Have you ever heard of the koto? This beautifully shaped stringed instrument is a member of the East Asian zither family. The koto is said to have derived from the kulbit, a Filipino bamboo cylindrical instrument, but its shape as we know it today was developed in China. The koto came to Japan in the eighth century by way of the Korean Peninsula. The instrument was originally used for court music. Thereafter, it came to be played by Buddhist monks, and eventually, reached the general populous. The koto is comprised of 13 silk strings (although today, synthetic strings are used), which are stretched across a body made of hollowed out Paulownia wood. The instrument is tuned by sliding movable bridges, called "ji", underneath the strings. The koto is played with picks, called "tsume", placed on the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand. The earliest existing koto music, Rokudan no Shirabe (Music of Six Steps), was composed by Yatsuhashi Kengyo in the mid 17th century. Why is there no existing music older than this? The koto was originally played by blind musicians. Therefore, they had no need for musical notation. Even when folk music proliferated in Japan's urban areas in the 18th and 18th centuries, the Japanese govermment declared a policy that only the blind could be professional koto players. This was to project the professions of these physically impaired musicians. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the koto developed significantly as an instrument of accompaniment for the popular music of the era. If the shamisen is guitar of Japan, then the koto could be called its piano. Singing was a favorite pastime of the Japanese people of the time. In fact, they apparently enjoyed singing more than listening to concerts! It should be surprising, then, that karaoke (kara=empty; oke=orchestra), which has become a popular entertainment throughout the world, originated in Japan. As such, some 90% of all traditional koto music contains lyrics. Whether in the fields, street corners, or public bath, the Japanese people of this time loved to gather to sing at any opportunity.. Amateur musicians comprised a powerful force.
Other than commercial musical productions, mainstream music of the time revolved around impromptu concerts by amateurs. After Japan reopened its borders to the West in 1854 following over 200 years of isolation, the country's musical landscape changed dramatically. Japan came under the influence of foreign music, particularly European. As a result, the instruments improved, and so called "artistic music", as opposed to popular music, began to be composed. No instrument was affected by these influences more than the koto. As many stringed instrument, the koto can be used to perform many genres of music and therefore it was highly adaptable to foreign music. The koto continues to develop even today, with variations in the number of strings (20,25,30, and even 80!), the materials used for strings, and musical collaboration with many different instruments. At the same time, the koto remains at its essence the instrument that most arouses the feelings of the Japanese of the roots of their hearts and souls.