Learning About Koto and Shamisen from Virtuoso Yoko Kimura

It’s a rare opportunity to see a virtuoso give a lecture about the history of ancient Japanese instruments, so JapanCulture•NYC was delighted to see Yoko Kimura’s workshop on Thursday evening.

Yoko Reikano Kimura, an expert performer of traditional and contemporary music for the koto and shamisen, described the instruments and demonstrated the versatility of each at an intimate gathering at Michiko Studios in Times Square.

In Japan the koto has a 400-year history, arriving from China in the 8th century. Kimura says originally the koto was played by monks and aristocrats. During the Edo period Yatsuhashi Kengyo, a blind koto master, developed the foundation of modern koto music.

Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto, shamisen, NYC, Japanese traditional music, Japanese culture, music
Yoko Kimura describes the koto

Lyrics to songs came from old literature, and the koto’s sound seems rooted in nature, as with most artistic and aesthetic elements in Japan. Kimura describes the music from the Yamada School, of which she is a student, to be reminiscent of beautiful scenery and quite emotional.

“The koto imitates the sound of a waterfall,” says Kimura, “and Japanese people like to hear the sounds of nature.”

Those delicate sounds emanate from a piece of hollow paulownia wood that is more than six feet long. Kimura compared the koto to a dragon. The ends of the koto represent the horns and tail of the mythical creature, and the bridges resemble its scales.

Koto performances generally included the shakuhachi, the ancient Japanese flute. But after World War II, Kimura says, more contemporary music was composed for the koto. These days the koto accommodates a wide range of styles from the classics to contemporary pieces (see the New York-based rock band Ten).

Kimura also performed on the shamisen, which she says is her favorite instrument. Like the koto, this three-stringed banjo-like instrument came from China, although much later, possibly the 15th or 16th century, after becoming popular in Okinawa first.

It’s hard to believe that so much sound can come from only three strings. In Kimura’s performance, she played both slow and aggressive music, demonstrating several different techniques. There are three basic types of shamisen, Kimura explains, and the size of each impacts the sound it produces. These different sounds are found in kabuki, puppet theatre, and folk music.


Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto, shamisen, NYC, Japanese traditional music, Japanese culture, music
Yoko Kimura on shamisen

Kimura brings her knowledge and expertise of these ancient Japanese instruments to a concert with shakuhachi Grand Master James Nyoraku Schlefer at Tenri Cultural Institute on Sunday, October 14. Click here for details.