Soh (a long Japanese zither with thirteen strings) (箏)

Soh is a Japanese traditional musical instrument. It is classified into the zither group of stringed instruments. It is generally called koto and the Chinese character '琴' is used, but to be exact, it should be '箏' (soh) and '琴' (kin) is another musical instrument. The biggest difference between the two is that while the tune of Soh is modulated by movable props called ji, there is no prop in the case of kin.

Note that ji (bridge of Soh) is normally called 'kotobasira' (bridge of koto) (product's name is also kotobashira). A stand on which Soh is put is called kindai, for which the term "kin" is always used.

When counting the number of Soh, a figure should be followed by the term "men," like ichi (one)-men, ni (two)-men etc.

Ancient times

Koto' in the ancient times of Japan was called 'wagon' (or 'yamatogoto') and it had six strings (five strings in rare cases). Some were found at the ruins that were constructed from the Yayoi period to the Nara period. At present, wagon is used for playing one of gagaku (ancient Japanese court dance and music) called 'Kokufu kabu' (such as mikagura - music performed in court Shinto ceremony). In the Heian period, wagon was used as an accompanying instrument for playing one of gagaku called 'Saibara' (a song accompanied by wind and stringed instruments which was created by arranging indigenous folk music to the style of newly imported gagaku) (at present, wagon is rarely used for playing Saibara).

Wagon is also played by itako (the Japanese shaman) of Osore-zan Mountain in the ceremony of necromancy, and this music is believed to be the oldest existing Japanese ancient music (provided that a small minority of itako use wagon and azusayumi - a bow made of Japanese cherry birch - is generally used by other itako).

Tonkori (also known as "ka"), a traditional stringed instrument of Ainu tribe, has a similar structure with that of wagon (provided that it has five strings).

Meanwhile, the Chinese Soh, imported from Tang during the Nara period, is believed to have been created in the era of Qin (around the third century B.C) by a person called Moten, but it is nothing but a legend.

Nara and Heian periods

Soh widely known at present in Japan has thirteen strings, and was imported from Tang during the Nara period. It was used in gagaku during the Nara and Heian periods. It was believed to be the symbol of ryu (dragon) and the vestige of such belief remains remains in the name of the parts of Soh, such as ryuto (dragon head) and ryubi (dragon tail).
Soh which is used in gagaku is specifically called 'gaku-goto' or 'gaku-Soh.'

Soh was also used as a musical instrument for solo performance (and for singing a song while playing Soh) during the Nara and Heian periods. The scene of such performance was depicted in Heian literature including "The Tale of Genji." However, no particular music is existing today (has not been handed down).

A harp-shaped musical instrument 'kugo' which symbolized hoo (a phoenix), one of a pair of ryu and hoo, is not existent as a traditional instrument. Its fragments have been preserved at Shoso-in and its reproduction is in use at present. Shitsu' (also called 'hitsu' in rare cases), a large-sized musical instrument that belongs to zither group as with Soh, has 24 strings in the case of Shoso-in's property and 25 strings in the case of the ancient Chinese musical instrument. A legend says that a god split this shitsu into two and created Soh with 13 strings and Soh with 12 strings (it had another name). It is also not existent in Japan today, but was reproduced recently.

Medieval times

No historical records are existing from the end of the Heian period to the Muromachi period. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Kenjun (1574 - 1636), a monk in Kitakyushu, created 'Tsukushigoto' by integrating Chinese as well as indigenous Soh music for solo performance and Soh music of gagaku.

Edo period

While Soh music of gagaku was called 'gaku-Soh,' Soh music in the pre-modern times was called 'zoku-Soh' (or zokugoto) (modern Sho music).

