Type: Lute > Chordophones.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Region: Far East Asia.
Description: The biwa [in Japanese Kanji; 琵琶 biwa] is a Japanese short-necked fretted lute, traditionally played in narrative storytelling. The biwa is the chosen instrument of Benten, the goddess of music, eloquence, poetry, and education in Japanese Shinto.
Origins: The biwa [琵琶] The biwa came to Japan in the 7th century and it was evolved from the Chinese instrument pipa, while the pipa itself was derived from similar instruments in Western Asia. This type of biwa is called the gaku-biwa and was used in gagaku ensembles and is the most commonly known type. While the route is unclear, another type of biwa found its way to the Kyushu region, and this thin biwa called mōsō-biwa or kōjin-biwa was used in ceremonies and religious rites.
History: Before long, as the Ritsuryō state collapsed, the court music musicians were faced with the reconstruction and sought asylum in Buddhist temples. There they assumed the role of Buddhist monks and encountered the mōsō-biwa. They incorporated the convenient aspects of mōsō-biwa, its small size and portability, into their large and heavy gaku-biwa, and created the heike-biwa, which, as indicated by its namesake, was used primarily for recitations of The Tale of the Heike. Through the next several centuries, players of both traditions intersected frequently and developed new music styles and new instruments. By the Kamakura period [1185–1333], the heike-biwa had emerged as a popular instrument. The heike-biwa could be described as a cross between both the gaku biwa and mōsō-biwa. It retained the rounded shape of the gaku-biwa and was played with a large plectrum like the mōsō-biwa.
Not much seems to have been written about biwas from roughly the 16th century to the mid-19th century. What is known is that three main streams of biwa emerged during that time: zato [the lowest level of the state-controlled guild of blind biwa players], shifu samurai style, and chofu [urban style]. These styles emphasized 琵琶歌 [biwa-uta]—vocalization with biwa accompaniment—and formed the foundation for 江戸歌 [edo-uta] styles such as shinnai and kota [Allan Marett 103]. From these styles also emerged the two principal survivors of the biwa tradition: satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa [Waterhouse 156].
From roughly the Meiji Era [1868–1912] until the Pacific War, the satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa were popular across Japan and, at the beginning of the Showa Era [1925–1989], the nishiki-biwa was created and gained popularity. Of the remaining biwa traditions, only higo-biwa remains a style almost solely performed by blind persons in the post-war era. The higo-biwa is closely related to the heike-biwa and, similarly, relies on an oral-narrative tradition focusing on wars and legends.
Varieties: There are more than seven types of biwa, characterized by number of strings, sounds it could produce, type of plectrum, and their use. As the biwa does not play in tempered tuning, pitches are approximated to the nearest note.
The heike biwa was also small, like the mōsō-biwa a type of biwa of smaller size, and was used for similar purposes. While the modern satsuma-biwa and chikuzen-biwa both find their origin with the mōsō-biwa, the Satsuma biwa was used for moral and mental training by samurai of the Satsuma Domain during the Warring States period, and later in general performances. The Chikuzen biwa was used by Buddhist monks visiting private residences to perform memorial services, not only for Buddhist rites, but also for telling entertaining stories and news while accompanying themselves on the biwa, and this form of storytelling was thought to be spread in this way.
Citations: Bibliography: Websites: G. Yoshimura – Biwa Tokhon, Book of Biwa [Tokyo 1933] Nihon Biwagaku Kyokai [Japanese Biwa Music Society] Nihon Biwagaki Taiki – a systematic study of Japanese Biwa, SLJM 1031-7 [Disc notes in Japanese & English] ; S. Fujii – Heikyoku Heike music, Nagoya, 1966 ; K. Hayashi and others: Shosoin no gakki – musical instruments from the Shoshoin treasury Tokyo 1967 with English summery ; K. Tsuruta and O. Yamagucha: A blooklet of Satsuma Biwa [Tokyo 1973] ;