Japanese Folk Music Instruments You Need to Know About

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


In this blog post, we will be introducing you to some of the most popular and traditional Japanese folk music instruments.

Traditional Japanese Instruments

Japanese folk music is rich and varied, and has been enjoyed by people for centuries. There are a wide variety of traditional Japanese instruments, from the well-known koto and shamisen, to the less familiar shakuhachi and biwa. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular traditional Japanese instruments.


The koto is a long, zither-like stringed instrument with 13 strings that is plucked with the fingers. It is used in a wide variety of music styles, including traditional Japanese music, contemporary classical music, and popular songs. The koto originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the 7th or 8th century. It quickly became popular among the Japanese aristocracy and was later played by commoners as well. The koto has a wide range of playing techniques, but the most common is called “sawari.” This technique involves plucking the strings with the thumbs and forefingers to create a vibrato effect.

The koto has a very unique sound that is often described as “haunting.” It is a very versatile instrument that can be used for both solo and ensemble playing. The most popular type of koto music is called “gagaku,” which is an ancient type of court music that dates back to the 7th century. Gagaku ensembles typically consist of three different types of instruments: the sho (a mouth organ), hichiriki (a double-reed instrument), and the fue (a flute).

The koto has been featured in many Western films and television shows, including The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Lost in Translation.


The shamisen, sometimes called a samisen or a sangen, is a three-stringed plucked instrument played with a plectrum. It originates from China, and came to Japan in the 16th century. The shamisen soon became popular in Kabuki theatre and later in other traditional Japanese theatrical forms such as noh and kyogen. The shamisen was also used in gagaku music.

The shamisen has a snakeskin-covered body and a long neck, and it is usually about two feet long. It is held vertically on the knees or between the legs when sitting on the floor. The strings are traditionally made of silk, but they can also be made of nylon or steel. The lowest string is tuned to C, the middle string to G, and the upper string to C.

Shamisen music can be divided into two main types: instrumental music (sōkyoku) and narrative music (jōruri). Instrumental music is usually performed solo, while narrative music is accompanied by singing (usually by a male singer, called a jōruribushi).


The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown flute, traditionally made of bamboo. It was originally used by Buddhist monks as a form of meditation, and has a history dating back to the 8th century. The shakuhachi is associated with the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism, and was used in the secular world by the komuso monks who were itinerant performers.

Today, the shakuhachi is most commonly used in folk music and in meditation, but is also played in a wide range of genres including jazz and rock. It is considered to be a national treasure in Japan, and has been designated as an Intangible Cultural Property.

Modern Japanese Instruments

Japanese folk music is rich and diverse, and it’s instruments are a reflection of that. While some instruments, like the koto, have been around for centuries, others, like the shamisen, are relatively new. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most popular Japanese folk music instruments.


The guitar is a modern Japanese instrument that has only recently become popular in folk music circles. It is a versatile instrument that can be used for a variety of genres, including traditional Japanese music.


The piano is a modern Japanese instrument that was introduced to the country in the late 19th century. It quickly became popular, and by the early 20th century, it was one of the most common instruments in Japanese music. The piano has a wide range of sounds and can be used for a variety of genres, from classical and jazz to pop and rock.


In Japanese folk music, there are a variety of different drums that are used. The most common drum is the taiko, which is a large drum that is usually played with two sticks. Other popular drums include the kotsuzumi, a small hand drum; the fue, a flute-like instrument; and the shamisen, a three-stringed lute.

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