Based on the above-mentioned Tsukusigoto, Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614 - 1685), who was active during the early Edo period, established the basis of the musical instrument Soh as well as Soh music. Among others, what was most important was that he changed the tuning of Soh from ritsu scale (anhemitonic pentatonic scale) to miyakobushi scale (characteristic Japanese hemitonic pentatonic scale) which then increasingly became common among ordinary people. He also composed lots of Soh music and the basic form of contemporary Soh music was established at the time (one theory is that Yatsuhashi Kengyo created one of the basic patterns of Soh music called 'danmono,' similar to a variation, when he came in contact in some way with western music, especially cembalo variations. It has been handed down that 'Rokudan' (no shirabe), a representative Soh solo, was composed by Yatsuhashi Kengyo. Incidentally, 'Kengyo' was the highest-ranking title given by 'Todo-za,' a guild organized by blind musicians at the time. 1685, the year of Yatsuhashi Kengyo's death, was the year of birth of Yohhan Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. The name Yatsuhashi Kengyo still remains as the name of Kyoto Confectionary 'Yatsuhasi,' and its shape (baked one, not unbaked one) is modeled after the shape of the Soh.

After Yatsuhashi Kengyo's death, Ikuta Kengyo and Yamada Kengyo were prominent Soh musicians during the middle of the Edo period. It is said that Ikuta Kengyo in Kyoto developed the way of playing Soh (tuning, playing method, improvement of a pick) as well as Soh music in the era of Genroku. He was the origin of existing various Ikuta schools. As a matter of fact, however, a lot of new schools were born in kamigata region (Osaka and Kyoto regions) at that time and each of them independently strived to improve the pick or compose music.
Today, these are collectively called 'Ikuta school.'
Although Ikuta Kengyo is credited for performing the ensemble of shamisen (three-stringed Japanese banjo) (jiuta - traditional songs with shamisen accompaniment) and Soh, such performance seems to have been conducted by other schools as well. For a while since then, Soh music prospered mainly in the kamigata region. In Edo, Yamada Kengyo composed jorui (dramatic narrative chanted with shamisen accompaniment)-style music and improved a pick in the late 18th century, and he became the founder of Yamada school. The Yamada school became popular in the eastern region of Japan with Edo being the center. As a result, the Ikuta school prospered in the western region of Japan while Yamada school prospered in the eastern region of Japan until the end of the Edo period. In addition, Yatsuhashi school, a direct linage of Yatsuhashi Kengyo, existed in some regions. Other prominent Soh musicians during the Edo period were as follows.
The early Edo period: Kitajima Kengyo, a disciple of Yatsuhashi Kengyo and a tutor of Ikuta Kengyo
The middle Edo period: Mitsuhashi Kengyo, who was known as the composer of kumiuta (koto suites of Sohngs), and Yasumura Kengyo
The late Edo period: Urasaki Kengyo who adapted Kyoryu tegotomono (Kyoto-style chamber music) to Soh music, Yaezaki Kengyo and Mitsuzaki Kengyo
The end of Edo period: Yoshizawa Kengyo

During the Edo period, ordinary people were not allowed to become professional Soh musician because this profession was exclusive for blind persons under Todo system. As a result, while shamisen music other than jiuta developed as accompanying music for kabuki and ningyo joruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater) that involve visual elements, Soh music developed as purely music independently from theater arts. The central components of Soh music were 'kumiuta,' songs accompanied by Soh, and 'danmono,' solo of musical instrument. Later, Soh music added many jiuta, especially tegotomono, to its repertoire through ensemble and further developed. While shamisen developed as a kind of ordinary people's musical instrument because shamisen music linked with the red-light district, Soh music was regarded as 'music of high spirituality' by samurai families because many pieces were created based on dynastic style literature, and it was praised as an essential achievement for the daughters of samurai families (amateur).

Early moden times

The Todo system was abolished during the Meiji era and people other than blind persons were allowed to become professional Soh musician. Pieces composed in this era were called 'Meiji shinkyoku pieces' (literally, new songs of Meiji), but they were not so much affected by western music as Ming and Xing era Chinese music. However, many pieces were composed around that time thanks to the situation where the society was filled with revolutionary philosophy in the wake of the Meiji Restoration and many people other than the blind entered the world of Soh music.
In particular, many pieces were created in Osaka and these were collectively called 'Meiji shinkyoku pieces.'
However, it is regarded that few of such pieces reached the level that satisfies current players. Thanks to the unique social atmosphere at the time, "Aki no kotonoha" composed by Tokumoichi NISHIYAMA, "Kaede no hana" composed by Shunei MATSUZAKA, "Saga no aki" composed by Kikusue Kengyo and "Meiji shochikubai" composed by Yoichi KIKUZUKA etc. are often played even now as the excellent pieces. Also, there are quite a few excellent pieces of music, such as "Shiragiku" composed by Hanano TERASHIMA, which tend to be forgotten at present. Excellent pieces of music such as "Miyako no haru" etc. were created by the Yamada school as well.

