The koto (琴 or 箏) is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument derived from the Chinese zither (Guzheng). The koto is the national instrument of Japan. Koto are about long and have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the length of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, forefinger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.
The character for koto is also read as sō in certain contexts. Though often called by a number of other names, these terms almost always refer to similar, but different instruments, such as the Chinese guzheng (箏) or guqin (琴, called kin in Japanese).
The koto was first introduced to Japan in the 7th and 8th century from China. It originated in its earliest form in the 5th century. It was a very popular instrument in the Northeastern part of China. The first known version had five strings, which eventually progressed to seven strings. It had twelve strings when it was introduced to the country of Korea and increased to thirteen strings when it was introduced to Japan in the early Nara Period (710-784). This particular instrument is known throughout Asia but in different forms, the Japanese so or koto which is a distant relative to the qin, the Korean komungo, and the Vietnamese dan tranh. This variety of instrument came in two basic forms, a type that had bridges and those types without bridges. The type that was most known in China was the qin.
Originally, the word koto was a generic term for any and all Japanese string instruments when the so, or koto, was imported to Japan. Regardless, over time the definition of koto being all string could not describe the wide variety of these string instruments and the names were changed. The Azuma goto or yamato goto became the wagon, the kin no koto became the kin, and the sau no koto was changed to the so or koto.
The modern koto originates from the so, or gakuso, used in Japanese court music. It was a popular instrument among the wealthy society; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one. Some literary and historical records solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sokyoku or the music of the solo koto genre was established. According to Japanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance. In one part of “The Tales of Genji (genji monogatari),” Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing koto from a distance.
The history of the koto, or so, in Japan, dates back many centuries ago including the 16th Century. At this time a Buddhist priest by the name of Kenjun (1547-1636), who lived in northern Kyuushu, began to compose for the koto, calling the style “tsukushi goto.”
Perhaps the most important influence on the development of koto was the man Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685). He was a gifted blind musician from Kyoto who changed the limited selection of six songs to a brand new style of koto music which he called kumi uta. Yatsuhashi changed the Tsukushi goto tunings, which were based on gagaku ways of tuning; and with this change, a new style of koto was born. Yatsuhashi Kengyo is now known as the “Father of Modern Koto.”
The Japanese developments in the bridgeless zithers include the one-stringed koto (ichigenkin) and two-stringed koto (nigenkin or yakumo goto) around the 1920s, Morita Goro created a new version of the two-stringed goto. On this goto, one would push down buttons above the metal strings like the western autoharp. It was named the taisho goto after the Taisho Era.
At the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), western music was introduced to Japan. Miyagi Michio (1894- 1956), a blind composer, innovator, and performer, was the first Japanese composer to combine western music and traditional koto music. Miyagi Michio is largely regarded as being responsible for keeping the koto alive when the Japanese culture of traditional arts was being pushed aside to be forgot and replaced by the time of great Westernization. He wrote over 300 new words for the instrument. He also invented the popular 17 string base koto, created new playing techniques, advanced tradition forms, and most importantly increased popularity to the koto genre. He performed abroad and in 1828 his combination of koto and shakuhachi, Haru no Umi (Spring Sea) has been transcribed for numerous instruments. Haru no Umi is even played to welcome each New Year in Japan.
Since Miyagi’s time, many composers such as Sawai Tadao (1937-1997) have furthered Miyagi’s vision by continuing to perform and compose works that continue to advance the instrument in new directions. Thanks to artist such as these, the thousand year old Japanese koto is still important and thriving.
The influence of Western pop music has made the koto less prominent in Japan, although it is still developing as an instrument. Works are being written for 20- and 25-stringed kotos and 17-string bass kotos, and a new generation of players such as Japanese performers Kazue Sawai and Michiyo Yagi (who studied under Sawai), and American performer Reiko Obata are finding places for the koto in today's jazz, experimental music and even pop.
June Kuramoto, of the jazz fusion group Hiroshima, was one of the first koto performers to popularize the koto in a non-traditional fusion style. Reiko Obata, founder of East West Jazz band, is the first to perform and record an album of jazz standards featuring koto. Obata also produced the first-ever English language koto instructional DVD "You Can Play Koto."
David Bowie became the first Englishman to use the koto in the instrumental piece "Moss Garden" on his album "Heroes". Paul Gilbert, a popular shred guitarist, recorded his wife, Emi playing the koto on his song "Koto Girl" from the album Alligator Farm. JRock / Visual Kei band Kagrra, are well known for using traditional Japanese musical instruments in many of their songs, an example being "Utakata" (うたかた), a song where the koto has a prominent place. Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck composed "Koto Song" that, while not featuring the koto itself, is played to allow the piano to emulate its sound. Winston Tong, singer with Tuxedomoon, uses it on his 15-minute song, "The Hunger" from his debut solo album Theoretically Chinese.
Well-known solo performers outside of Japan include koto master and award-winning recording artist Elizabeth Falconer, who also studied for a decade at the esteemed Sawai Koto School in Tokyo, as well as koto master Linda Kako Caplan, Canadian Daishihan (Grandmaster) and a member of Fukuoka's Chikushi Koto School for over two decades. David Horvitz pioneered the instrument into the contemporary indie rock scene playing on Xiu Xiu's new album, The Air Force.
The 17-string bass koto, called jūshichi-gen in Japanese, has become more prominent over the years. The members of the band Rin' are perhaps some of the more famous jūshichi-gen players in the modern (pop/rock) music scene. The influence of the koto on Western music is also evident in jazz. The "in-sen" scale, a five note scale, was first introduced to jazz by John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner (another koto player) and is based on the tuning of the koto.