Kokyu (a stringed instrument) (胡弓)

Kokyu is a Japanese stringed instrument. Summary 1 and its history are described below.

Kucho is an Okinawan stringed instrument. See summary 2.

In a broad sense, Kokyu is a generic name covering all the stringed instruments. In particular, Kokyu is sometimes indicate all the Asian stringed instruments. This subject is described in summary 3.

Being a Japanese instrument, Kokyu is mostly provided with three strings (although some have four strings), and its shape is roughly a smaller version of the Shamisen - a three-stringed Japanese banjo. Almost the same materials for Shamisen are used; nowadays, for the neck part, koki (literally, red wood) or Shitan (rosewood) is used or quince (Fabaceae) for popular versions, and for the main body, Chinese quince is used, with leather of cat or dog and silk strings utilized as well. The bridges of Kokyu are quite different from those of the Shamisen; the places where they are placed are completely different, and their shapes and materials are also considerably different. The bow is made of Shitan, quince or bamboo, and it is sometimes lacquered. The central portion of the wood part of the bow is bent slightly towards the hair side, or warped slightly inwards in the most cases. This is for increasing the resilience of a bow, as for violins at present. Most of the bows are made so as to be separated into two parts at the central portion. The specifications of details depend on the Kokyu school or the person who uses Kokyu. Horse tail hair is bound to make the hair for the bow. This hair is detachable; a cord is attached to the tip of the hair on the side of the hand; and the cord is tied to a small metallic ring attached to the wood part of the bow. Most of the bows of Kokyu that are used in the genre of Sangyoku (played in combination with Kokyu and two other Japanese instruments) are long, and bows with a hair length of seventy centimeters and a total length exceeding one meter are common. In addition, a large amount of hair is used, and it is a feature of the bows of this type to have the hair string attached at a moderate tension. Some Kokyu schools use bows with a big tassel at the side of the hand. On the other hand, for Kokyu used in ballads, a quite short bow with a thin wood part is used. The amount of hair used is quite small. It is unusual in the world that, for the same instruments, such a big difference exists for the bows depending upon the music genre where they are used. Kokyu is played in Kokyu-gaku (music played with Kokyu alone), for the accompaniment to Jiuta songs (traditional Japanese shamisen music), and for the accompaniment to Gidayu-bushi (musical narrative of the puppet theatre). Kokyu is one of 'Sangyoku,' or one of the instruments that are used for Sangyoku three instrument ensemble. Kokyu is used for Japanese ballads of the areas from the Hokuriku region to the Kansai region. In addition, it is also played for folk entertainment in various areas, and in some religions. Its feature is that the player rotates the main body to change the string on the main body to be played, instead of rotating the bow.

A stringed instrument in Okinawa "Kucho" is written as the same Chinese characters for different pronunciation. The main body is made of blackwood (ebony) or Distylium racemosum. The trunk is made in the shape of a bowl, being different from that of Kokyu in the main islands of Japan (in olden times, the trunk was made by splitting the nut of coconut palms into halves), and the leather of a python is used for covering the trunk as those for Sanshin (Okinawan traditional three-stringed instrument). The number of strings was originally three as that in Sanshin. However, in the scores of classical music, there existed sounds lower than the lowest sound that can be produced with a three-stringed Kucho. Therefore, Shinei MATAYOSHI, who was an expert of manufacturing Sanshin and was also famous as a Kucho player, developed four-stringed Kucho provided with a string for bass part additionally and made the instrument used widely (with three-stringed Kucho, the scores of these lower tones were played raised by an octave). The shape of the neck can be classified into several types as for Sanshin. However, since four strings were provided, making it necessary to increase the length of the peg box, most of the Kucho is made in the Yunagushiku type that originally uses a longer peg box. To change the string to be played, the Kucho player rotates not the bow, but the main body, as the Kokyu player on the mainland do. For the Kucho music scores, instructions for pushing the bow and other instructions for pulling the bow are added to the scores of Kunkunshi (score for Okinawa traditional three-stringed instrument) for Sanshin. Its origin and the relationship with Kokyu from the mainland are not known. However, quite a few similar instruments are found in Southeast Asia. Therefore, there is a possibility that the origin of Kucho was brought to Okinawa from the Kingdom of Thailand or Malacca in the fifteenth century when Ryukyu actively conducted trade with these areas. Kucho is exclusively used for supporting performances of classical music, and is not used often for accompanying ballads. Therefore, Kucho does not attract much attention, unlike Sanshin that has become popular recently.

