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date: 08 April 2020

  • Komoda Haruko
  • , revised by Hugh de Ferranti

Generic term for lutes of Japan. First brought from China to Japan by the late 7th century, diverse forms of biwa subsequently developed for the performance of various kinds of oral narrative and Buddhist ritual texts, and have been played in many strata of Japanese society. While dimensions and playing techniques vary, all biwa share a shallow, pear-shaped body and rather short neck, four or more wooden frets, a shallow wooden bridge, and four or five strings played with a large plectrum. Except for two archaic instruments, the gogen-biwa and the genkan, the strings are secured to tuning pegs inserted into a pegbox bent back nearly perpendicularly to the neck. Common to the forms of biwa that developed after the 17th century is a buzzing tone quality (sawari) produced by contact between a vibrating string and the upper surface of either a fret or the joint of the neck and pegbox. In modern performance the gakubiwa and heikebiwa are held horizontally, while other forms are held at a diagonal or, in the case of some styles of satsumabiwa, nearly vertically.


The biwa in the Shōsōin.








Satsumabiwa, chikuzenbiwa, and biwa in modern music.

Biwa, Japan.

(Aurelia W. Hartenberger, EdD)

1. The biwa in the Shōsōin.

Three varieties of ancient East Asian lute are preserved in the Shōsōin (J.NR.s). All have been repaired during the last 150 years. The first kind has four strings, four frets, and a pegbox sharply angled back from the neck. This form arrived in China from western Asia via the Silk Road and was already extremely popular during the Tang dynasty (618–907 ce), when it was used in both foreign-influenced and Chinese popular music. Five biwa of this type, mostly well preserved, are in the Shōsōin. They are some 100 cm long, with decorated backs and pictures painted on the parchment which is glued to the front. They exemplify the instruments of the Tang dynasty and the Nara period (710–94 ce) of Japan. The four-string instrument became the exclusive biwa of gagaku, with its basic construction hardly altered over time.

For the second and third varieties, called gogenbiwa and genkan respectively, the only known extant examples are those in the Shōsōin. The first, with five strings (gogenbiwa, ‘five-stringed biwa’), five frets, and a straight pegbox, arrived in China about the 5th or 6th century, perhaps from the Indian subcontinent. This form of instrument had been used in ensembles that performed for banquets at the High Tang court. It appears to have died out very early in Japan, although some of its repertory has survived in notated form. The genkan is a round-bodied, long-necked lute with a straight pegbox and multiple frets—more than ten on one of the two examples in the Shōsōin. While its origins remain unclear, in Chinese usage it predates both the gakubiwa and the gogenbiwa, having been referred to as the Qin pipa until the Tang period, and subsequently the ruan (xian), after the name of a 3rd-century musician who was one of the ‘seven sages of the bamboo grove’. This form of instrument is the ancestor of the yueqin (Jap. gekkin).

2. Gakubiwa.

The four-string biwa of the kind preserved in the Shōsōin became an indispensable instrument of tōgaku, the Chinese repertory of gagaku. This instrument is now called gakubiwa, meaning ‘biwa for gagaku.’ A number of male and female nobles of the Heian period (794–1185) who were skilful biwa players are known, and others are associated with solo pieces for biwa.

The gakubiwa is the largest of all forms (see Table 1). In antiquity and the medieval period three models were used, being the size of the modern gakubiwa, 90 to 100 cm long; smaller ones 80 to 90 cm long; and ones less than 80 cm long, played by women and children. In the gagaku ensemble nowadays the player holds the instrument horizontally and plucks with a relatively thin, round-tipped plectrum wielded at an acute angle to the four strings. Unlike biwa used for vocal performance, the gakubiwa’s timbre lacks the sawari. The strings are touched lightly against the top surface of each of four frets, without additional pressure to produce higher pitches. The biwa is now in effect the bass instrument of the ensemble and has a stabilizing effect on both rhythm and melody. Tunings named after the seven modes of tōgaku practice are used, with the second and seventh being the ‘same’ tuning for distinct modes, as shown in Table 1 above.

