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  • David W. Hughes
  •  and Henry Johnson

Spike fiddle of Japan (from ko: ‘foreign’, ‘barbarian’; and kyū: ‘bow’). It is about 69 cm long, with a soundbox measuring 14 × 12 × 7.5 cm; the bow is about 95 to 120 cm long. This is Japan’s only indigenously evolved fiddle (although several others were used in minshingaku music). It is smaller than the shamisen, but otherwise nearly identical in shape and construction, differing mainly in its long spike, the shape and position of the bridge, and the lack of any device to generate the buzzing sound (sawari). The kokyū is held vertically, its spike inserted between the knees of the kneeling performer or (especially for women) resting on the floor in front of the knees. As with the Javanese rebab the instrument itself, not the bow, is rotated to select the appropriate string; the bow always follows the same path. There are usually three strings, but certain schools double the highest string (a practice introduced in the mid-18th century).

The kokyū had appeared at least by the early 17th century; in early depictions its body is smaller and rounder than that of the modern instrument. It might have developed from a marriage of the shamisen not with a jinghu-type Chinese lute but with the European rebec, a hypothesis suggested by organological evidence, by Japan’s ties with Europe about the time the kokyū appeared, and by the apparent occurrence of raheika (the Japanese word for rebec is rabeika) as an early alternative name for the instrument. The kokyū was quickly adopted both by low-caste itinerants and by the guild of blind shamisen and koto players. The blind musicians developed a small repertory of ‘basic pieces’ (honkyoku), a few of which survive. By the mid-17th century the kokyū alternated with the hitoyogiri as the third member of the sankyoku (chamber music) trio. In the bunraku puppet theatre it joined the shamisen in scenes of extreme pathos. It also came to be used in certain regional folk music. By the late 19th century the role of the kokyū in sankyoku had been usurped by the shakuhachi except in accompaniments to the stately jiuta-mai dances. Today it survives mainly as an instrument of worship in the Tenri-Kyō religion. The kokyū is usually tuned a 5th above the shamisen, in san-sagari tuning. It does not change tuning in mid-piece, unlike the shamisen and koto.

The kokyū resembles the Okinawan kūchō, although the relationship has not yet been clarified.

A very small version of the kokyū, about 40 cm long, is the hina-kokyū (from hina: ‘princess’). It is modelled after Edo-period (1600–1868) toy instruments that were accessories to toy dolls given to young girls. The instrument is unusual, but nowadays players such as Ishida Nehito sometimes use it. A much larger version is the dai-kokyū, which was devised in 1926 by Miyagi Michio (1894–1956). The name of the instrument refers to its size and type (dai: large). As with some of Miyagi’s other new instruments, the dai-kokyū was an extension of a traditional Japanese form into the modern era with the intention of bringing further registers and sonorities to new Japanese ensemble music. It has three strings and is about the same size as a shamisen. It was never popularized although it is still used in several of Miyagi’s compositions, as well as by players such as Azechi Keiji of the contemporary ensemble Nihon Ongaku Shūdan (Pro Musica Nipponia or Ensemble Nipponia; founded in 1964), and in the contemporary crossover music of Ishida Nehito, who uses his own four-string version. A more recent version is the gogen (five strings) kokyū, which has a lower register. It was devised by Hara Kazuo in 2003 and is rarely heard in public performance.


  • S. Kishibe: The Traditional Music of Japan (Tokyo, 1966, 2/1981), pl.53
  • D. Waterhouse: ‘An Early Illustration of the 4-Stringed Kokyū’, Oriental Art, xvi/2 (1970), 162–8
  • F. Koizumi, Y. Tokumaru, and O. Yamaguchi, eds.: Asian Musics in an Asian Perspective (Tokyo, 1977), 187
  • J. Katsumura: ‘Some Innovations in Musical Instruments of Japan During the 1920s’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol.18 (1986), 157–72
  • A.E. Prescott: Miyagi Michio—the Father of Modern Koto Music: his Life, Works and Innovations, and the Environment which Enabled his Reforms (diss., Kent State U., 1997)