Musical Japan

Musical Japan

Tune in: Along with their unique sounds, these traditional Japanese instruments come with unique stories.

Wadaiko drums

While in Japan recently, I attended three musical concerts, a feast to the senses. They introduced me to some of the most unique musical instruments, including a kind of drum called wadaiko. 

Popularly known as taiko, wadaiko has a wooden body, a hollowed-out log, the ends of which are covered with leather, generally cowhide. The wood used is zelkova or Japanese ash, a hardwood, as it needs to be sturdy enough to stand the beating while it’s played. And, it’s not an easy process. For, the wood has to be dried well, the leather processed well — the entire process taking up to almost five years.

These drums are played with wooden sticks called bachi. The sound emanating from a wadaiko is so high that it’s estimated to be around 130 decibels, making it audible over distances spanning kilometres. It’s also said that during the Warring States Period of Japan from 1467 to 1570, feudal lords used wadaiko to signal their forces on the battlefield.

International fame

Today, no cultural or temple festivals, and kabuki (classical dramas) and noh (theatre) performances are complete without the playing of wadaiko. Today, the instrument has gained popularity in several other countries and genres ranging from orchestras to rock concerts, thanks to taiko groups that perform across the world.

Next on my list of introduction was the stringed instrument of koto. It’s the national instrument of Japan. My respect for the instrument immediately soared. Derived from the Chinese instrument of zheng, koto comes in two varieties — with 13 and 17 strings. With a wooden body measuring about 180 cm, the strings are strung over bridges that can be moved according to the pitch required. The instrument is played by plucking the strings using either a pick-like tool or with the help fingers and fingernails. While the wood used for the body of the instrument is kiri, the bridges are either made of ivory or plastic, and the strings, plastic or silk.Koto, which was popular only among the aristocrats, reached the common man when it became a part of events and festivals associated with gods. It was also interesting to note that women were not allowed to play it in the ancient times.

Today, koto is quite popular across the world with renowned musicians including David Bowie and Brian Jones playing it. It has also been improvised to include up to 25 strings.


Another string instrument, shamisen, owes its origin to China. A three-stringed instrument with a rectangular body and an elongated neck that pierces through its body, it’s considered one of the few musical instruments of Japan that best represents modern Japanese music. Shamisen comes in different shapes, depending on the genre in which it is used. While the one used for kabuki performances has a thin neck, the one used for folk songs and puppet shows has a longer and thicker neck.

It is held to be played almost like the sitar, except that a plectrum called bachi is used to pluck the strings. Its construction is also like that of a guitar or banjo. While the body was originally made of wood covered in cat or dog skin, it has now found plastic alternatives, while its strings are made of steel instead of silk.

Yet another Japanese traditional instrument that came from China is shakuhachi. An end-blown instrument made of bamboo, it is almost like our flute. The name of the instrument is derived from an ancient system of measurement and means 1.8 feet, which is its original length. Today, they are available in lengths ranging from 1.3 feet to 3.2 feet.

Digging its roots brought to the fore interesting stories, including the one around the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks known as komusu, who acquired exclusive rights to play the instrument, travelled around Japan, and played it wearing wicker baskets over their heads, and also spied for the shogunate.