Traditional Crafts of TokyoTraditional Crafts of Tokyo 東京の伝統工芸品

Tokyo Koto

(Japanese Harp)

Tokyo Koto Photo

To be tuned to players Eabilit y, alwaysunique in the world.
As one of the traditional musical instruments of Japan, Tokyo Koto (thirteen-stringed musical instrument)was created as an origin of current type in the 18th century, and has been improved through its history. Tokyo Koto’s beautiful sound and resonance was attained after studying of its length, thickness and curvature, increasing loudness, as well as making clearer tone by using larger Kotozume (finger plectrum). The excellent Koto, ideal to the Tokyo Koto, is one which craftsmen, players and music stores dealing them will be satisfied with. Based on the player’s request, acraftsman manufactures Koto according to the player’s skill and proficiency level so that the ideal sound will be created. The extent of curbing the Kora (shell) part of the body changes the sound, thus this process is very important. The material of Kora, paulownia wood, has different hardness and texture according to its producing center and environment, and a long-trained craftsman cuts inside the body while adjusting the thickness. To enhance the beauty of the wood surface by checking annual rings and cut ends of a paulownia wood, acraftsman startsa finishing processwith the complete product in mind. Such craftsmen’s sensitivity is devoted to Koto manufacturing, and a unique sound is created from the cooperation between craftsmen and players.
Main Areas of Manufacture Bunkyo Ward, Setagaya Ward, Shibuya Ward
Designation/ Certification Date August 15th, 1991 (Tokyo Certification)
Traditionally Used Raw Materials Paulownia, Red Sandalwood, Sandalwood, silk thread

Traditional Technologies and Techniques

  1. When making the body of the koto (a Japanese harp), its length and width are first determined, and a rounded outer surface is created in order to effectively bring out the grain patterns of the wood. To achieve this surface, positive cambers (the lengthwise arch and crosswise arch) are formed using an uchi-marukanna planing tool (a tool used for paring convex curved surfaces). The reverse, inner surface is shaved away using a chona (an adze, or edge tool) and then finished using a soto-marukanna planing tool (a tool used for paring concave curved surfaces). Next, a chisel is used to create distinctive wavy resonance patterns known as ayasugi. Finally, four crosspieces, a seki-ita support piece and an itojikiri piece (which prevents damage to the body from the strings) are added to the instrument.
  2. During the koyaki finishing process, a charcoal fire is built in a stove, a hot iron is heated until it glows red, and the iron is then used to sear all the surfaces of the instrument's body.
  3. Decorative implements (kuchimae, shiburoku, kashiwaba, ashimawari and ura-ana/inketsu) are crafted and installed in and around the instrument's body.
  4. Shinza-uchi involves the opening of 13 holes at even intervals across the rokubu-ita fitting (attached to the outside of the body), and then attaching shinza (ryugan) to the rokubu-ita through pounding with a wooden mallet. A cloth is stretched over the lower end (ryubi) of the koto, providing slip protection and serving as a decorative element.

History and Characteristics

Written in kanji characters, “koto” (the name of the Japanese harp) may be expressed as either “so” (「筝」) or as “koto” (「琴」).

However, “so” (「筝」) is now also read as “koto,” and it is used to describe a 13-string instrument. Strictly speaking, ”koto”(「琴」), originally described a completely different 7-string instrument that lacked a bridge used for heightening or lowering sound pitch.

At present, of these two kanji characters, only “koto” (「琴」) is designated for everyday use. Accordingly, it is more commonly used to describe both the 13-string and 7-string instruments than “so” (「筝」).

Composing music for the 13-string koto commenced with a Buddhist priest called Kenjun (believed to have lived 1534-1623), who hailed from the Zendoji Temple in Kurume, Kyushu. In being greatly influenced by gagaku (ancient court music) and kinkyoku (music played on the 7-string instrument), Kenjun is said to have composed koto music in the Chikushi Style, achieving great success at around the end of the Muromachi Period (1336-1573).

With the passage of time, the Chikushi Style gave birth to the Ikuta and Yamada Styles, along the way it also giving rise to the Yatsuhashi Style.

In 18th century Edo, Yamada Toyoichi (later called Kengyo) (1757-1817) created new music in which the koto became the performance focus. This was a transformation from traditional music in which the koto had accompanied the shamisen. In that he possessed a very fine voice, Yamada Kengyo was greatly acclaimed in Edo as an exponent of the Yamada Style of koto music. Concurrently, he also worked to improve both the finger plectrums used when playing the koto and the instrument itself, such developments becoming the basis of the modern “Yamada Koto.”

A koto craftsman called Shigemoto Fusakichi also transformed the instrument. He made certain improvements to the existing design in accordance with the music of the Yamada Style.

Fusakichi's koto measured some six shaku (it being approximately 180cm long). This was some three sun (approximately 9cm) shorter than previous instruments. He also thickened the koto by working to add to the sound volume produced by the instrument. This was done by strengthening the camber (the longitudinal curvature of the instrument). Fusakichi also increased the size of plectrums so that the sound quality of the koto was better articulated.

The features described above came to represent those of the Tokyo Koto, this instrument being widely used by both the Yamada and Ikuta Styles of koto music.

Materials used in the manufacture of koto are Paulownia, Red Sandalwood and Sandalwood, etc. Furthermore, silk thread is used to make the strings.

Contact Details

Manufacturing Area Cooperative Name Tokyo Japanese Musical Instruments Association
Address Mukouyama Gakki Store, 4-1-17 Hirai, Edogawa Ward, Tokyo 132-0035
TEL 03-5836-5663