When talking about Soh music during the Taisho and early Showa era, Michio MIYAGI is on the top of the list. He was a pivotal figure of new Japanese music in which the elements of western music was introduced, and he strived to activate not only Soh, but also whole of traditional Japanese music. In his representative piece 'Haru no umi,' he used harmonic accompaniment, which was rarely used in heterophony ensemble of traditional Japanese music, in the ensemble with shakuhachi (to be exact, an instrument which is shorter than shakuhachi called isshaku-rokusun). He also used Soh, instead of shakuhachi, for playing the melody in order to make the most of the instruments property, and this piece is regarded today as an excellent piece of music that represents the musical instrument Soh. In playing this piece, a violin or flute is also used in place of shakuhachi. He played this piece together with French violinist Renee Chemet at various places and introduced not only this piece of music, but also his name Michio MIYAGI as well as musical instrument Soh around the world. Other than the improvement of instrument and the creation of the pieces of music, he also strived for reviving classical pieces and educational activities. Further, he also strived to spread musical scores (music in five-line staff notation and genmeifu - a kind of taburachua music) since Soh music had been handed down orally. Michio MIYAGI belonged to the Ikuta school.

This school became the mainstream of sankyokukai and many Soh musicians, including Futaba NAKAMURA, Genchi HISAMOTO of Yamada school and Kinichi NAKANOSHIMA, composed many pieces affected by Miyagi. Also, many pieces of music in which varieties of traditional Japanese instruments are played in concert were created by other persons than Soh musicians, such as Kasho MACHIDA and Takayama TAKAMORI etc.


Today, Soh is played not only by people belonging to traditional schools (including those who are learning) but also in collaboration with classical musicians. Under 'the boom of traditional Japanese instruments' that started from 1964 among the composers of contemporary western music, varieties of traditional Japanese instruments including Soh were introduced in contemporary western music. In these pieces, traditional Japanese instruments were used in a way to make the most of their characteristics and playing style. In this sense, it is completely different from 'using Soh in substitute for piano and/or harp,' which was a common way of using traditional Japanese instruments in western music before the boom started. Activities of Hogaku Yonin no kai (the four players group), which was organized in 1957, and Nihon Ongaku shudan (the group of Japanese musicians), which started activities in 1964 prior to the boom of Japanese traditional instruments, were also significant as the activities of Japanese traditional music conducted by the western contemporary musicians. Provided, however, that while Soh music, which is easy to compose by the way of harmony, was mainly introduced into Western music in the case of new Japanese music in the era of Taisho and early Showa, shakuhachi music, which is easy to compose by the way of noise, was mainly introduced, instead of Soh, into the contemporary Western music of 1960s.

Pieces of Soh music introduced into contemporary western music

Pieces for Soh and orchestra

Joji YUASA: 'Projection for (eight) Soh and orchestra, flower, bird, wind and moon' (1967)

Minoru MIKI: 'Eurasian Trilogy ha-no kyoku,' 'Shunkinsho Jokyoku to Shunoden,' 'ka Pine Concerto,' 'Soh Concerto No.5' (these are concerto with Western music orchestra), 'Concerto Requiem' (concerto with traditional Japanese music orchestra)

Akira IFUKUBE: 'SYMPHONIC EGLOGUE for 20-Stringed Soh and orchestra' (1982)

Sohphia Gubaidulina: 'In the shadow of the tree, for one player, three Soh and orchestra' (1999)

Pieces for Soh solo

Kanichi SHINOFUSA: 'Sonata for Soh Solo' (1938), the first Soh composed by Western music composer

Minoru MIKI: 'Tenjo' (1969), the first solo for 20-stringed Soh.

