The Koto

The Koto (箏 or 琴) is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from Chinese Gugins. Koto are about 180 cm long and have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the length of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, forefinger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.

The character for Koto is also read as sō in certain contexts. Though often called by a number of other names, these terms almost always refer to similar, but different instruments, such as the Chinese guzheng (箏) or gin (琴, called kin in Japanese).

History of the Koto

The Koto was introduced to Japan in the 7th to 8th century from China, and largely derived from the Chinese hi. It was initially played only in the royal court, but this situation changed in the 17th century — primarily because of the influence of Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1684). Though the Koto, like many Japanese instruments derived from Chinese ones, has likely not changed much over the centuries, the guzheng has, and thus it is no longer valid to call them the same instrument.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo was a blind shamisen player who learned Koto from an “official” court player named Hosui, in defiance of the rules which then stated that Koto could not be taught to blind people (or women, incidentally). Possibly because of his personal experience with these restrictions, Yatsuhashi spent the rest of his life making the Koto more accessible.

He invented a new “plain tuning” (平調子hira choushi) to play the common peoples’ songs more naturally. He composed (or is credited with composing) songs that are still irreplaceable staples of the Koto repertoire today, including Rokudan and Midare. (These compositions were partly responsible for the Koto becoming respected as a solo instrument in its own right.) Perhaps most importantly, his example led other non-elite, including women, to learn the Koto too.

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Takako Nishibori