Six traditional ways of expression: Music

Music: poetry of the soul

Hello fellow Inari readers! In any culture or society music has been one of the strongest ways to express one’s feelings. It was also like this with the Japanese. Let us dig a bit in the world of Japanese tradition and discover how they expressed their feelings with music!


Gagaku (雅楽) is the oldest form of traditional Japanese music. Although it was imported from China at the end of the sixth century, it is different since it is used more as a form of banquet music than a form of ceremonial music. Just like Shōmyō, a Buddhist genre added at sutra readings, it uses the ‘yo scale’: a music scale that uses five tones per octave. By the seventh century, the koto and biwa were also introduced in Japan and used in these musical pieces. At the height of its popularity; in the tenth century, more than twenty instruments were used in gagaku. In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) its use was heavily reduced under influence of the upcoming samurai class. Only in the Edo Period (1603-1868) it knew a renewed rise in popularity.

a gagaku performance - music

A gagaku performance.

To the western listener gagaku will sounds strange and even alien. Its slow pace and sharp tones, especially from the sho, a group of bamboo pipes that create distant, and sometimes eerie tones, makes it hard for lots of people to appreciate it the first time they hear it. For those that go beyond that phase, gagaku can be music of serenity and spirituality, so don’t be afraid to check it out to hear for yourself if it is something for you!


There are a lot of instruments the Japanese used in traditional times. We will focus on the most known. First up is the shamisen (三味線), a snared instrument with three strings slightly resembling a guitar and played with a heavy and large kind of plectrum. The shamisen evolved from the sanshin (三線), a three-stringed instrument originating from the Okinawa region, and this was based on the Chinese sanxian. Its use is varied, as it can be played solo, or in groups and ensembles. Furthermore it is often played at drama plays like bunraku or kabuki or accompanied by singing. The term used for music on shamisen is shamisenongaku.

a portraying of a geisha playing at a party

A portraying of a geisha playing at a party.

Next is Shakuhachi (尺八), a traditionally bamboo flute of about 55 cm long. The name itself means 55 cm (in obsolete Japanese measurements). This instrument was introduced in the late sixth century from China, and became a favorite instrument of komusō, or ‘monks of emptiness’: Zen Buddhist monks of the Fuke sect. These are recognized by the wicker baskets on their heads. At the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the shakuhachi was banned for several years before being allowed again. Though traditionally the shakuhachi was played by men, recently more and more female players are learning to play it.

three komusō playing the shakuhachi

Three komusō playing the shakuhachi

Sōkyoku (筝曲) is music played with the koto (箏), a type of zither with 13 strings. Later the koto was accompanied by shamisen and shakuhachi. It gained popularity in the Edo period (1603-1867) There are two main forms of Sōkyoku: the Ikuta ryu, where the shamisen takes on a big role, and the Yamada ryu, where they focus on singing.

postcard of a geisha playing the koto

Postcard of a geisha playing the koto

Lastly we have biwagaku, music that uses the biwa (琵琶). The biwa is an instrument resembling a lute. One of the most known forms of Biwagaku is biwa hoshi. This form combines music with storytelling and was traditionally used by blind performers also called biwa hoshi. One of the most known stories in this style is ‘the tale of the Heike’, which tells the fall of the Taira clan and rise of the Minamoto clan.

'Hoichi the Earless', a mythical biwa hoshi

‘Hoichi the Earless’, a mythical biwa hoshi


The term ‘Min’yo’ (民謡) was only created recently, in the twentieth century. It is the translation for the German word for ‘folk song’. Each region has its own specific songs and this stems from its traditional use: originally min’yo were songs for a specific trade or event, and were sung between work or on specific jobs, though songs for simple entertainment were also possible. Nowadays many of these songs have instrumental accompaniment, but in essence they are to be sung alone or in groups. It is said that for many (Japanese) people min’yo evokes a feeling of nostalgia to a real or imagined distant home or distant relatives.

Min'yo performers

Min’yo performers


Lastly we will talk about the percussion part of music, and in no way is this expressed more in Japan than taiko (太鼓). Though in Japan the term is used for any kind of drum, in the Western world the term references mainly to the specific types of Japanese drums and its performance, called kumi-daiko. This however, is a recent form of taiko invented by Daihachi Oguchi (小口 大八) in 1951. Before that the drums were mainly used as a rhythmic accompaniment to other performances or on Bon or other festivals. An even older use was in warfare: to issue orders, motivate the troops or set a marching rhythm. Interesting trivia: according to legend taiko originated when the goddess Amaterasu locked herself away in a cave out of anger, and another goddess, Ame-no-Uzume, emptied a sake barrel and danced on top of it to lure Amaterasu out of the cave.

Kumi Daiko

Kumi Daiko

This marks the end of our short glance on traditional music in Japan. As ever, if you have any questions or comments, do not be afraid to ask or post them! Inari out!

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