There are two different kanji that are pronounced koto: 箏 and 琴. Although they have the same pronunciation, they refer to two different stringed instruments. The 箏, pronounced sou, is the Japanese harp, which uses movable bridges to determine pitch and is played with either finger picks or a plectrum. In contrast, the 琴, pronounced kin, is the Chinese zither (guqin), on which pitch is determined by pressing on the strings with the fingers.

koto, 箏

Tamechika ippinshu
Kin, 琴

The koto, a 13-stringed instrument that is similar to a harp or zither, has long been one of Japan’s best-loved traditional musical instruments. In fact, the word koto was originally a generic term for any and all Japanese stringed instruments. For example, in The Tale of Genji, three different kinds of koto are mentioned: kin (琴) no koto, sou (箏) no koto, and biwa (琵琶) no koto.

The Japanese harp was brought to Japan from China during the Nara period, around the eighth century, and gradually became a major element of Japanese court music. Eventually, it came to be used to accompany vocal performances, and later, a unique genre of instrumental music, called soukyoku, was established, comprising melodies written especially for the instrument.
This article describes some of the materials at the NDL related to the koto and its music.

Four nobles playing the biwa, wagoto, sou, and kin from The Tale of Genji

  • These high-definition images are available in the National Diet Library Digital Collections. Those that are labelled NDL Digital Collections can be viewed via the Internet on any computer. Those labelled Restricted access can only be viewed on computer terminals at the NDL or an affiliated library, or via the Digitized Contents Transmission Service for Individuals. For more information, please refer to the webpages for the Digitized Contents Transmission Service for Libraries and Digitized Contents Transmission Service for Individuals.
  • A string in square brackets is a NDL Call Number.
  • The original Japanese-language article first appeared in March 2017 as part of Small Electronic Exhibitions Kaleidoscope of Books, No. 24. Please note that the descriptions herein are based on information that was current at that time.

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Koto melodies

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