In a broad sense, the term 'kokyu' is sometimes used for collectively calling stringed instruments. In the early Meiji period, even violins were called Kokyu. Generally, it is sometimes used for indicating all the stringed instruments in Asia, but the definition is not clear. Therefore, even Chinese stringed instruments erhu (two-stringed Chinese instrument played with a bow) and gaohu (Chinese bowed string instrument developed from the erhu) are sometimes commonly called Kokyu. Nowadays, when the term of Kokyu is used without any context, it often means these instruments rather than Japanese Kokyu. However, this usage is apparently incorrect. Therefore, confusion between original Kokyu and these Chinese stringed instruments is generated, causing a problem (to differentiate from these Chinese stringed instruments, Japanese Kokyu is sometimes called 'Wa-Kokyu,' 'Yamato-Kokyu' or 'Japanese Kokyu' - both "Wa" and "Yamato" mean Japan or Japanese). Consequently, some persons concerned with Kokyu and those concerned with erhu voice that these terms should be used correctly.

The following descriptions are about Japanese Kokyu.


Kokyu first appeared in a document in the early Edo period, slightly later than that of Shamisen. Its origin is uncertain, with various theories provided. According to a theory, Kokyu is not close to kokin (huqin - any Chinese string instrument played with a bow) related instruments, such as the erhu, but is closer to instruments in Southeast Asia. In another theory, it is considered that Kokyu originates from the Rebec or Viol brought to Japan from Europe through trade with Spain and Portugal. It is likely that Kokyu was initially used for ballads, such as Kadotsuke (performances in front of the gate of houses). However, according to a theory, the founder of Shamisen music Kengyo ISHIMURA was an expert Kokyu player as well. "Shikido Okagami" written by Kizan FUJIMOTO in 1678, who had an intimate relationship with Kengyo YATSUHASHI, describes that Kengyo YATSUHASHI improved the bow of Kokyu, changing its tones drastically. In this way, it is known that blind musicians at Todo-za (the traditional guild for the blind) played Kokyu during almost the same period when Jiuta songs and Sokyoku (koto music) had been established. The initial shape of the trunk of Kokyu was round, unlike that of the Shamisen. However, by the middle of the Edo period, the shape became almost the same as that of the Shamisen, being altered little after that.

After that, Kokyu music developed consequently with Jiuta songs using Shamisen (with three strings) and with So music (played with So - thirteen-stringed Koto). The music played with these three instruments are collectively called 'Sangyoku' (literally, three kinds of music), and these three kinds of music have deeply interacted with each other. In addition, Kokyu became increasingly played for Jiuta songs or So music with other instruments, and in particular, the form of playing these three instruments in concert had been established. These three instruments were played together frequently throughout the Edo period. In this way, Kokyu music was composed by blind musicians at Todo-za and has been handed down to subsequent generations until now. Today, being often reported in the mass media, Kokyu accompanying ballads is known to the general public as well. However, the core of Kokyu music consists in Sangyoku from the viewpoint of its contents as well as of the history. Even today, Sangyoku is played, with new pieces composed for it, and the efforts to hand down the music to subsequent generations are made as well.

Types of Kokyu

Concerning the types of Kokyu, four-stringed one in addition to three-stringed one has been handed down to subsequent generations through the Fujiue school that was started by Kengyo FUJIUE in Edo during the middle of the Edo period. After the Meiji period, Michio MIYAGI developed Kokyu larger than those that had been ordinarily used, or Dai-Kokyu,, and composed music for this instrument. In addition, a scholar in music Hisao TANABE devised 'Reikin' during the Taisho period. Reikin was provided with three strings, but a wood plate instead of leather was used for the cover of the trunk. With its appearance similar to the Matouqin (stringed musical instrument) of Mongolian origin, it was initially played for accompanying Oiwake ballad. However, before long, it became to be played in New Japanese Music (music using Japanese instruments), which were popular at that time, enabling it to be played together with various instruments. Reikin mostly played bass part, but almost ceased to be played after the war. Furthermore, a Kokyu player Kazuo HARA devised five-stringed Kokyu that enabled further lower tones to be generated after the Heisei period.