Table 1  Dimensions and characteristics of principal forms of biwa.




tuning of strings*


about 100 cm


ichikotsuchō A–d–e–a

hyōjo/taishikicho E–B–e–a

sōjō G–A–d–g

ōshikichō A–c–e–a

suijō A–B–e–a

banshikichō F♯–B–e–a


about 60 cm



(Tsugaru school, until c1965) A–c–e–a


various, but commonly about 85 cm

rokuchōshi A–d–e–e

honchōshi A–d–a–a

chikuzen biwa


about 83 cm


honchōshi A–d–a–a




hikyoku-chōshi A–e–a–a


satsuma biwa

about 91 cm







The gakubiwa comprises four main parts, the body, soundtable, neck, and pegbox, and smaller parts including the pegs, bridge, nut, plectrum guard, frets, and strings. Woods imported from southeast Asia are commonly used for some of these parts, for example rosewood and quince for the body and neck. The soundtable is usually of Japanese chestnut. The pegbox and the plectrum are of boxwood. A leather plectrum guard is stretched beneath the strings where the plectrum strikes.

3. Heikebiwa.

According to Yoshida Kenkō’s essay Tsurezuregusa (‘Gleanings from my Leisure Hours’, c1330), a blind man named Shōbutsu founded the heike narrative performance tradition of the biwa hōshi (literally ‘biwa monks’; blind biwa-playing singers who wore the garb of Buddhist priests). After Shōbutsu this new tradition was mainly transmitted by the Ichikata and Yasaka groups of biwa hōshi in Kyoto. Both groups accompanied their recitation on the heikebiwa, an instrument adapted from the middle-sized gakubiwa with the addition of a fifth fret from at least the end of the 13th century.

The heikebiwa is about 80 to 90 cm long and has four strings and five frets. It is sounded by a larger, sharper-tipped plectrum, which some claim is similar to the ancient and medieval form of the plectrum for gakubiwa. Left-hand fingering is behind the upper edge of the frets. At the fourth fret of the fourth string, finger pressure raises pitch by about a minor 2nd after the string is plucked (yuru). The standard tuning system is the same as ōshikichō of the gakubiwa, approximately A–c–e–a, but with the open first string pitched relative to the tessitura of the player’s voice. In Nagoya traditional practice the open second string never sounds because the first fret is shaped and positioned so that the second string is continually in contact with its top surface. This creates the sawari effect in combination with the first and third open strings, which pass just slightly above the first fret and therefore vibrate against it. The first fret’s primary function is to create sawari. Nonetheless a brief C♯ is sounded on the second string at the first fret in the hiroi, sanjū and chūon instrumental patterns and when the plectrum rapidly strikes across all four strings, although in both cases the string is damped immediately after being plucked. The second fret of the instrument is hardly ever used (but has been retained for largely symbolic reasons) and has no fixed position; it is placed approximately halfway between the first and third frets. The third, fourth, and fifth frets produce tones approximately a major 3rd, perfect 4th, and perfect 5th above the open string tone, respectively.

From the 17th century on, heikebiwa were constructed by makers of koto and shamisen. Well-known craftsmen who excelled at heikebiwa construction in the Edo period include the Nagata family.

4. Mōsōbiwa.

Hardly any reliable documentary evidence remains regarding the origin of mōsōbiwa. Legends passed down among mōsō (literally ‘blind monks’, a group of biwa hōshi who formed their own professional organization in the 18th century) reflect the musicians’ need to claim ancient and prestigious origins for their practice and their instruments, but have no known historical basis. However, recent research suggests that the mōsōbiwa was derived from heikebiwa under the strong influence of music of the shamisen during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

From the early 20th century, some mōsō and blind musicians of Kyushu who played secular repertory on the biwa started to use standard four-string chikuzenbiwa and satsumabiwa (albeit with carrying straps, often made from a string of prayer beads) in household rites. In ensemble performances in principal temples of the two Kyushu-based Tendai-affiliated mōsō sects, those same instruments have been used since at least the late 1970s. Before that the biwa used were smaller and of diverse construction.

In the late 17th century, the height and position of frets on the heikebiwa did not lend themselves to playing song tunes of the day, and were also inconvenient for playing glides between pitches and microtonal ornaments. Mōsō solved the problem by using taller frets on the heikebiwa and changing the left-hand technique to one based on finger pressure: a player places his fingers between the frets and produces the appropriate pitch by pressing the string towards the neck. The height of the frets generated this manner of fingering, which is peculiar to the mōsōbiwa and its later offshoots, the satsumabiwa and chikuzenbiwa. While it is fundamentally different from the left-hand technique of the gakubiwa, it might have derived from a practice called yuru on the heikebiwa, whereby the pitch produced at the fourth fret of the fourth string is modified by slight left-hand pressure after the string is plucked.

