The Satsuma Biwa

Here the satsuma biwa epic story telling tradition is introduced in three chapters.

For in-depth information about the satsuma-biwa, you may visit the website Biwa Vocab - satsuma-biwa sound information system created by Junko Ueda, especially to inform composers and those interested.

The Japanese Biwa


In the second half of the 20th century, satsuma-biwa gradually began being widely known in the world. We can certainly say that Ms. Kinshi Tsuruta's (see photo on the right) thorough investigation towards the aesthetics of the Biwa, her endless creativity and her powerful performance has strongly contributed to the future popularity of the biwa music. Herewith, we asked Mr. Toshiro Kido to write about the Japanese biwa. Mr. Kido was the former artistic director of the National Theater in Tokyo, who is introducing the vigorous Japanese music in the 20th century to the world.

"In Japan, the power which is thought to activate the universe is named ki . It is regarded as a spiritual power, like the Greek pneuma or the Indian brahman. The expression of ki has high priority in all Japanese art. On the macrocosmic level, ki is recognized in the winds of nature, while on the microcosmic one it appears in the human breath. The Japanese language contains many composite words referring to ki, such as ki-shô , the weather, and ki-haku, the spirit.

The singing voice is based on the breath and thus regarded as a manifestation of ki. In Japan, the voice is thought to have animistic powers. A word itself may be of spiritual significance. The people of ancient Egypt believed that their wishes would be granted if they were taken down in writing. Similarly, the ancient Japanese thought that by uttering a word they would bring about a spiritual power capable of activating a special desire. Nowadays, a similar belief still exists which is call koto-dama (word spirit). From there the tradition of uta (Japanese singing) was born. The Japanese language possesses typical word constructions which date back thousands of years. However, the oldest Japanese literary works, the Kojiki and the Man-yôshû, were written down in the seventh century only. Before that date, they used to be handed down through the singing tradition of uta. The uta songs were structured according to specific qualities of Japanese. While European music depends on pitch in relation to time, the old Japanese uta molds sound elements like color, energy, loudness and quality, into an organic sound sculpture.

The biwa is a string instrument related to the Arab ûd, the European lute and guitar, and the Chinese pipa. It was introduced to Japan from mainland Asia in the seventh century. A collection of ancient instruments brought from China (Tô era), including a beautifully decorated biwa, still exists in the Shôsô-in (Nara, Japan) which was the warehouse for the treasures of the imperial family of the eighth century. The biwa has been compared to the Shumisen, a mountain which, according to Asian (Buddhist as well as Hinduism) thought, rises in the center of the universe. The two acoustic holes in the sound board of the biwa represent the sun and the moon wishing to control the universe. The biwa was imagined to reflect the sound of the universe. Generally in ancient Asia, musical instruments were invested with metaphysical powers.

The biwa of that time is a four-stringed instrument which fulfills an essentially rhythmic function within the orchestra. Thus the biwa serves to divide time, while the melodic formulae are executed by other instruments. In the still existing court ensemble called gagaku, the biwa here names gaku-biwa - fulfills the role of setting the tempo. The biwa players of this ensemble were regarded as descendants of heaven. On one gagaku repertory entitled Gyoyû, the pieces were performed in a mode chosen according to the season and thus in harmony with Heaven. This is comparable to the Greek harmonic system which had conceived a different "celestial" sound for each of the four seasons.

The môsô-biwa (môsô means blind monk) is another ancient biwa style. Shaped by influences from Southeast Asia, it originated in Kyûshû (south Japan) and Kyoto, the former capital located in central Japan. In the course of its evolution into a solo genre, the biwa performance started to include the uta. In this manner, the international and abstract character of the biwa fused with the native and concrete expression of the uta, which resulted in a better considered singing style, while the biwa was adapted to the Japanese taste by modifying its making, tuning, and playing technique. The earliest example of this music dates back to the fourteenth century and is called heikyoku (the original biwa performance of the Heike-Monogatari), which was interpreted by blind monks. Thanks to the monks' strong musical sense and excellent memory, this style spread all over Japan. Today this tradition, also called heike-biwa, still exists.

The style of the satsuma-biwa originated from the Satsuma region in southern Japan, the present-day Kagoshima prefecture in Kyûshû. In the sixteenth century, Lord Shimazu encouraged the warriors of the Satsuma clan to learn songs with a didactic content and to play a type of biwa related to the ancient môsô-biwa. To produce a louder and more masculine sound, the instrument's body was enlarged and made of a harder wood - a making which was survived in the present-day satsuma-biwa. At first, this instrument spread among the warriors who enjoyed recounting their heroic deeds. Around the turn of 20th century this regional genre was still practiced everywhere in Japan. However, by the end of World War II the biwa had become scarce. More recently, Kinshi Tsuruta restored the satsuma-biwa to favor, for example by interpreting Tôru Takemitsu's famous composition for biwa, shakuhachi and symphonic orchestra, "November Steps". Other types of biwa were created in response to the wished of certain performers. Today the satsuma-biwa and the chikuzen-biwa (which emerged in the late nineteenth century and is of a more feminine type) are the most popular ones.

