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  • The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan
  • David Waterhouse
The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan. By Henry Johnson. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2004. 200 pages, 108 color and black-and-white illustrations, 19 tables. Hardcover £50.00/US$78.50.

This handsomely produced book, which even includes a silk bookmarker, fills a gap for both the general reader and the specialist. Its most original and interesting feature is a series of detailed photographs and explanations about the manufacture of koto, and the text is well documented, with a full bibliography. However, there are puzzling omissions, stylistic flaws, and careless errors.

In the Sachs-Hornbostel classification of musical instruments, the koto is to be classified technically as a half-tube zither, but this is by analogy with whole-tube zithers made from bamboo, such as those of Madagascar or Sulawesi. The soundboard of a koto is an artificially hollowed plank, which follows the curvature of a solid tree-trunk, not a tube. It would be more accurate, therefore, to regard it as a type of board zither, and Henry Johnson notes that some Japanese scholars have done so (p. 167, n. 2). The proper Chinese character for koto, read , has the bamboo radical, perhaps reflecting the original construction of the Chinese zheng, but this is irrelevant to the construction of the koto as it has existed in Japan since the eighth century. The alternative character for koto, read kin, strictly signifies the Chinese seven-stringed qin, but it has more honorific associations and has regularly been used for the koto, which differs typologically both in the number of its strings and in having bridges for each of them. Unfortunately, Johnson, relying on statements by Elizabeth Falconer, gives incorrect explanations of both these graphs (p. 31, p. 167, n. 5), the lower parts of which are phonetics, not to be interpreted semantically.

It is interesting to learn that almost all koto players today, regardless whether they belong to Yamada-ryû or to the dominant Ikuta-ryû, use the Yamada-goto, an [End Page 293] improved koto developed by Yamada Kengyô (1757-1817). This instrument projects the sound well and, like the Steinway grand piano, has become the established standard for public performance, though players in Ikuta-ryû continue to use lighter picks. Today, about 70 percent of all koto are made in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture. Johnson lists the prices of modern koto, which seem to depend above all on the degree of decoration lavished on them. Koto are now being made also in China, as increased demand resulted from a decision in 2002 of the Ministry of Education to make some study of traditional music compulsory in the schools.

Johnson rightly characterizes this decision as an instance of the reinvention of tradition. There are other such examples in the history of Japanese music: consequences of the impact of war, revolution, natural disaster, and nostalgia. As Johnson notes, cultural nationalism was an added element in this case, as indicated by the convenient term hôgaku, corresponding to Vaughan Williams's "National Music." Debate over the integration of Western and traditional Japanese music in the curriculum has been going on since early Meiji times, although it was prefigured by discussions in Japanese Jesuit circles in the late sixteenth century. Recently a similar debate has raged in traditional music circles in South Korea.

The framework of the book is more ethnographic than historical. Johnson borrows the fashionable metaphor of Japanese culture as being wrapped in layers of meaning, but he does not develop it consistently, and, while documenting his references carefully, he hardly considers layers of historical meaning. History is largely disposed of in the first chapter, leaving the reader to piece together much of the story from subsequent allusions in the text or footnotes. The author's bias towards Ikuta-ryû means that the profound contribution of Yamada Kengyô as a composer, and those of his modern successor Nakanoshima Kin'ichi (1904-1984) as composer, performer, editor, and teacher, are not given their due. The many boxed sets of LPs of koto music that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s included Nakanoshima's own recordings of both the Yamada...


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pp. 293-295
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