While apparently having developed from the heikebiwa, the instruments of mōsōbiwa came to have diverse forms, all with four strings and tall frets. The slimmer type, known as sasabiwa (‘bamboo-leaf biwa’) because of its narrow body, is similar in width and depth to the shamisen. Other forms include uguisu-biwa and hyōichi-biwa, both shorter, rounder-bodied instruments. A large form of sasa-biwa with a relatively deep resonating chamber was used by many zatō in the Higo (Kumamoto) region until the early 20th century. There is a strong sawari element in the sound of extant mōsōbiwa, and around Kyushu various techniques were employed to create the instrument’s sawari, including the insertion of a detachable strip of bamboo between the strings and the bridge, and the insertion of extra soundposts. The history of this characteristic is hard to verify, and debate continues as to whether the sawari on shamisen was devised in imitation of biwa, or vice versa. Mōsō sometimes call the first fret on their instrument the sawariji (‘the fret that produces sawari’). This nomenclature suggests that the first fret of the heikebiwa has also been used as a sawari-producing device, and perhaps points to the origin of mōsōbiwa in modification of the heikebiwa.

Plectra and tunings vary by region. The tuning used for secular narrative repertory is usually the shamisen’s honchōshi tuning, but with strings three and four in unison: B-e-b-b (relative pitch). For ritual music, the rokuchōshi tuning of A-e-a-a is primarily used by chikuzen mōsō, while satsuma mōsō have used the tuning e-B-e-b in their annual ‘Myō-on Jūnigaku’ ceremony.

The outstanding structural characteristic of mōsōbiwa is their high frets. Some extant examples have the nut and pegbox made from a single piece of wood. Beneath the bridge there is usually a soundpost, which is not found on either the gakubiwa or heikebiwa. Cheap Japanese timber, commonly chinaberry (sendan) and zelkova (keyaki), forms the bulk of the materials. No leather is used to protect the soundboard, but the area where the strings are plucked is distinguished either by dark lacquer or an upper and lower line across the soundtable. Many mōsōbiwa are decorated with symbols of the sun and moon near the top of the soundtable, a feature related to the use of the instrument in rites of folk religion related to Taoist practices. There is little evidence for the existence of professional makers of mōsōbiwa; rather, instruments were often made by carpenters and cabinetmakers.

5. Satsumabiwa, chikuzenbiwa, and biwa in modern music.

In the late 17th century, when biwa hōshi in central Japan were largely active as players of shamisen rather than biwa, and were under the protection of the tōdōza guild, non-guild-member biwa hōshi in Kyushu were struggling for survival under persecution initiated by the tōdōza. The blind priests’ secular repertory was well received in the southernmost domain of Satsuma by lower-rank samurai called gōshi, who developed new playing techniques and repertory for the mōsōbiwa. This was the likely origin of satsumabiwa, but most writings by biwa players give a different account, in which a remodelling of the mōsōbiwa and the composition of texts for the earliest repertory are attributed to 16th-century lords of the Satsuma domain. The history of this music and the instruments used remain obscure, and no satsumabiwa from before the 19th century have survived.

Suitō Kinjo (1911–73), a performer who established her own school, invented a new form of the instrument with five frets and five strings; both the instrument and her school are called nishikibiwa. Tsuruta Kinshi (1911–95), a pupil of Suitō Kinjo, developed the technical potential of the nishikibiwa by slightly modifying the five-string instrument and devising z-shaped frets to improve pitch accuracy in rapid melodic passages. Performers trained by Tsuruta Kinshi have continued to make innovations in instrumental technique.

The satsumabiwa is about 90 cm long, a little shorter than the gakubiwa, and has four strings and four frets. The foremost distinguishing structural features are the very large, thin hardwood plectrum, tall frets, and the instrument’s slightly convex soundtable. The plectrum is often intentionally struck against the soundtable, either by itself or concurrently with a plucked string. Claims that the outward curve of the soundtable was influenced by the form of European string instruments introduced to Kyushu in the 16th century are at odds with the fact that the soundtable is not convex on extant 18th-century mōsōbiwa from the region. The four-string variety is now often called the seiha (orthodox school) instrument. All Nishikibiwa and Tsuruta-ryū players have adopted the five-string instrument.

