Considered the national musical instrument of Japan, a standard koto is comprised of 13 movable bridges with 13 strings. Made from the finest kiri wood, it is played by using three different fingers, namely the middle finger, the index finger and the thumb. It is often adorned with various types of materials like metal figures, tortoise shell as well as inlays of ebony and ivory.

Japanese Koto played by Yukiko Matsuyama

Yukiko Matsuyama with Koto (photo by Dan Redd)

A standard Japanese koto is usually inches wide and 72 inches long. There is also the Chinese koto or yo-kin, which is a small music instrument comprised also of 13 strings. It’s height is generally 5 inches while its length is 3 feet 7 inches. An ancient form of this instrument is the sage-koto, which is comprised only of 9 strings, the length of which is 2 feet. Invented during the Engi era, the sumi-koto has a width of 4.5 inches and a length of 3 feet 7 inches.

Invented by the Chinese, the koto was brought to Japan during the 7th century. It was a very popular Chinese musical instrument, comprised only of five strings. Later, a couple more strings were added. It came into Japan during the early parts of the Nara Period, which took place from 710-784. During that time, the instrument already featured 12 strings, which later became 13. Throughout Asia, it comes in different forms, dan tranh of Vietnam, the komungo of Korea and the qin of China.

A Japanese composer named Yatsuhashi Kengyo is often thought of to have had the most influence in the koto’s development as a musical instrument. He was a highly skilled blind musician who lived from 1614 to 1685 and is often dubbed the “Father of Modern Koto”. He introduced an interesting new style of playing this instrument, which he referred to as kumi uta.

When the Meiji Period started in 1868, western music finally arrived in Japan. A blind music composer named Miyagi Michio became the very first individual who combined the interesting elements of traditional koto music with western music. His works that involved the use of koto went more than 300. These contributions eventually led to the increase of this stringed instrument’s popularity. Moreover, he was also credited for the advancement of traditional forms, the creation of novel playing techniques as well as the invention of the 17-string bass koto.

Today, the instrument is used widely in many types of music including pop, jazz, new age, and experimental.

Info from the and the Florida Center for Instructional Technology.