The koto is one of the oldest Japanese instruments, brought to Japan from China in the 7th or 8th century. Originally, the koto was played by blind court musicians as part of a chamber ensemble. In the Edo period (17th century), Yatsuhashi Kengyo(1614-1685), one of the blind koto masters, succeeded in transforming the koto into a solo instrument. In 20th century, Michio Miyagi (1894-1956), also a blind koto player, introduced styles of western music into koto composition. Around 1920, he introduced the 17- string bass koto. This instrument was originally used for accompaniment, but today there are many solo pieces for the 17-string koto particularly in the Sawai school which is an offshoot of the Miyagi School.
There are two main schools of koto music, Yamada, originally popular in the Kanto plain around Tokyo, and Ikuta, more popular in Kansai, the area around Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya. Although originally, there was differnces in the length of the koto, now both schools use the same kind of instrument. The main differnences today are in the shape of pick, and thus the technique. In the Yamada style, the tips of the picks are used, the player's knees rest evenly against the koto. In the Ikuta style, the left edge of the thumb's pick and the right edges of the finger picks are used, so the optimum sound can be achieved by sitting at a 45 degree angle to the left. The Sawai school belongs to the Ikuta tradition and often uses a stand for the instrument rather than kneeling.There are also differences in notation and repertoire between the Yamada and Ikuta schools, but in both cases, string numbers are used rather than pitches. The Yamada is said to be the more classical tradition.
The koto is roughtly two meters long and usually has 13 strings arched over independently movable bridges which sit on a hollow body of paulownia wood. These days, synthetic fibre such as tetron is used for strings, as silk strings are expensive, and cannot be stretched as tightly. The strings are struck with ivory or plastic picks attached to the thumb, index finger and middle finger of the right hand with leather bands. The thickness of all the strings is the same.
The koto, as its ancestors in China and Korea, is said to resemble a dragon and even today, the koto's body parts are still referred to as dragon-head, dragon-back, dragon-legs, etc. Two sounding holes are cut out of the backboard.
Traditionally, Japanese music is pentatonic (five notes excluding the octave), and the most popular traditional Japanese koto tuning is called "hirajoshi," literally "tranquil tuning," D Eb G A Bb D. Some other common traditional tunings are gakujoshi, honkumoijoshi, and kokinjoshi.
Some Books on koto music
1) Willem Adriaansz. 1973. "The Kumiuta and Danmono
Traditons of Japanese Koto." University of California Press.
2) William P. Malm. 1959. "Japanese Music-and musical
instruments" Chales E. Tuttle Company. 3) Peter Ackermann.
1986. "Studieren zur Koto-Musik von Edo" Robert Gunther,
Band Barenreiter Kassel. 4) Bonnie C. Wade. 1976. "Tegotomono."
Greenwood Press, Inc.
Materials on this page taken from: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2592/koto.html; http://www.bangaloreonline.com/blr/music/mshino.htm; Wade, Bonnie C. "Tegotomono",1976 Greenwood Press, Inc.; http://www.asahi-net.or.jp./~np5y-hruc/kt-play1.html; http://home.san.rr.com/koto/instru.htm