The seiha instrumental technique is distinguished by production of ornamental figures through left-hand pressure. Commonly-used pitches for the first string are between g and c, depending on the singer’s tessitura, and the standard tuning is so-re-so-la with the fifth string on the nishikibiwa usually being tuned to the same pitch as the fourth so as to form a double course. Some players prefer to raise by a semitone or more the pitch of the open fourth string, which is not sounded in traditional repertory, so as to reduce the finger pressure required to produce fretted tones on that string. Tsuruta-ryū players use other tunings for particular songs, and for modern repertory tunings vary widely. As on all kinds of biwa, except the gakubiwa and the heikebiwa, the intervals between frets are not fixed, because players can easily produce the desired pitches by depressing the strings. The plectrum, measuring 26 to 30 cm across, can be used to produce extremely delicate as well as powerful sounds.

A very large plectrum, slightly convex soundtable, tall nut, and tall frets distinguish the satsumabiwa. The back of the neck and the body are made of one piece of wood, as are the soundtable and front of the neck. The slight outward curve of the latter is not found on any other form of biwa. Mulberry wood is considered best, but zelkova is also commonly used. Among the few professional makers of satsumabiwa active in the 21st century, Ishida Fushiki (b 1937) has been officially designated a craftsman of importance for Japan’s cultural heritage.

Satsumabiwa was popular in Tokyo by the 1890s, but about the same time Tachibana Chijō and others in the Fukuoka area founded a new school of biwa based on the old mōsō tradition of the Chikuzen region and several other influences, including satsumabiwa and certain forms of shamisen music. This school, called chikuzenbiwa, flourished soon after Tachibana Chijō came to Tokyo to propagate the tradition at the beginning of the 20th century.

Chikuzenbiwa musicians use an instrument that is a little shorter than the satsumabiwa and has four or five strings and five frets. The tuning of the four-string type is relative to the voice of the singer, but is approximately b–e–b–b′, the same as the shamisen’s basic tuning, for all repertory except a small number of advanced pieces. The five-string chikuzenbiwa’s tuning is approximately e–b–e–f♯–b′. The four-string instrument was a little-altered version of a form of biwa played by mōsō in the Chikuzen region of Kyushu, and inherited from the mōsōbiwa a strong sawari, enhanced by the placement of bamboo strips across the top of its frets. The instrument is hardly used today because of its small volume and the simplicity of its technique and musical style. The ornate instrumental patterns developed for both varieties of chikuzenbiwa require rapid left-hand movement over the frets, as well as subtle microtonal inflection of individual pitches.

The most distinctive structural characteristic of the chikuzenbiwa is that its soundtable of paulownia is inserted into the top of the body. It has tall frets like the satsumabiwa, and accordingly the nut is also tall, but unlike satsumabiwa it is made from the same piece of wood as the pegbox. The shape of the plectrum for the four-string model closely resembles that of a shamisen plectrum, while the broader-tipped version for the five-string model reflects the influence of the satsumabiwa plectrum. While there were many professional makers of chikuzenbiwa in the first half of the 20th century, there are very few today.


  • K. Hayashi and others: Shōsōin no gakki [Musical instruments in the Shōsōin treasury] (Tokyo, 1967) [with English summary]
  • F. Koizumi, Y. Tokumaru, and O. Yamaguchi, eds.: ‘Satsumabiwa’, Asian Musics in an Asian Perspective (Tokyo, 1977), 223–6
  • S.G. Nelson: ‘Gogen-fu shinkō—omo ni gogen-biwa no jūsei oyobi chōgen ni tsuite’ [The Gogen-fu, a Japanese Heian-period tablature score for five-stringed lute: concentrating on the fret system and tunings of the instrument], Tōyō Ongaku Kenkyū, vol.51 (1986), 13–76 [Eng. summary 4–9]
  • H. Komoda and G. Gish: ‘Biwa style and instrument making’, Der Schone KIang: Studien zum historischen Musikinstrumentenbau in Deutschland und Japon (Nuremberg, 1996), 26l–9
  • H. de Ferranti: Japanese musical instruments (New York, 2000), 9, 32, 34
  • S. Guignard: ‘Biwa Traditions’, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol.7, ed. R.C. Provine, Y. Tokumaru, and J.L. Witzleben (New York and London, 2002), 643–52
  • H. Komoda: ‘Nihon no biwa: gakki no shurui to hensen’ [The biwa of Japan: instrument types and their historical changes], Nihon no Gakki: Atarashii Gakkigaku e Mukete [Japanese musical instruments: toward a new organology] (Tokyo, 2003), 61–70 [with Eng. summary, ‘Biwa: its types and changes’]
  • H. de Ferranti: ‘The Kyushu biwa traditions’, The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music, ed. A.M. Tokita and D.W. Hughes (Aldershot, 2008), 105–26