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A kokyū built by Masakichi Ueda c. 1920, Osaka, Japan
The instrument is similar in construction to the shamisen, appearing like a smaller version of that instrument. It is 70 cm (28 inches) tall, with a neck made of ebony and a hollow body made of coconut or Styrax japonica wood, covered on both ends with cat skin (or snakeskin in Okinawa). In Okinawa, the body is round, while in mainland Japan, it is square like a shamisen. It has three (or, more rarely, four) strings and is played upright, with the horsetail-strung bow rubbing against the strings. In central Japan, the kokyū was formerly used as an integral part of the sankyoku ensemble, along with the koto and shamisen, but beginning in the 20th century the shakuhachi most often plays the role previously filled by the kokyū.
Since Shinei Matayoshi, a kokyū and sanshin musician and sanshin maker, invented and popularized a four-stringed version of the kokyū in order to expand the instrument's range, the kokyū has become much more popular. A kokyū society, dedicated to promoting the instrument, exists in Japan.
The kokyū has also been used in jazz and blues, with the American multi-instrumentalist Eric Golub pioneering the instrument's use in these non-traditional contexts. One of the few non-Japanese performers of the instrument, he has recorded as a soloist as well as with the cross-cultural jazz band of John Kaizan Neptune.
The kokyū is similar to two Chinese bowed lutes with fingerboards: the leiqin and the zhuihu. In Japanese, the term kokyū may refer broadly to any bowed string instrument of Asian origin, as does the Chinese term huqin. Thus, the Chinese erhu, which is also used by some performers in Japan, is sometimes described as a kokyū, along with the kūchō, leiqin, and zhuihu. The specific Japanese name for erhu is niko.
- Minori, Miki. Composing for Japanese Instruments. pp. 116–117.
- Co-Q.com (Japanese)
- Kokyu audio (click small white stars to listen to individual tracks)