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Geisha Culture and Arts for Use at

Amatsu Okiya in Second Life

Maiko 6: Music

The Nara period, (710-794) is the first major historic period in Japan, and the first international period in Japanese music history. Court music came from China, Korea and India, and was mostly played by foreign musicians. Folk music had continued to develop in it's relation to dance and festivals in villages throughout Japan, while Buddhist ritual music became well known during this period.

Heian period (794-1185) began to see a moderation of Chinese influence in music as the Japanese culture began to develop its own ways.

Kamakura period (1185-1333) was the era of the Shogun. During this time period there was more emphasis on Buddhist chants, vocals and dramatic music.

The Muromachi period (1333-1568), saw a continuation of dramatic and theatrical music as the way was prepared for noh drama. At the same time, shakuhachi bamboo flute began to be heard, played by wandering priests.

Noh continued to flourish during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), also noted as the era during which the sanshin (lute) was introduced to Okinawa, soon to arrive on the Japanese mainland and transformed into the shamisen.

The Edo period (1600-1868) marks a period of status quo, and the development of a bourgeois art and the development of the pleasure quarters of the bigger cities. Shamisen, koto and shakuhachi all flourished during this period.


Popular songs in Japan were known as zokuyo. The most popular songs were known as hauta (small song) Iyobushi (song of Iyo region) and Otsu-e bushi (songs on the picture of Otsu).

The term for regional music, or folk songs is min'yo. Farmers planting their rice crops, fishermen pulling in their nets and lullabies are constant themes. The social status of folk songs was raised with the introduction of the shakuhachi at the beginning of the twentieth century.


Traditional shima uta or island songs are accompanied by the sanshin, a three stringed lute with a resonance box covered in snake skin. The sanshin, at the heart of traditional music, came from China some 500 years ago. These days Okinawan instrument makers commonly use a synthetic snake skin, although skins are still imported from Indonesia. The Okinawan pentatonic scale (do-mi-fa-so-ti) is identical to that used in some areas of Indonesia and related to scales used in Polynesia and Micronesia. The song texts are based on the ryuka metrical structure comprised of four lines of 8-8-8-6 syllables, as opposed to the Japanese 26 syllable structure.

The upbeat dance songs are known as katcharsee. Taiko drums, the big shima daiko and the hand held parlanque accompany the sanshin. Singers and dancers add to the rhythm with their castanets called sanbas. It's to the katcharsee numbers that Okinawans love to sing and dance. Arms are raised and hands waved wildly to the infectious rhythm.

Shima Uta is very much alive on Okinawa today, a part of everyday life. Unique within modern day Japan.

More about the History of Japanese Music

retrieved 7/21/08 from


1. Go to the Websites below and read about the instruments...You will find some history, some information on construction and other tid-bits of information about each instrument. In some cases there are videos and virtual instruments for you to try! FUN!

2. In the forums, write a note on each instrument and one fact about each one that "struck a chord with you" - sorry for the pun - couldn't resist!


Shakuhachi Read the following on this site -

  • Origins and history of the shakuhachi
  • Shakuhachi: the sound of nature
  • Bamboo used for shakuhachi

Taiko Read overview and Taiko in Japanese history

Shamisen click on the link to play

Shamisen2 read about the shamisen

Read about the biwa and then watch the video

Biwa You Tube


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