Kokyu in Sangyoku (Kokyu-gaku, Jiuta songs and So music)

In the middle of the Edo period, the artistic level of music for Kokyu was raised by blind musicians and a school dedicated for Kokyu was established, composing music specialized for Kokyu. This music was called 'Kokyu-gaku' (胡弓楽) in future generations. Music including Kokyu-gaku as well as Jiuta songs and So music, both of which were also specialties for blind musicians, is called Sangyoku. In addition to the music specialized for Kokyu, Kokyu was played widely for a lot of Jiuta songs and for some So music as well. In particular, the performance in which all three instruments are played together is called Sangyoku-gasso and such concerts were held actively. In this way, Kokyu was not only used for playing music specialized for Kokyu alone, but also played together with Shamisen or So or as a part of Sangyoku-gasso, which expanded music genres where Kokyu was played and made Kokyu used more widely. However, after entering the latter half of the Edo period in particular, Kokyu-gaku, Jiuta songs, and So music were intermingled considerably to the extent that they were almost integrated, and the term of Kokyu-gaku almost ceased to be used. In addition, after entering the Meiji period, Shakuhachi bamboo flutes instead of Kokyu mostly came to be used, reducing the occasions in which Kokyu was played. However, even now, many of traditional Jiuta song schools and So music schools have been handing down music using Kokyu to subsequent generations. However, Kokyu-gaku has a handing-down line independent of those for Jiuta songs and So music. Therefore, although there is no named school, the three large lines of the Osaka line, the Kyoto line and the Nagoya line exist correspondingly to the Ikuta school for Jiuta songs and So music. On the other hand, the Fujiue school and the Sho school exist correspondingly to the Yamada school for So music. In addition, Kengyo MASAJIMA in Osaka established the Masajima school (around the middle of the eighteenth century). Although the school followers ceased to exist towards the end of the Edo period, it is considered that the school has some relationship with the present Osaka line. It is also said that there existed the Wakizaki school following Kengyo WAKIZAKI, who was an expert Kokyu player active in Kyoto in the early nineteenth century. Although followers of the present Kyoto line use the name, the matter remains uncertain. Furthermore, it is also said that the Shinagawa school of Kengyo SHINAGAWA existed, but anything about the school remains uncertain. The Nagoya line keeps the tradition of Kokyu most faithfully, with two branches of the Yoshizawa school and the Terajima school. The Yoshizawa school follows the line of Kengyo YOSHIZAWA, who was active towards the end of the Edo period. Playing for a Jiuta song or a piece of So music, Kokyu usually plays in unison with the song or music inconspicuously. However, Yoshizawa gave independent melodies to Kokyu, arranging and composing highly technical pieces of music. Chidori no kyoku' (a song for plover), one of his compositions, is famous as an excellent Kokyu-specific piece of music, and is also well-known as an excellent piece of music for So. In addition, when, for example, Kokyu was played together with So in 'Rokudan no shirabe' (Music of Six Steps), a piece of music for So, using the music score written by Yoshizawa, it is specifically called 'Nagasaki Rokudan' because the score was so unique and needed such a high skill level to play. After the Meiji period, Kinji KIKUHARA in the Osaka line also wrote original music scores for Kokyu.

