Koto (a long Japanese zither with thirteen strings) ()

The koto (also called the 'kin') is a Japanese traditional musical instrument. There are three general groups of musical instruments called 'Koto' in Japan: (1) 琴 (generally called 'Koto' or 'Kin'), (2) 箏 (generally called 'So') and (3) 和琴 (generally called 'Wagon'). 琴'(Koto) and '箏'(So) have been intermixed and misused throughout the ages. Such situation is further deteriorating because the Chinese character '箏' was not included in the Joyo-kanji (a list of 1,945 pieces of kanji (Chinese characters) designated in 1981). When the distinction between '琴' and '箏' is needed, they are called (1) 'Kin (琴) no Koto' and (2) 'So (箏) no Koto,' respectively. The pitch is adjusted in "So (箏) no Koto" by moving bridges (called "ji") under each string, while the pitch is adjusted in "Kin (琴) no Koto" by pressing the strings against the board with the fingertips (Wagon uses moving bridges). The player creates sound by plucking the strings with fingerpicks or the finger (or fingernail).

The following instruments are categorized into Koto:

Taisho-koto (a zither with three to five strings)

Ichigen-kin (a single-string zither)

Nigen-kin (a two-string zither)

Kokin (a seven-string zither)

However, because the Chinese character '箏' isn't included in the Joyo-kanji, '琴' and '箏' are sometimes used confusedly; for example, bridges (ji, '柱' in Chinese character) used for 'So (箏) no Koto' are called 'Koto-ji' (琴柱), and the person who teaches playing the instrument 'So (箏) no Koto' introduces oneself as 'a teacher of 'Kin (琴) no Koto' in advertisements and others.

Origin of 'Koto'
As shown in "Kojiki" (The Records of Ancient Matters), in which the scene of playing the 'koto' frequently appears, 'Koto' has existed in Japan since ancient times, apparently used as a musical instrument for witching purposes. Broken pieces that are strongly believed to have belonged to 'koto' have been discovered in ruins of the Yayoi period in various districts, such as at the Toro Ruins.
Furthermore, the Haniwa (unglazed terracotta cylinders and hollow sculptures arranged on and around the mounded tombs (kofun)) of the Kofun period (tumulus period) include images of 'Koto' or a person playing the 'Koto.'
Accordingly, 'Koto' has existed as a musical instrument since the Yayoi period, setting aside whether the name of 'Koto' existed in those days. The 'Koto' in those days is believed to have become the prototype of today's 和琴 (Wagon), because many of them had five strings, a slightly broadened shape toward the end, and projections at the end for attachment of the strings.
It was the Nara period when 'So (箏) no Koto' was introduced from China, which is now most commonly called the 'koto.'

Apart from 和琴 (Wagon), 'Kin (琴) no Koto,' which was also introduced in the Nara period, was apparently regarded as an important stringed instrument because it related to the religious services of the Chinese court: stringed instruments, all of which were called 'OO no Koto' in those days, were regarded as superior to wind instruments, because wind instruments would not make sound unless human beings breathed into them. The instruction in playing the Koto is one of the theme of the "Utsuho monogatari" (The Tale of Utsuho) which took shape during the Heian period. Koto also appears in the "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji), but it is obvious that 'Kin (琴) no Koto' became obsolete fairly early because only a small number of players of 'Kin (琴) no Koto' appear in the story, which is believed to have depicted the period ruled by the three emperors from Emperor Daigo to Emperor Murakami (the ninth and tenth centuries). Most of the players that appear in the "Genji Monogatari" are people deeply related to the Imperial Family or the Imperial household, such as the hero of this story, Prince Hikaru Genji, who became a subject of the state; his younger brothers, Hotaru Hyobukyo no Miya and Uji Hachi no Miya; his wife, Imperial Princess Onna San no Miya; and their children, Kaoru, Suetsumuhana (a daughter of Hitachi no miya) and Akashi no onkata (whose mother was a grandchild of Nakatsukasa no Miya).

The word 'Koto'

Thus the word 'koto' belonging to Wago (the ancient or primordial Japanese language) was originally derived from the 'Koto,' which had existed since the Yayoi period, becoming the prototype of '和琴' (Wagon). Furthermore, since the Nara period, when various stringed instruments were introduced from China, the word 'koto' had become the general term for those stringed instruments. Attaching the Japanese syllabary 'koto' to the Chinese character '琴' generally caused confusion in how the word should be used.

For instance, in ancient writing such as "Genji Monogatari," 'Koto' indicates all plucked string instruments such as 'So (箏) no Koto' and Biwa (a four-string Japanese lute) besides 'Kin (琴) no Koto,' which is explained in this paragraph. This tendency is also clear in the name attached to the new instruments that were introduced to Japan during the Meiji period, such as '洋琴' (piano), '風琴' (organ), '手風琴' (accordion), '自鳴琴' (music box) and '提琴' (violin).

The main manufacturing district

Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture (where 70% of domestic koto production occurs)

[Original Japanese]