Biwa and biwa music

Shousouinbiwa of red sandalwood

Shōsōinbiwa of red sandalwood

The Japanese lute is called biwa. It has reached Japan from China sometime in the Nara period (710 - 759 A.D.). Five instruments from that time are kept in the Shōsōin, the national treasure house of Japan. One of them is decorated with Central Asian themes, including a camel. The Chinese instrument, called pipa, has undergone several changes in Japan, where the biwa served a number of different purposes in musical life. Firstly, it was used in gagaku, imperial orchestral music. This music is still being played in a tradition reaching back to the first centuries A.D. when Japanese culture was influenced by Korea, India and China. The biwa used for gagaku is called gakubiwa.

Shousouinbiwa with palm tree and camel

Shōsōinbiwa with palm tree and camel

There was also solo music for the biwa, as playing biwa was considered an important social grace for courtiers in the Heian period (794 - 1191 A.D.). The biwa appears in literature and paintings of the period in the hands of nobility. The courtiers in the Tale of Genji, for example, often play biwa. Not much music from these periods has survived, but it probably was a simple accompaniment to songs.

Legend has it that Buddha had a blind disciple whom he taught the art of singing sutras to the accompaniment of the biwa. Blind biwa playing priests appeared in especially Kyūshū from the 10th century onwards. These priests were known as biwahōshi or mōsōbiwa and their music as kōjinbiwa.

Then, in the Kamakura period (1192 - 1330 A.D.), the great narrative tradition of heikebiwa was developed. The story of the battle between the Heike and Genji clans, the Heike monogatari, was told to the accompaniment of biwa playing. It became an important literary as well as musical genre.

In Satsuma in the 16th century yet again a new style of biwa playing evolved, this time specifically aimed at edifying the members of the Satsuma clan, luring them away from the more popular and vulgar kinds of entertainment. This narrative biwa music is called satsumabiwa.

Traditional chikuzenbiwa notation

Traditional chikuzenbiwa notation

In the late 19th century chikuzenbiwa was born, it is a mixture of existing narrative biwa styles, satsumabiwa and even shamisen music. In the 20th century still new forms of biwa music emerged.

pipa to biwa

Pipa, mōsōbiwa, heikebiwa, satsumabiwa and chikuzenbiwa

For each of these styles of biwa music, another type of biwa is used, not only differing in size and shape of the instrument, but also in number of strings and frets and in size and shape of the bachi, the enormous plectrum. Biwa have three to five strings and three to five frets. On older instruments the frets are low and you must place your fingers on them to produce the pitches, much like on a western lute. On newer biwa you must press down the strings between the frets. The frets are much higher to accommodate a great variation in pitch. Especially satsumabiwa have very high frets. On downward strokes the bachi hits not only the strings, but also the top of the instrument. As this is done with considerable force, a protective strip called bachimen is placed across the body. In different styles of biwa playing the strings are struck at different places, but tradition has stopped the bachimen from being adjusted accordingly. The results are beautifully adorned and unscathed bachimen on biwa with worn out tops full of scars.

The low tension, elastic silk strings that are pushed down by the fingers of the left hand and are hit so forcibly with these huge bachi produce a peculiar rattle called sawari. This by-product of the biwa’s design became so loved, that when the shamisen was introduced in Japan, its construction was altered to produce this same earthy, growling noise that adds so much expression to the music.

Mousoubiwa player

Mōsōbiwa player

For those of you who have never heard the dry sound of the biwa, the evocative twang of its silken strings and the expressive whack of its bachi, I will quote a short fragment from The Story of Mimi-nashi-Hōïchi, the blind biwa player who lost his ears to ghosts from the other world for whom he recited the Heike Monogatari so well that they wanted to keep him on the other side. The fragment is taken from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things.
Hōïchi, unaware that the people around him know the tale all too well from their own experience, starts to recite the story of the battle of Dan-no-ura:


Then Hōïchi lifted up his voice, and chanted the chant of the fight on the bitter sea - wonderfully making his biwa to sound like the straining of the oars and the rushing of ships, the whirr and the hissing of arrows, the shouting and trampling of men, the crashing of steel upon helmets, the plunging of slain in the flood. And to the left and right of him, in the pauses of his playing, he could hear voices murmuring praise: “How marvelous an artist!” - “Never in our province was playing heard like this!” - “Not in all the empire is there another singer like Hōïchi!” Then fresh courage came to him, and he played and sang better than before; and a hush of wonder deepened about him. But when at last he came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless - the piteous perishing of the women and children - and the death-leap of Nii-no-Ama, with the imperial infant in her arms - then all the listeners uttered together one long, long shuddering cry of anguish; and thereafter they wept and wailed so loudly and so wildy that the blind man was frightened by the violence of the grief that he had made.

David van Ooijen

For further reading on biwa and Japanese music I recommend W. Malm’s Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Tuttle, 2000), of which some illustrations on this web page were taken.
The works of Lafcadio Hearn are available in Tuttle editions, too. Dover has published a handsome edition of Kwaidan with an introduction by Oscar Wilde. Many of the works of Lafcadio Hearn are available as E-texts on the Internet.

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