Toshio HOSOKAWA: 'Kotouta'

Misato MOCHIZUKI: 'Intermezzi II'

Pieces for Soh and chamber music (traditional Japanese instruments and Western instruments)


The Ikuta school and Yamada school are the principal schools. Conspicuous differences in outward appearance are the shape of the pick and players' position against the instrument. In the case of the Ikuta school, players use kakuzume (square-shaped pick) and position themselves at an angle of about forty-five degrees left oblique against the instrument in order to use kakuzume effectively. In the case of the Yamada school, players use maruzume (a round-shaped pick) and position themselves in front of the instrument.

No particular differences exists in their repertoire since both schools mutually use their repertoire. Relatively, the Ikuta school deals with 'utamono' (a music genre) and the Ikuta school excelled in the technique of Solo. There are traces of gaku-Soh (Soh used in gagaku) in the shape of instrument (length, bulge of instrument, sound hole, detailing) used by the Ikuta school. As the instrument used by Yamada school, improved for playing zoku-Soh, it creates a bigger volume and a better tone, current products are all but the ones of Yamada school style.

However, as the unique Ryukyu Sohkyoku (Okinawa Soh music) which originated from the Yatsuhashi school has been handed down in Okinawa as well as in other regions where Okinawa culture remains, Soh of the Ikuta school style is being used in these regions even today. Except for the above, even the players of Ikuta school are using Soh of Yamada school style. When tuning Soh, attention should be paid to the fact that the name of a tune is different between the two schools.
(Example: Nagazora-choshi scale of Ikuta school = Akebono-choshi scale of Yamada school, Akebono-choshi scale of Ikuta school = Double Nagazora -choshi scale of Yamada school)

Though the number of players is quite small, there exist Yatsuhashi school, which is keeping up the playing style of the time of Yatsuhashi Kengyo, and Tsukushi school, which is keeping up the playing style of Tsukushi-Soh.

Explanation of the musical instrument

Soh is a musical instrument that is composed of a hollow body, an arch-shaped long and thin board, and 13 strings stretched over the body. Players adjust music intervals by the use of ji (bridge) and play it by plucking strings with picks (giko - tools put on the fingertip to pluck the strings) put on the fingertips of the right hand.

It has a length is about 190cm in the case of high-quality product called hongen, used by the Ikuta school, and about 182cm in the case of products used by the Yamada school. There used to be various products where the length was slightly different from the above, but Soh of the Yamada school type is dominant today except for the products used for school education purpose.

Some fragments of Soh are being preserved at Shoso-in, but it was produced by a different method from the current products. It was produced by putting four boards together in the shape of box and each board was rather thin. In the case of the current Soh, the top side and both sides of the Soh is produced by hollowing a piece of board and a separate piece of board is attached only to the underside. It is considered that such a production method became in use during the Heian period.
What was later improved by Yamada Kengyo is today's mainstream product 'Yamada Soh.'
The body is made from the empress tree. There are two types of products called 'beta' and 'kuriko' depending upon the method of production, and the latter is a high-grade product. Although many products were decorated with makie (Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder) or mokuga (wood painting) in the past in order to show the status of wealthy people, simple products which emphasized tone quality rather than decorations gradually increased since the era of Yamada Kengyo. Provided, however, that the good tone quality of instrument is closely linked to the beautiful grain of wood.

The name of each part of the instrument, such as 'ryukaku' (dragon horns), 'ryugan' (dragon eyes) and 'ryushu' (dragon hands), derived from the belief that Soh was the symbol of ryu (dragon). Shoji SHIMADA wrote his detective story "Ryugatei jiken" (The Ryugatei Murders) based on the above.

String (ito)

In the case of Japanese traditional musical instruments, a string is usually called 'ito.'
While the number of ito for standard type Soh has been 13 since the Nara period, Soh with more strings was once produced during the Edo period. Since the Meiji era, various kinds of multiple-string Soh, including 17-stringed Soh, have been produced. Each 13 ito has a name; namely, starting from the opposite side of player, ito is counted 'ichi' (first), 'ni' (second), 'san' (third), 'shi' (fourth) and from the 10th ito, it is called 'to', 'i' and 'kin'. Another name is used in the case of Tsukushi-Soh. Thickness of ito varies widely. Yellow-colored ito was common previously with few exceptions of blue or red ones, but plain white ones are popular at present. As with ito of other traditional Japanese musical instruments, ito is produced by twisting four threads and pasting them together. Its material was originally silk, but polyester is mainly used for zoku-Soh (modern Soh) at present. The reason for the above is that thanks to Tetron's strong tension, players can create good tone quality with long-lasting resonance by stretching it tightly. Other reasons are that players are not required to worry about an incident where ito is broken while playing, and that its price is less expensive compared with the silk product. However, there exists players who favor the unique sound of silk thread, and its tone quality of surizume (rubbing strings by picks) is far better than polyester. Silk thread is mainly used for gaku-Soh even today.

