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The koto is a Japanese zither, that descended from the Chinese zheng, but over the years took on its own distinct characteristics. Made from Palownia wood, the koto is approximately two metres 6 feet in length, with thirteen strings originally made of silk but now made of plastic. Traditionally, the koto was played seated on the floor with the end of the koto either resting in the players lap or on a small stand in front of them. It is played with three ivory picks placed on the right thumb and the first two fingers.

There are a number of schools of koto in Japan each with their own individual methods of playing, string types, shapes of picks, etc. Perhaps the most exciting is the Sawai style founded by Tadao Sawai and now led by his wife Kazue Sawai. The Sawai style takes the koto out of the quiet sedate world of Japanese traditional music and flings it well into the contemporary world.

Kazue Sawai's teacher Michiyo Miyagi changed the world of koto by inventing a 17 string bass koto as part of his koto large ensembles to mimic the western orchestra. Now there are a wide variety of koto, including a 20 string, 21 string, 23 string and a 30 string. The latter is a very powerful instrument although very heavy and hard to travel with. The world of koto continues the change with solid body electric koto and even digital koto.

Country: Japan
Region: Asia
Type: zither

Koto - Japanese zither
©  R. Raine-Reusch, May 2002