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The tonkori (トンコリ) is a plucked string instrument played by the Ainu people of Hokkaidō, northern Japan and Sakhalin. It generally has five strings, which are not stopped or fretted but simply played "open".[1] The instrument is believed to have been developed in Sakhalin.[citation needed] By the 1970s the instrument was practically extinct, but is experiencing a revival along with the increased interest in Ainu heritage.[1][2]


The instrument is typically constructed of a single piece of Jezo spruce approximately a metre long.[1] Its shape is traditionally said to resemble a woman's body, and the corresponding words are used for its parts.[citation needed] A pebble is placed within the body-cavity of the instrument, granting it a "soul".[3] The instrument tends to measure approximately 120 cm long, 10 cm wide, and 5 cm thick.[4]

The tonkori's strings are made of gut,[5] deer tendon,[6] or vegetable fiber. While five-string tonkori are the most frequently mentioned, they could have as few as two[7] or as many as six strings.[8] The strings are not tuned in order of pitch, but are instead in a reentrant tuning alternating between higher and lower strings, rising and falling by a fifths in a pentatonic scale, often a-d'-g'-c'-f'.[4][9] A similar style of reentrant tuning a was used by the ancient Japanese version of the koto, the wagon.[10]


The tonkori is played angled across the chest, strings outward, while both hands pluck the open strings from opposite sides. The instrument was used to accompany songs or dances, or played solo.[1][4] The tonkori was traditionally played by both men and women.[11]

One description of traditional tonkori technique noted that a player would strum across all the strings, and then pluck a single string with his opposite hand.[12] Another description notes that "the thumbs pluck in an outward direction only."[13]


The Oki Ainu Dub Band in 2007

The most prominent modern tonkori performer is Oki Kano, who often uses the instrument in contemporary and cross-cultural performances and recordings.

The researcher Nobuhiko Chiba has been prominent among those researching and analysing the instrument and its music.[4]


The term tonkori is an onomatopoeic description of the sound of the instrument.[4] The tonkori was also referred to as the ka ("string").[1][14] The late-1800s explorer A. H. Savage Landor documented the tonkori, stating that it was referred to only as mukko ("musical instrument").[15]

Linguist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney noted that /tonkori/ was sometimes pronounced with either a voiced or voiceless stop on the initial sound: [donkori] or [tonkori].[16] One 1962 French publication notes the usage of the spelling donkori in an earlier work,[17] while the 1969 Asian Review appears to use tonguri and tongari as alternate spellings.[18]


  • Oki Kano
  • K.D earth (in Japanese)
  • Sanpe (Nobuhiko Chiba)
  • ToyToy (Motoi Ogawa)
  • Kumiko Sukegawa

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • The Ainu Tonkori: A Manual for Learning and Guide to Performance Practice, