when the Japanese Government authorized funds to help preserve the intangible cultural assets that were slowly vanishing in the post-war era. Many local communities used some of the monies they received to start community taiko groups. Some of these groups used the local taiko rhythms used in festivals, others went to well known groups and had music written for them. The end result is that it is estimated that there are over 4,000 taiko groups in Japan. Some are local hozonkai (preservation societies) that just drum for the local festivals, but a hand full of others have gone on to international acclaim.

As Japanese immigrated to North America in the early part of the 1900's, they brought taiko over with them as well. Taiko in North America previous to 1968 were primarily used as Miya-daiko (temple drums) and in various dojo (kendo, judo, karate). Also Japanese immigration brought variations of minyo-daiko (folk taiko) - specifically Fukushima Ondo (Som-a Bon Uta) groups - to accompany other art forms. Taiko drumming for Bon Odori was established in Hawaii as early as 1910, and the Kanazawa Kenjinkai brought taiko to San Francisco as early as the 1930's. So the tradition use of taiko drums was well established in Japanese-American communities in North America until World War II. The war, and the subsequent incarceration of hundreds of thousand so Japanese and Japanese-Americans as "enemy aliens" brought Japanese culture in the US to a abrupt halt. Once the war was over, many Japanese tried very hard to assimilate into US culture, and many of the following generation lost much of the language and culture. but the it wasn't until 1968 that Seiichi Tanaka brought the exciting kumi-daiko style to the States.

In 1968, Seiichi Tanaka formed the first North American taiko group, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka eventually went on to form the "Tanaka style" which is a synthesis of Oedo Sukeroku, Osuwa Daiko and Gojinjyo-daiko styles. He and his group went on to inspire many, if not most, of the taiko groups throughout American and Canada. The vast majority of taiko groups in North America owe a huge stylistic debt to Oedo Sukeroku as interpreted by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Kinnara Taiko of Los Angeles was founded the following year, in 1969, creating a uniquely American hybrid - Japanese American Buddhist taiko. San Jose Taiko followed in 1973, focusing on making taiko a Japanese American art form. San Francisco Taiko Dojo and San Jose Taiko have gone on to turn professional, and both groups have returned the favor by touring Japan.

The drummers are exciting, dramatic, and skilled in their performances. The drumming is a blend traditional and contemporary styles in an effort to demonstrate true Taiko in a fashion that will captivate and entertain modern audiences. The drums themselves are as visually attractive as they are beautiful to hear.

This information about the history of Taiko was obtained from The Rolling Thunder Taiko Resource web site.

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