20+ Instruments In Japanese: Explore Music Through Language

Learn all about instruments in Japanese in this article

Whether you’re into J-pop or are a hardcore noh theater fan, you’re going to love this list of instruments in Japanese. For people who want to learn what’s behind the captivating mystery of Japanese music, learning which instruments are used in a song and their context will bring about the bigger picture of traditional Japanese music. So get set, put your headphones on, and join us as we discover the names of these traditional Japanese instruments and figure out what to call a violin in Japanese!

A Brief History Of Music In Japan

Musical Instruments In Ancient Times

The history of Japanese music is a rich tapestry that spans thousands of years, with its earliest evidence dating back to the Jomon period (10,000 – 300 BCE). During this time, the people of Japan crafted flutes from animal bones and shells and drums from tanned animal hide. These instruments laid the foundation for the development of Japanese music.

In the subsequent Yayoi period (300 BCE – 250 CE), Chinese influence in Japan reached its peak, and with it came the introduction of new musical instruments, such as the koto (琴) and the biwa (琵琶). These would become traditional Japanese musical instruments, shaping the country’s unique sound.

Music From The Heian Period To The Modern Period

From the Heian period to the Meiji Era, music in Japan continued to evolve, diversifying into various forms and styles. Court music, such as gagaku (雅楽), Japanese folk music, and theatrical music, such as kabuki (歌舞伎), emerged during this time, each contributing to the rich musical landscape of Japan. This period also saw the introduction of other traditional Japanese instruments and genres, such as shamisen music (三味線).

The 20th century marked a significant turning point for Japanese music, as it adopted Western influences and merged them with traditional elements. This fusion created a uniquely Japanese sound, blending the best of both worlds. In addition, western instruments and musical styles were incorporated into Japanese music, resulting in new genres and innovative compositions.

Music In Japanese Culture Today

In the 21st century, Japanese music continues to innovate and evolve, with musicians working across various genres, embracing modern instruments, and collaborating with Western music legends to produce amazing songs. This creative spirit has led to the development of unique melodies and sounds that are popular worldwide.

Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Let’s talk about some of the most iconic instruments in many traditional Japanese music disciplines. We will talk about the instrument, what it is used in, and how to pronounce it!

The koto is the national instrument of Japan

Koto (琴)

The koto (琴), Japan’s national instrument, is a 180-centimeter-long plucked zither with a wooden body made with precious Paulownia wood. Derived from Chinese, Mongolian, Korean, Vietnamese, Sundanese, and Kazakh instruments, it typically features 13 strings, strung over movable bridges, or frets, for tuning, with 17-string versions too.

Players use small plectra called tsume on their right hand to pluck the strings, while the left hand dampens them. The koto is played seated, with the instrument resting on the player’s lap. It is used in various genres, including traditional Japanese music like gagaku and enka and modern styles like J-pop and V-key.

Biwa (琵琶)

The biwa (琵琶), a Japanese short-necked lute, is traditionally used in narrative storytelling. This plucked string instrument with three strings and four to six frets first gained popularity in China before spreading throughout East Asia, eventually reaching Japan during the Nara period (710–794).

There are various types of biwa, each with unique characteristics that change depending on the usage. The most common type in Japan is the gagaku biwa, which is used in gagaku performance and played with a large, triangular plectrum. Another type is the heike biwa, used to accompany the performance of The Tale of the Heike, a famous Japanese epic poem, and played with a smaller, crescent-shaped plectrum.

Kumi-Daiko (太鼓)

Kumi-daiko (組太鼓), or taiko ensemble, is a form of Japanese drumming featuring a group of people playing taiko drums together. Taiko 太鼓 is a collection of percussion instruments, ranging from small to large drums, that comprise the bulk of Japanese music‘s percussion needs. If you’re a gamer like me, then you may be familiar with them from old Nintendo Wii ads! These ensembles perform various genres, including traditional Japanese music, to more modern music, such as folk, rock, and jazz.

Kumi-daiko ensembles typically comprise different drums, such as the nagado-daiko, a sizeable barrel-shaped drum; the shime-daiko, a smaller hand-held drum; the o-daiko, a huge drum; and the tsuzumi, a small finger-played drum. Visually striking, kumi-daiko ensembles often feature drummers wearing traditional Japanese costumes and employing various techniques, such as playing with hands, sticks, or even standing on the drums while playing.

Shakuhachi (尺八)

The shakuhachi (尺八) is a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute that is held horizontally and played by blowing across the hole at the end. Measuring about 21.4 inches (54.4 cm) long, it is believed to have originated in 7th-century China and was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks. Initially used for religious purposes and special ceremonies, the shakuhachi became a popular folk instrument and was later adopted by the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism as the “monk’s flute.”

This is one of the most versatile Japanese instruments, as it can be played solo or in an ensemble across various genres, such as traditional Japanese shakuhachi music, folk music, and jazz. Often used for meditation practices and relaxation, the shakuhachi produces a unique, mellow, and haunting sound by covering and uncovering the finger holes with the player’s fingers.

The shamisen is an iconic Japanese instrument

Shamisen (三味線)

The shamisen (三味線) is a three-stringed, skin-covered, necked lute used in traditional Japanese music. It is a plucked instrument, meaning it is played with a large, triangular plectrum called a bachi. Thought to have originated in 14th-century China, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks and initially used for religious purposes before becoming a popular folk instrument.

The shamisen comprises a wooden body covered with cat or dog skin, a rigid neck with a 13-fret fretboard, and silk or nylon strings. It is played by plucking the strings with the bachi and pressing fingers down on the fretboard to change the pitch. Suitable for solo or ensemble performances, the shamisen is used across various genres, including traditional Japanese music, folk music, and jazz, producing a unique, bright, and piercing sound.

Words For Instruments In The Japanese Language

Now for the meat of the matter – you’re here to learn all about the words for musical instruments in Japanese, right? Well, here you go! We’ve compiled a list of words for instruments and their translation and pronunciation to help guide you while learning Japanese.

Remember that we also included musical instruments that are not necessarily Japanese but will also be prominent instruments if you choose to dive into Japanese music in the future. With that said, enjoy this list of words for musical instruments in the Japanese language!

String Instruments

guitar ギター gitā
violin バイオリン bairorin
viola ビオラ biora
cello チェロ chero
contrabass コントラバス kontorabasu
ukulele ウクレレ ukulele
Chinese violin 二胡 erhu

Wind Instruments

trumpet トランペットtoranpetto
trombone トロンボーンtoronbōn
saxophone サックスsakkusu
clarinet クラリネットkurarinetto
oboe オーボエōboe
flute フルートfurūto
harmonica ハーモニカhamonikā

Percussion Instruments


Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments

Japanese zither koto
Japanese lute 琵琶 biwa
bamboo flute 尺八 shakuhachi
Japanese banjo 三味線shamisen
nōkan flute 能管nōkan
shinobue 篠笛shinobue
Japanese harp 箜篌kokyu
large drum 大鼓 o-daiko
small drum 小鼓ko-daiko
floor drum 地鼓ji-daiko
bell 鉦鼓shōko
hand drum 締太鼓shime-daiko
dragon flute 龍笛 ryouteki
Korean flute 高麗笛koto-bue

Learn More Japanese With Ling

Now that you know the names (and even the history) of some popular traditional Japanese instruments, you should dive deeper and learn all about Japanese culture too! If that’s the case, immersing yourself in the language is the best way to start.

And that is where the Ling app comes in! It is a language learning platform with lessons in Japanese and over 60+ languages, all curated to provide a holistic language education. So bring your language game up with the Ling app by downloading it for free on Android or iOS.

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