Governments do not generally officially recognize national instruments; the only exceptions are the Paraguayan harp, the Japanese koto and the Trinidadian steelpan.

The koto has long been known as the national instrument of Japan. It has been popular in Japanese musical history in ensemble, solo (“danmono”) and chamber (“sankyoku”) repertoires. In the chamber form, the koto player often sings as well.

Its physical structure, performance practice, and musical characteristics have become symbols of Japanese identity. The koto, related to the Chinese “zheng” and “se” and the Korean “kayagŭm” and “kǒmungo”, is a long Japanese board zither having 13 silk strings and movable bridges. The body of the instrument is made of paulownia wood and is about 190 cm (74 inches) long.

When the performer is kneeling or seated on the floor, the koto is held off the floor by two legs or a bridge-storage box. In most modern concerts, the instrument is placed on a stand so the performer can sit on a chair.

The koto is played by plucking the strings with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, which are fitted with ivory plectrums called “tsume”. The left hand, in traditions after the 16th century, may alter the pitch or sound of each string by pressing or manipulating the strings to the left of the bridges. Various pentatonic (five-note scale) tunings are used, depending on the type of music being played.

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