- The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan
After a woefully long absence of new scholarly works in English on Japanese music, particularly on music for the koto, Henry Johnson's The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan is a welcome addition to the present literature in Western languages. The book is particularly welcome as the author has taken a novel approach to the koto, and in doing so provided a wealth of information not readily available in English.
The novelty of Johnson's approach is to examine the koto as an object of Japanese [End Page 127] music material culture. The three major koto types are discussed; nonetheless, the author's primary interest and the focus of the book is the zokusô, the koto of the Edo period (1600–1867) and sôkyoku-jiuta. There is therefore no music analysis and very little discussion of the different sôkyoku genres. Instead, the author takes three ethnographic approaches to understanding the koto: the first is an analysis of the form or shape of the instrument, the second an analysis of performance traditions, and the third an analysis of the performance context. Thus, after the first chapter, which presents a basic history of the koto and argues for the instrument being imbued with cultural and historical significance, each of the central chapters of the book examines the koto through one of the aforementioned analytical approaches.
For the first analytical lens, Chapter 2 presents an important review of the different terms used in discussions of the koto. Following this is a beautifully illustrated historical overview of the gakusô (the gagaku koto), the chikusô (the koto of Tsukushi-goto), and the instruments of the zokusô traditions, primarily the Ikuta-goto and the Yamada-goto. The author outlines both the changes that have taken place in the construction of the instrument and the social contexts for each of the three types of koto. Also included is an invaluable history of the early experiments in creating differently sized koto (soprano, alto, 17-stringed bass, and others) undertaken during the early twentieth century with the New Japanese Movement and figures such as Miyagi Michio. There is also a detailed examination of the instrument's subclassifications and the differences in the decorations used by manufacturers to distinguish the various levels of instrument quality.
In arguing for the koto being an instrument imbued with multiple layers of cultural significance, Chapter 3 continues the exploration of the koto through the same analytical lens as the preceding chapter. There is an exquisitely detailed discussion of the manufacturing process of the koto and the aesthetic judgments made in determining the different grades of instrument, from student models to instruments used by professional musicians. For those with organological tendencies, the chapter is replete with photographs showing the different stages in the construction of the instrument. The sheer amount of information Johnson provides, from the nomenclature used to indicate the different parts of the koto to the type of brocade placed under the strings at the end of the koto or the differences in plectra used by the different traditions, is extraordinary, and the chapter is a treasure trove of information.
In Chapter 4 Johnson traces the development of the koto as a traditional Japanese instrument from its position within different social contexts. He thus touches upon the various groups—from the Heian-period aristocracy through the Edo-period blind musician's guild—that maintained and performed the [End Page 128] koto, and also discusses the geographical distribution of the instrument. This chapter provides valuable insights to the social structure of the present-day groups that developed out of the Edo-period traditions, their licensing systems, and the practice of artistic names that are such a fixture in the Japanese arts. This is in turn accompanied with an equally indispensable section that provides definitions and explanations of the fundamental terminology used in any discussion of the Japanese performing arts and their...