Kokyu (instrument)

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A kokyû in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A kûchô, the Okinawan version of the Japanese kokyû fiddle.
  • Japanese: 胡弓 (kokyuu)

The kokyû is a Japanese stringed instrument akin to a version of the shamisen designed to be played with a bow, like a fiddle. It is a bit smaller than the shamisen, but is otherwise quite similar, being first introduced to Japan alongside the shamisen, in the early 17th century. The word kokyû is also used in Japanese to refer to any of a wide range of Chinese bowed fiddles, but most strictly speaking, there are separate names for each of those instruments, such as the erhu and jinghu.

The instrument is generally played by being held upright on one's knee, or between one's knees while kneeling on the floor, and moving the bow horizontally across the strings. Traditionally, the kokyû had three strings, like the shamisen, but four-stringed versions became more common in the 20th century.

The kokyû sometimes accompanies bunraku puppet theatre or gidayû bushi narrative song, alongside a shamisen; it was also traditionally played in a trio (known as sankyoku), alongside shamisen and koto, but has since been replaced in that trio by the shakuhachi. The kokyû can also be tuned several different ways to suit the context, i.e. which instruments or performance style are being accompanied. Kokyû also sometimes plays a role in folk music and festival bands (matsuri bayashi). Overall, however, while a relatively commonly played instrument in the Edo period, in these various contexts, the kokyû has become much less popular and less common in the 20th century, and is today much more rarely seen or heard than, for example, shamisen or koto.

A very similar instrument is used in Okinawan traditional music. The kûchô (クーチョー), as it is called in Okinawa, served much the same purposes, accompanying sanshin, or a larger ensemble consisting of kutu (Okinawan koto), fansô (flute), and teeku (drums). The kûchô is very similar to the Okinawan sanshin, but smaller; like the Japanese kokyû, it traditionally had three strings, but later came to often have four, but is quite rare today, relative to the sanshin at least. Unlike the Japanese instrument, which uses catskin, the Okinawan kûchô uses snakeshin for the face - usually leftover pieces of skin from the making of sanshin. The body of the instrument is often made from wood today, but was sometimes traditionally made from half a coconut, or other similar bowl-shaped materials. The bow is made from the hair of a horse's tail.


  • "Kûchô." Hyakka jiten Mypedia. Hitachi Solutions, 2010. Accessed via Kotobank.jp.
  • "Kokyû." Ongaku yôgo dasu. Yamaha Music Media. Accessed via Kotobank.jp.
  • Gallery labels, Musical Instruments gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art.