The biwa is a plucked lute chordophone of Japan. Several types of biwa, each with its own social setting and repertoire, have evolved in Japan over the past 1300 years, the specimen pictured here being called most accurately the chikuzen biwa. Chikuzen was an historic northern province on Kyushu, the southern-most main island of Japan. Biwa playing has a long history on Kyushu, and for centuries the art was practiced within the institution of mōsō, blind Buddhist priests who performed sacred and secular texts for agrarian and other rituals. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), sighted musicians created new styles of secular biwa narrative singing inspired by Kyushu mōsō traditions and introduced them to Tokyo. One of these, the new chikuzen biwa tradition, became popular amongst many thousands of amateurs between c.1900 and 1920. The instrument initially used for this practice was the four-stringed chikuzen biwa, which was “produced and sold cheaply--a fact attested to by the numbers of such instruments taken overseas by working-class emigrants.” (de Ferranti, p. 122) [The instrument pictured here is very likely one of those many biwas taken overseas--it was purchased in a Honolulu shop specializing in Japanese antiques many of which were brought to Hawaii by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century.] After almost dying out post World War II the tradition was revived in part due to interest shown in the instrument by the internationally known contemporary composer Tōru Takemitsu, who wrote instrumental compositions for the instrument. Although no longer as popular as it once was, several chikuzen biwa schools have survived to the present day in Japan and to a lesser extent in Japanese communities abroad (such as in Hawaii). Members of these schools are sighted and include both females and males.
The chikuzen biwa is constructed in several parts and needs to be assembled and strung before being played. These parts can be seen in detail #1: peg box (hanju) with lobster tail-shaped finial (kairōbi) [upper left]; four laterally mounted friction tuning pegs (tenju) [lower left]; neck (shikakubi) [right] with a tenon cut at each end (one fitting into a mortise cut into the peg box, the other into a mortise in the narrow end of the resonator) and five high frets (jū); and a resonator made of a shallow, teardrop-shaped hollowed out wood shell (kō) covered with a flat, thinly-shaven wood soundboard (fukuban) to which is glued a string holder tension bridge (fukuju) just above its rounded end [center]. There are three small soundholes on the soundboard: two visible ones (hangetsu) partially covered with moon-shaped caps made of ivory and a hidden one (ingetsu) beneath the string holder. Detail #2 shows the backside of the instrument; detail #3 is a side view revealing both the shallowness of the bowl-shaped resonator and the height of the frets that are glued onto the neck. Once assembled, four wound silk strings of varying thicknesses are at one of their ends tied to the string holder bridge (detail #4) and the other to the tuning pegs. The nut is a rounded edge at the 90-degree bend where the neck meets the peg box, and the broad flat surface just below the bend has a very shallow trough carved into it perpendicular to the course of the strings (see detail #5). This minute design detail gives rise to sawari, the distinctive raspy tone of a vibrating string. The full vibrating lengths of the strings, the distance between their bend over the nut and the knots that secure their lower ends to the string holder, are all 27.7 inches. The strings are sounded with a large, thick, fan-shaped plectrum called a bachi (detail #6), traditionally made of wood (the bachi pictured here is made from resin).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The chikuzen biwa is played with the performer in the seiza position (on the knees, legs folded under) on the floor. With the rounded edge of the resonator resting in the player’s lap and the peg box end of the instrument tilted to the left at about a 45-degree angle from vertical, the biwa’s soundboard faces forward. In the performer’s right hand the bachi (plectrum) is held, its upward-pointing tip used to pluck the strings near the string holder. The performer’s left hand is used both to steady the instrument, with the thumb hooked around the backside of the neck, and to depress the strings, the index finger doing most of the work but sometimes aided by the middle finger. The strings are depressed not directly against the frets, but between them, and by controlling the amount of applied pressure the performer can achieve a range of pitches and pitch inflections. The four strings are tuned to a shamisen tuning called honchōshi (interval structure, from the lowest string upwards, of P4 - P5, with the top two strings tuned in unison): approximately B3 - E4 - B4 - B4. Chikuzen biwa music is narrative music much beholding to narrative shamisen music. The performer sings while playing the biwa, and the instrumental part is modular in structure in that there are dozens of named or numbered phrases that the player must internalize and that are used as the building blocks of the instrument part that supports the vocal part. Like with the shamisen, a distinctive raspy tone quality called sawari is associated with the chikuzen biwa. Although this instrument is quite large and a very substantial plectrum is used to excite its strings, its sound is surprisingly soft and meant more for intimate settings rather than concert halls.
The origin of the Japanese biwa as a generic type of instrument dates back to around the year 700 CE when the pipa was first introduced to Japan from China as part of ensembles gifted to the Japanese Emperor. It eventually became the favored instrument to accompany narrative singing, especially on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu where it was performed by blind Buddhist priests (mōsō). Several schools of biwa playing evolved from the mōsō tradition, one of which, founded in the 1890s by Tachibana Chijō and others and called the Asahi-kai, was based on the style of the Chikuzen region of Kyushu. Tachibana “sought to create a new narrative style that would appeal to a contemporary urban audience” (de Ferranti p. 120) and that would be performed by sighted musicians. At first the chikuzen biwa, like the one pictured here, had four strings and five frets, but by the 1910s Tachibana and his sons had developed a five-string model that, since the 1920s, has been the most common form of the instrument.
de Ferranti, Hugh. 2000. Japanese Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
________. 2008. “The Kyushu biwa traditions,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music, edited by Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes. Bodmin, Cornwall, Great Britain: MPG Books, pp. 105-126.
Kishibe, Shigeo. 1969. The Traditional Music of Japan. Tokyo:Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai.
Koizumi, Fumio. 1984. “Biwa.” NGDMI v.1: 234-237.
Komoda Haruko. 2008. “The musical narrative of The Tale of Heike,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music, edited by Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes. Bodmin, Cornwall, Great Britain: MPG Books, pp. 77-103.
Malm, William P. 1959. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company.