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The current style of koto was imported from China 1300 years ago.The ancient koto 'wagon' which had 5 strings, was first used somewhere between 300 B.C. and 250 A.D. by a blind female shaman who was a magical religious practitioner. The wagon was also used in gagaku which is considered as the oldest orchestra in world history.
Koto and wagon are played differently. Wagon is played by moving bridges but koto is played by pressing down the strings and moving the bridges periodically.
Playing koto used to be one of the jobs in the guild ’To-do-za’ for blind men. Originally, it was started by one of the emperor’s family who was blind. He brought together blind men and taught them the Biwa and other instruments in the 800’s. The guild was established in the 14th century. Members performed a variety of roles, as itinerant musicians, masseurs, and acupuncturists. The guild was under the patronage of the government and remained active until 1871. All of the koto music before the 1960’s were composed by blind men under the same system.
The regular koto comes with 13 strings and 13 bridges and is played with 3 picks. The bass koto has 17 strings and there is a 20 string koto, too. The body of the koto is made out of paulownia wood (common names empress tree or foxglove tree) and has 2 sound holes.
The music score is written in Japanese numbers. Since the music was for blind men there were no scores until the early 20th century. The students had to learn through the use of onomatopoeia which is the use of words that imitate the sound associated with it, like tick tock.