The koto is one of the most popular Japanese musical instruments and today it has come to represent a significant element of Japan’s traditional past. It is often performed together with other instruments such as the shakuhachi (flute) and shamisen (stringinstrument) at Shinto festivals held at larger shrines and performances which feature so-called Imperial Court culture.
Many high schools and universities in Japan in fact have a traditional music club featuring the koto and some even have clubs solely devoted to mastering the instrument. It was when I myself was visiting one of Tokyo’s universities that I first heard a koto being played live. The beauty of koto is that it has evolved with its time and during performances, such as the one by the universitystudents in Tokyo, both traditional and popular modern music pieces are being played. My own personal modern favorite is the three players’ koto-version of Frozen’s “Let it go”, which I have been told is a complicated piece to play, by Okimasa. The beauty of koto can be experienced throughout Japan and as it offers many different styles each performance tends to bring something unique to enjoy.
The koto evolved from the Chinese imported 5-7 string zheng around the 7th century. The koto was a popular instrument amongst the Japanese nobility and one can find the instrument in much of the poetry and novels of this era. In “The Tale of Genji” the hero for example hears a koto played in the distance and feels compelled to follow the sound.
Consisting of a wooden body of around 160 to 200 cm long and about 20 cm wide, the koto is an instrument with a strong presence on the stage. Between the 12-13 strings and the wooden body are a set of moveable ivory bridges, or Ji, which are placed to alter the koto’s sound to a certain play. The koto player sits behind the instrument in seiza, the traditional Japanese seating on one’s legs, with the head of the koto to one’s right. To prevent uncomfort and wounds the player wears picks, or tsume, on the top of the forefinger, middle finger and thumb of the right hand. The instrument is solely played with this hand while the left hand is used to push down strings to again alter their sounds. Interestingly, the koto was often played by blind players in early times and plays did not usually have music scores but were played solely by memory and passed down from teachers to apprentices.
To this day the beauty of koto can be experienced throughout Japan and as it offers many different styles each performance tends to bring something unique to enjoy.