Every year, the Festival hosts the Japanese Music Program to invite cultural artists and performers from all over Japan to bring the latest music and dance styles to you! We curate contemporary and traditional programs and performances from areas like Okinawa, Osaka, and Tokyo, where they will perform on our stages and venues including the Japantown Peace Plaza stage, Webster Street Stage, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC/the Center) Stage, and the Friendship Reception.

Revisit the 2016 Japanese Music Program lineup, and we look forward to presenting the next Japanese Music Program in a future in-person Festival!

Biwa 琵琶

The biwa is a Japanese lute, characterized by a teardrop or pear shaped body and a short neck that bends like a crane neck, 90 degrees backwards at the top. The biwa player presses on ito (silk strings) with varying pressures in between the chû (pillars or frets), and plucks the strings over the hollow wood body with a bachi (wooden plectrum) to produce the iconic buzzing, vibrating sawari sound. This instrument was introduced to Japan in the seventh century from the Chinese instrument, pipa. There are many versions of the biwa that vary in the number of strings and chû, and in the type of bachi and materials in their construction, to suit different styles of performances, including storytelling, Buddhist chanting, and gagaku (Imperial Court music).

Biwa group, Grand Parade
Biwa group from Japan, 1978 Festival
Koto 琴

The koto, or Japanese harp, commonly has 13 strings and is traditionally made from a lightweight and strong paulownia wood. It is played by plucking the strings to produce a resonant sound. Originally an instrument of the Imperial Court, the koto is the national instrument of Japan and has long been a symbol of elegance and tradition. Today, many artists are experimenting with new genres of music like jazz and pop. Listen to the variety of styles new and traditional, brought to you by talented schools and performing groups.

Tomoya Nakai, 25 string koto
Tomoya Nakai from Tsu City, Mie Prefecture plays the 25-string koto, 2016 Festival
Shamisen 三味線 / Sangen 三絃

The shamisen is a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese instrument, sanxian. The players press on the strings on the long neck and hold a bachi to pluck the strings over the square body to produce beautiful harmonies. The shamisen varies in shape depending on the genre. The square body is covered with skin in the manner of a banjo and amplifies the sound of the strings. The shamisen became a popular instrument in the entertainment districts of Japanese cities during the Edo period (17th century). Today, the shamisen is played for contemporary music and traditional settings like Kabuki and minyo performances. The shamisen is called the sangen when it accompanies Japanese folk music or the koto.

Reigen Fujii Shamisen
Reigen Fujii, Shamisen Master from Setagaya, Tokyo, 2015 Festival
Taiko 太鼓

The easily recognizable heartbeat of any Japanese festival, the sacred taiko drum is said to have been introduced to Japan from China in the fifth and sixth centuries. The powerful drumming was historically used in warfare, in religious ceremonies, in Noh and Kabuki theater, and is now popularly used in celebrations by thousands of taiko groups worldwide. Each year, a variety of dynamic groups play throughout the Cherry Blossom Festival and come together for a special collective performance of their own.

Taiko from Nagano, Japan
Taiko group from Nagano, Japan, 1994 Festival
Odori 踊り Dance

The odori (Japanese traditional dance) that accompanies music from Japan is unlike any other genre, and specific to Japanese regions and festivals such as Awa Odori and Bon Odori. The various styles of odori emphasize on slow and precise gestures and movements to pair with ensemble music for a beautiful showcase of Japanese culture and traditions. The Festival features a variety of Japanese traditional dances to highlight our early Japanese heritage and allow odori to thrive for our present and future.

寶船 Takarabune, Awa Odori
寶船 Takarabune, Awa Odori entertainment troupe from Tokushima, Japan, 2017 Festival