The Kokyu music that has evolved together with Jiuta songs and So music and has been handed down to subsequent generations by blind musicians at Todo-za is called Kokyu-gaku. When the Kokyu-gaku is considered, the music includes Honkyoku (Kokyu-specific music) and Gaikyoku (literally, outside music). Honkyoku, also called Honte-gumi, indicates pieces of music composed specifically for Kokyu, and each school has its own Honkyoku (although some schools do not). Some pieces of music for Kokyu, for example, "Tsuru-no-Sugomori" (a song depicting various aspects of the life cycle of the crane), were composed through playing for Shakuhachi bamboo flute music, and there are also pieces of music provided strongly with features of duets for Kokyu and So, for example, "Chidori no kyoku" described above. In addition, "Semi no uta" (a song of cicadas) (composed by Kengyo YOSHIZAWA, and handed down in the Nagoya line) and "Okayasu-ginuta" (handed down in the Fujiue school, but its composer is unknown) are famous Honkyoku of Kokyu. In particular, many pieces of Honkyoku have been handed down for generations in the Fujiue school, and even more pieces of Honkyoku existed in the Masajima school that became extinct towards the end of the Edo period. Gaikyoku indicates music for So and music for Jiuta songs, and a large number of pieces of Gaikyoku exist. However, almost all of the Kokyu players are also the players of Jiuta and So players. Therefore, some pieces of Honkyoku are accompanied by So or Shamisen, or are taken into music for Jiuta songs or for So. However, the classification of the music into Honkyoku and Gaikyoku is not so strict as that for Shakuhachi bamboo flutes music. Even after Michio MIYAGI, new pieces of music for Kokyu have been composed, although they are not so many.

Kokyu in Gidayu-bushi (a style of reciting the dramatic narrative of the puppet theatre)

Having been popular in Osaka, Gidayu-bushi is significantly affected by Sangyoku, and such an example is the use of Kokyu in the performance. In particular, it is well known that Kokyu is played in the following scene: In 'the act of 'Akoya-kotozeme' of "Dannoura kabuto gunki" (The War Chronicles at Dannoura), Akoya, a woman of peerless beauty intimate with Aku Shichibei Kagekiyo (who has disappeared seeking for his enemy Yoritomo) is questioned severely about the whereabouts of Kagekiyo, and the doubt is cleared because she splendidly played the Koto (So), the Shamisen (Shamisen for Jiuta songs) and the Kokyu, with no confusion in the melodies she played. The fact that the three instruments are used here proves an influence of Sangyoku. Incidentally, when this program is played in Kabuki, it is customary that the male actor playing the female role of Akoya actually plays the three instruments. Kokyu is also played in not a few other pieces of music for Gidayu-bushi such as in "Shoutsushi-Asagao-banashi" (Morning Glory Diary).

Kokyu in folk songs

Concerning Kokyu in ballad, it is well known that Kokyu is used in 'Etchu Owara bushi' (a song for Japanese folk dance in Etchu - present day Toyama Prefecture) played in "Kaze-no Bon" (literally, wind Bon: Bon is a Buddhist festival for dead ancestors, held in summer) in the Yao area of Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture. However, it was during the Meiji period or later that Kokyu was added to the performance. Some Kokyu specialized for Owara ballad have recently been provided with a neck slightly longer than that of standard Kokyu. It is considered that as these songs were played outdoors, it was necessary to make the lengths of the strings longer to increase the volume of the sounds. The bow is considerably shorter than those of classical Kokyu. However, the portion from the bend is made longer than the other portion from the bend, which is nearer to the playing hand, and therefore, the angle between the hair and the wood of the bow is larger at the portion nearer to the playing hand. The amount of hair is less, and the hair is attached to the bow without being loosened.

Kokyu is also used in the following types of music:

In Geza music (music supporting kabuki performances effectively) in Kabuki, Kokyu is sometimes used in moving scenes.

Kokyu is sometimes used in traditional local attractions, such as puppet shows and hayashi (music performed with traditional Japanese instruments for making the atmosphere cheerful) in festivals, and in some areas, Kokyu was played in the past by farmers as one of their side jobs or by Goze (blind female musicians) as Kadotsuke (performance in front of the gate of houses).

In Tenrikyo and its related sects, Kokyu is played together with other instruments in its ceremonial music. In this case, a zither-family stringed instrument called Hatsuse goto is sometimes used, but nowadays, Hatsuse is seldom used and it seems that Kokyu is mostly used instead.

Tuning methods of Kokyu

Kokyu is made in the same shape as that of the Shamisen, but smaller in size, and the tuning can be made in the same way as that of the Shamisen. There are three major tuning methods of Hon-choshi (the basic tuning method), Ni-agari (the second string is tuned slightly differently from that for the Hon-shoshi) and San-sagari (the third string is tuned slightly differently from that for the Hon-shoshi). Kokyu for Kokyu-gaku, for Jiuta songs and for So music uses San-sagari tuning dominantly. Ni-agari tuning is used for many pieces of music, for Gidayu-bushi, and for ballads.