15 Most Popular Japanese Instruments

Japanese Instruments
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Japanese instruments are some of the most enthralling and unique ones in the world. They have played a pivotal role in traditional Japanese music. Whether you are a musician who wants to explore your collection or a music lover interested in exploring musical sounds, the world is full of instruments to explore.

From Shamisen, Kokyu, and Hyoshigi to Koto, numerous instruments have produced distinct music. Be it drums, stringed instruments, or violin, each and every instrument is unique on its own. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s check out the list of the 15 Most Famous Japanese instruments and know more about them.

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1- Shakuhachi

Japanese Instruments: Shakuhachi

Shakuhachi is a bamboo flute that is used in Japanese music for decades. It has four finger holes on the front and one thumb hole on the back. It is believed that the instrument is introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century.

Generally, it is made of bamboo but other versions use hardwoods and ABC. It was used in Zen Buddhist meditation. Shakuhachi is also used to play solo pieces and or a part in an ensemble.

2- Biwa


Biwa is a renowned Japanese instrument that came into existence in East Asia after China. It has a short fretted neck along with four strings. In this instrument, wood is used to make the pear-shaped body, and nylon/silk is used to make strings.

Initially, Biwa was used in Japanese court music. Later on, artists start using it for storytelling and narrating epic tales such as “The Tale of the Heike”. It is played with a wooden stick “bachi” rather than fingers.

3- Shamisen

Japanese instruments: Shamisen

Shamisen is one of the most popular Japanese instruments. It has a long thin neck and a rectangular-shaped body with three strings. The strings are made of nylon/silk while the body is made of wood and covered with cat skin.

The instrument came to Japan in the 16th century and was eventually used in folk music, geisha music, and kabuki theatre. It comes in three neck sizes. Players can use various techniques like tremolo, vibrato, and slides.

4- Hichiriki


The Japanese flute Hichiriki emerged after the 12th century. It is a sacred instrument that is often used in Shinto Weddings in Japan. It has a short cylindrical body made of bamboo with a double reed at one end and a blowing pipe at the other one.

Hichiriki became a popular instrument in Japanese music, like gagaku (court music), noh theater, and kabuki theater. Some famous musicians such as Hideki Togi and Hitomi Nakamura played this instrument.

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5- Sanshin

Japanese instruments: Sanshin

Sanshin is a famous Japanese instrument considered to be the soul of Okinawan music. It has been regarded as a respectful instrument that carries the voice of deities. Sanshin has a long thin neck with three strings, and its body is covered with snakeskin.

People believe it originated from the Chinese instrument “Sanxion”. It has also been used to accompany Okinawan folk songs and dances. Sanshin is played with a plectrum.

6- Tsuzumi


Tsuzumi is a percussion instrument that consists of a pair of small drums and heads made of animal skin. It is played with usually bare hands or with special sticks “bachi”.

There are two types of Tsuzumi. The first one is Kotsuzumi i.e. smaller and highly-pitched and the second one is Otsuzumi which is larger and lower-pitched. Both types of instruments are important in Japanese music and culture.

7- Sho

Japanese instruments: Sho

Sho is a Japanese free reed instrument. It has been used in Japanese music for thousands of years. It is derived from the Chinese instrument Sheng. However, its size is relatively shorter than that. Sho consists of 17 slender bamboo pipes each fitted with metal-free reed.

The instrument was introduced in Japan from China during the Nara period. In fact, It is one of the main woodwind instruments used in Japan’s imperial court music.

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8- Koto


Here is the National instrument of Japan, the Koto. Koto is a traditional string instrument derived from the Chinese zheng and se. It has thirteen strings strung over movable bridges. Its body is generally made of Paulownia wood.

Koto evolved to become an important instrument in gagaku, kumiuta, and contemporary music. There are four different types of koto as gakuso, chikuso, zokuso, and tagenso.

9- Mokugyo

Japanese instruments: Mokugyo

Mokugyo is a Japanese percussion instrument. It is actually a fish-shaped wooden drum that is hollow inside and played with a wooden mallet. This instrument is commonly used in Buddhist temples and shrines during ceremonies.

Apart from religious ceremonies, it has also been used in Japanese traditional folk music. There are different sizes of the instrument small sized are played handheld while big ones are placed on cushions to play.

10- Kokyu


Kokyu is a string instrument that is played with a bow. It has a small hollow wooden body with a long neck and three strings. Dense brown wood like Ebony is used to make the neck. It was introduced in Japan during the Edo period.

The instrument has been used in traditional as well as non-traditional music. In fact, the four-stringed Kokyu becomes more popular than the original one with three strings.

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11- Shinobue

Japanese instruments: Shinobue

Shinobue is a Japanese transverse flute. It has six finger holes on the front and possesses a high-pitched sound. In fact, It was introduced from China or India to Japan during the Heian period i.e. 7th century.

Moreover, the instrument has been used in nagauta, Hayashi ensembles, and theatre music. Shinobue is made from different materials according to need and purpose.

12- Uchiwa Daiko

Uchiwa Daiko

This percussion instrument from Japanese history has the unique name Uchiwa Daiko. Here uchiwa means fan and daiko/taiko means drum. It has a large circular drum that is played with the help of pair of sticks. It was also introduced in Japa during the Edo period.

These drums look attractive with the decoration along with colorful designs. Besides, Uchiwa Daiko is often used with other traditional percussion instruments in ensembles.

13- Hyoshigi

Japanese instruments: Hyoshigi

After discussing many complex instruments, here is a simple yet interesting instrument i.e. Hyoshigi. It is a traditional Japanese instrument that consists of two hardwood/bamboo pieces linked with an ornamental rope.

This instrument has been used in traditional Japanese theatres like Bunraku and Kabuki to announce the beginning and end of an event or performance.

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14- Kagura Suzu

Kagura Suzu

Let’s consider another unique interesting Japanese instrument. It is Kagura Suzu. Kagura Suzu consists of twelve bells sets used in the Kagura dance. The set includes three tiers of bells. There are two bells in the top tier, four in the middle, and six in the bottom.

Kagura Suzu is generally of two types: one has a tree of small bells and the other one has a single large bell. This instrument has been playing an important part in Shinto ceremonies, folk music, and Noh theatre.

15- Nohkan

Japanese instruments: Nohkan

Nohkan is a traversed Japanese flute made with bamboo. The Japanese Noh actor, and musician Kan’ami along with his son Zeami created the instrument in the 15th century. It became an integral part of Noh’s theatre tradition.

At present times, Nohkan is also used in other Japanese music including Gagaku and Shomyo. Its mellow, breathing sound has made it a popular choice for musicians.

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