Type: Zither > Chordophone.
Region: Far East Asia.
Description: The koto [in Japanese Kanji: 箏] is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from the Chinese zheng, and similar to the Mongolian yatga, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. The koto is the national instrument of Japan.
Origins: According to Japanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance. In one part of “The Tales of Genji [Genji monogatari]”, Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing the koto from a distance.
Alternate names for Koto: The character for koto is 箏, although 琴 is often used. However, 琴 usually refers to another instrument, the kin [琴の琴; kin no koto]. 箏, in certain contexts, is also read as sō [箏の琴; sō no koto]. However, many times the character 箏 is used in titles, while 琴 is used in telling the number of koto used.
History: The Koto was first introduced to Japan from China during the 7th to 8th centuries. The first known version of the koto had five strings, which eventually increased to seven strings. It had twelve strings when it was introduced to Japan in the early Nara Period (710–784) and increased to thirteen strings.
Development: The modern koto originates from the gakusō used in Japanese court music. It was a popular instrument among the wealthy; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one. Some literary and historical records indicate that solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sōkyoku, the music of the solo koto genre, was established.
There are a number of schools of koto in Japan each with their own individual methods of playing, string types, shapes of picks, etc. Perhaps the most exciting is the Sawai style founded by Tadao Sawai and now led by his wife Kazue Sawai. The Sawai style takes the koto out of the quiet sedate world of Japanese traditional music and flings it well into the contemporary world.
Playing Techniques: Traditionally, the koto was played seated on the floor with the end of the koto either resting in the players lap or on a small stand in front of them. It is played with three ivory picks placed on the right thumb and the first two fingers.
Construction: Koto are about 180 cm [71 in] length, and made from kiri wood [Paulownia tomentosa]. They have 13 strings that are usually strung over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. There is also a 17-string variant.
Citations: Bibliography: Edmonds, Richard Louis et al. “Japan”. Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. July 30, 2008.
Johnson, H. 2004 ; The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei. Malm, W. P. 2000 ; Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. [Rev. ed.]. New York, NY: Kodansha International ; Sachs, Curt. 1940 ; Johnson, Henry (1996). “”A Koto” by Any Other name: Exploring Japanese Systems of Musical Instrument Classification”. Asian Music. 49: 38–64. Deal, William E. 2006. Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 266–267. ISBN 0-8160-5622-6. The History of Musical Instruments. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc. Publishers ; Websites: Randy Raine-Reusch @ asza.com [Koto article].