Tsume (pick)

Tsume (giko) should be placed on the pads of three fingers, thumb, forefinger and middle finger, of the right hand (be careful that it's not on the fingernails). Tsume used for gagaku is round-shaped and small. Tsume used by the Ikuta school is called kakuzume and its tip is wide and square-shaped. Tsume used by the Yamada school is called maruzume and its tip is round-shaped. Tone quality is subtly different due to the difference in the shape of tsume. Other than the above, other types, such as one where the tip becomes wider, were used historically. Thickness has gradually become thinner after the war. Tsume is made of ivory (except for products for gagaku). Although the price of ivory has soared recently because of unavailability caused by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Washington Convention), substitute plastic is being used only for the products for school educational purpose.


Ji is a part of Soh which corresponds to koma or bridge of other stringed instruments, and its function is to prop ito, defining pitch and transmitting vibration to the body. Although small and short ones are used for gaku-Soh, bigger ones are commonly used for current Soh which requires a large volume. Various kinds of ji, such as one to which a supplementary small prop is attached, one where foot propping the string of the highest note is modified or one which is designed to prevent it from falling, are in use. Karaki (imported wood) was mainly used as material in the past, but the product made of ivory is regarded as the best today. However, plastic products are widely used at present since ivory is very expensive. Other than the above, products made of whale bone were also often used previously. Some old products were decorated with makie.

Musical instruments improved since the early modern times

Recently developed Soh is called 'shin-Soh' (literally, new Soh). Among others, jushichigen-Soh (17-stringed Soh) developed by Michio MIYAGI is the most famous one and it has already become common. In order to be used in an ensemble, its number of strings was increased so that the bass register sounds good. It is commonly used in many pieces of Soh music composed since the era of Miyagi. Other instruments developed by Michio MIYAGI are tangoto (short stringed instrument), which was developed for education and promotion purpose, and super-large hachijugen (80-stringed instrument), which was produced on a trial basis.

Other than the above, various types of Soh were invented recently such as nijugen-Soh (20-stringed Soh, actually it was 21-stringed), which was jointly developed by composer Minoru MIKI and Soh musician Keiko NOSAKA in 1969, nijugogen-Soh (25-stringed Soh), sanjugen-Soh (30-stringed Soh) and sanjunigen-Soh (32-stringed Soh). Contemporary composers (those of 'modern Japanese traditional music' whose origin are Japanese traditional music as well as those of 'modern music' whose origin are western music) are trying to create new musical pieces using such newly developed instruments. Among others, nijugen-Soh is often used and has been gradually popularized.

Incidentally, taishogoto (Japanese harp with three to five strings) is a fundamentally different instrument from Soh because it is categorized into kin group based on the law of making sound.

Principal production centers

Fukuyama City (its production amount accounts for seventy percent of nation's total amount)

Similar musical instruments in other countries than Japan

In China, there exist many kinds of stringed instrument that belong to zither group depending upon the ages, regions, or styles. Generally, a musical instrument called 'tzen' refers to Soh.
(Same Chinese character 'Soh' (箏) is used.)

In the Korean peninsula, there exists a 12-stringed instrument called "kayagumu," and people play it with their fingertips while placing the front part on their knee. Shiragigoto' preserved at Shoso-in is said to be the initial-stage kayagumu. There also exists six-stringed instrument with fixed fret called komungo, and people play it using a stick (spoon). In addition, there exists a seven-stringed instrument called ajen, and people play it by rubbing strings with a branch of weeping forsythia.

As seen from the fact that Soh is categorized into the zither group, zither is a similar musical instrument in Europe. Zither is not a commonly-used musical instrument in Europe, but a folk instrument of the Alpine region (especially Austria). Another similar musical instrument in Europe is kantere, a folk musical instrument of Finland.