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A Japanese koto tuned to serve as an Okinawan kutu
  • Japanese: 琴 (koto)

The koto, a type of 13-string zither related to the Chinese qin, is one of the most well-known traditional Japanese musical instruments.


The koto was first introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period, and quickly became prominent in aristocratic culture. Much like the qin is the standard instrument associated with the ideal literatus in China, the koto appears frequently in Heian period literature, as a symbol of one's cultured/cultivated identity.

By the Edo period, playing the koto had come to be a mark of cultivation among daughters of prominent merchant families.


Koto were traditionally made from paulownia (kiri) wood, with silk strings and ivory bridges (ji). The finger-picks (tsume) were also traditionally made of ivory. Today, nylon strings and plastic strings & picks are becoming more common, but paulownia remains standard for the body of the instrument.

Tuning & Performance

The instrument can be tuned in a variety of ways, chiefly by moving the bridges. There are several standard tunings in traditional Japanese music.

The kutu used in classical Okinawan music is identical to the Japanese koto, albeit with different tuning.


  • Gallery labels, Musical Instuments gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art.