Fukuyama Koto (Japanese Harp) Photo:Hiroshima Prefecture

Fukuyama Koto (Japanese Harp) Fukuyama koto

The first instrument to be designated as a traditional craft
Beautiful grain, magnificent decorations and superb tones


What is Fukuyama Koto (Japanese Harp) ?

Fukuyama koto is a Japanese harp, koto, produced in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture. Most of the koto produced in Japan are made in Fukuyama, which is where the coastal view of the city inspired one of the most well-known koto songs, Haru no Umi (Spring Sea). This instrument is distinguished not only for its superb sound, but also for its magnificent decoration and beautiful wood grain. High quality paulownia wood is used by skilled craftsmen, and this craft is reputed to be the best koto made in Japan. The inside of the main body is carefully carved with repetitive patterns, which improves the sound quality. One of the common carved designs is a hemp leaf pattern, which is often found on high-end instruments. A technique called maki-e, using a fine brush to paint a picture with lacquer on the surface of a piece, then sprinkling gold powder on the design before it dries, is an important lacquerware technique for decorating this craft. The side parts of the koto are decorated with maki-e, adding an elegant and delicate touch.


The history of Fukuyama koto dates back to the early Edo period (1603-1868), when Katsunari MIZUNO, a cousin of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA*, built a castle in Fukuyama, former Bingo province (now Hiroshima). Fukuyama became a wealthy castle town with the support of successive feudal lords of the Mizuno, Matsudaira, and Abe families, and traditional Japanese music performance was very popular. At the end of the Edo period, a koto master named Koto KUZUHARA, received praise for introducing the Kyoto's playing style and music to Fukuyama. Demand increased for this craft because of its excellent sound and value as a traditional craft. Fukuyama koto became known as the epitome of a high-end koto. In the early Meiji period (1868-1912), full-scale industrial production started, followed by efforts to improve the manufacturing processes, and the region established its position as Japan’s leading production center. By around 1970, about thirty thousand koto were made every year, but this has dropped to around three thousand now. The production area manufactures lightweight and easy-to-handle koto without compromising the quality, and hosts national koto music competitions for elementary and junior high school students, to keep the tradition of koto playing alive. On June 6, Music of Japan Day, a commemoration for koto that have been used in concerts or practice for many years is held in Tomonoura, Fukuyama.

*Tokugawa founded the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal military government in place during the entire Edo period.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Preparing the wood The production process of Fukuyama koto starts from inspecting and selecting freshly cut timber. Paulownia from Japan and North America is mainly used. The diameter of the top log-end measures four to six hundred millimeters. Logs with a slightly curved shape are appreciated, and experienced craftsmen will check for curves, annual rings, and burls, all of which will affect the strength of the final instrument. Selected logs are marked with ink lines and the best way to saw them into planks is decided. To decide on the width, both sides of the logs are roughly cut, and then the main body, and backboard are cut with specialty saws.
  2. 2. Drying The cut wood is left to dry outdoors for one to three years, including the rainy seasons. This natural process stabilizes the wood, preventing warping or irregularity in the finished product. Leaving the wood outside for a long time also removes lye. Drying is an important process, and after natural drying the planks are dried artificially.
  3. 3. Making the main body The main body is made in the following order: gouging, carving, attaching the backboard, scorching, and polishing. Gouging is rough planing using a planer and processing the fittings. After this, the interior of the main body is carved. Depending on the grade of koto, patterns like reed screens or zigzag patterns are carved with a chisel. Pattern carving is detailed work that requires care and attention. In the next step, the backboard which acts as a resonating board is cut, shaped and attached, marking the end of the basic wood assembly stage. The wood surface is then scorched with a red-hot iron, which gives the color and texture unique to Fukuyama koto. For polishing, any carbide left from the scorching is removed and the body is polished to a deep luster.
  4. 4. Decoration Next, the instrument is decorated. The koto has many small parts requiring complicated and delicate decorating techniques, which is why the decoration of the instrument takes up most of the time of the whole production process. The main parts are strips on each side of the fixed bridges, the saddle of the bridge, surface end oak leaf design, and dragon’s tongue on the side end. Other decorative parts are a round window, front legs, back legs, and bridges. A beautiful well-finished koto will have traditional decoration techniques like inlay, maki-e, or wood marquetry. For splendid maki-e applied on the dragon’s tongue, the techniques of raised lacquer work, flat lacquer work, or burnished maki-e are used. Oak leaf decoration is also a key design feature of Fukuyama koto.
  5. 5. Finishing After attaching metal fittings, the koto level is balanced by adjusting the front legs. A final careful inspection and tuning of the instrument are done before being certified as a traditionally made Fukuyama koto of the highest standard.

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