Junko Ueda, who studied composition at Tokyo College of Music, is one of the most talented students of Kinshi Tsuruta. Besides her traditional repertoire, she creates her own music at the interface of the Japanese tradition and the modern world."

*written by Mr. Toshirô Kido, National Theater, Tokyo

The Satsuma Biwa

satsuma biwa

Resonance Chamber

The satsuma-biwa is a pear-shaped lute. Its body consists of two pieces of wood (the frontal one is slightly curved) which are glued together, leaving a narrow air chamber. Three acoustic holes are drilled into the sound-board, two of which are camouflaged by moon-shaped ivory or silver plates, while the third is located under the bridge, the instrument is usually made of hard mulberry wood, which allows the player to use the bachi (plectrum) to strike the body. The neck of the biwa is bent 90 degrees backwards, which gives the instrument its characteristic "crane neck".

Gen or Ito (strings)

The five (the top strings are double, originally four) biwa strings are made of silk fibres plied together with rice paste. They are tied to the bridge by a special knot, then tightened with the help of a tuning peg. They are tuned in a pitch chosen by the performer according to his/her voice register. Melody-lines are played on the thin double top-string. The bottom-string, usually used as an open-string drone, is the thickest.

Chû (pillars or frets)

Placed on the strings and in-between the chû, the fingers of the left hand control the tension of the strings. the five chû are extremely high and wide. Width is necessary for the special buzzing effect called sawari (a similar effect is known from the South Indian vina), while height allows for controlling and varying the tension by pulling, pressing or loosing the strings, in this manner, the pitch of the strings can be constantly modified.

Bachi (plectrum)

The strings are plucked with the sharp top edge of the triangular bachi which is held in the right hand. The bachi allows to produce a wide variety of dynamics and timbres, as well as arpeggios and scraping effects. likewise, the bachi may de used to strike the body of the biwa. The fan-shaped bachi of the satsuma-biwa is the largest plectrum in biwa music. to make a bachi, it is preferable to use the rare boxwood from Ibusuki (in Kyûshû) which should dry for more than ten years to possess both hardness and flexibility.

Biwa Vocab

For in-depth information about the satsuma-biwa, you may visit the website Biwa Vocab, the satsuma-biwa sound information system created by Junko Ueda.

The story telling tradition of Heike Monogatari


Heike Monogatari (the story of Heike) is a well-known Japanese epic, which has been performed during the ages in many different versions and styles, however the main characteristic - its reciting - always has been present. The stories are based on the Buddhist idea of cause and effect and human life's impermanence.

According to the essay Tsurezure-gusa ("Gleanings from my Leisure Hours" ca.1330) by the Buddhist monk Kenkô Yoshida, the Heike-Monogatari was created ca.1200 by Shinano Yukinaga Nyûdô after he quit as a gagaku musician and joined the mountain monastery of Hiei-zan; it was recited by a môsô-biwa player, the blind monk Shôbutsu, in Kyoto. The history of this initial performance of the Heike-Monogatari, involving gagaku music, Buddhist Shômyô chanting and môsô-biwa playing, clearly indicates the three origins of the heikyoku-biwa style.

Heike Monogatari describes the short-term prosperity of the Heike clan, from the beginning of the twelfth century till their ruin in 1185, when they lost their war with the Genji clan from Kamakura (just south of nowadays Tokyo). Heike was located in the Kyoto area, but during the war, while attempting to escape, they gradually moved southward, so that most of the famous war stories happened somewhere in the Inland Sea of Seto.

In ancient times, the heikyoku was played by blind monks. Their performance permitted many people to enjoy the historical legends, since most of the audience was illiterate.The narrative content of the accounts as well as the detailed and touching descriptions of the protagonists were widely appreciated. Over the centuries, the Heike-Monogatari was performed in other biwa styles, like that of the satsuma-biwa featured here, each style contributing its own instrumentation and versions of the epic. The masculine atmosphere of striking-effect as well as the sensitive and plaintive sawari-effect atmosphere, produced by the satsuma-biwa, high-lights the heroic and dramatic history of Heike. Nowadays the Heike-Monogatari is included in the repertory of each and every satsuma-biwa player.


  • CD Meditative Flowers:
    Junko Ueda performing repertoire from the 1200 year-old Japanese traditional Shomyo Buddhist chant.
    CD Meditative Flowers:
    Junko Ueda interpretando canciones budista tradicional japonés de Shomyo, un repertorio del siglo VIII.
    CD Meditative Flowers:

  • CD Satsuma-Biwa:
    solo CD by Junko Ueda performing traditional biwa music as well as a modern-style composition by Toru Takemitsu.
    CD Satsuma-Biwa:
    CD solo de Junko Ueda interpretando música biwa tradicional así como una composición moderno de Toru Takemitsu.
    CD 薩摩琵琶:

  • CD Japon - L'épopé des Heike:
    Junko Ueda with traditional satsuma-biwa repertoire from the Hieke Monogatari, recorded at Hiei-zan Temple, Japan.
    CD Japon - L'épopé des Heike:
    Junko Ueda interpretando canciones budista tradicional japonés de Shomyo, un repertorio del siglo VIII.
    CD Japon - L'épopé des Heike:

  • The Biwa Vocab is a vocabulary catalogue and sound library of the satsuma-biwa by Junko Ueda.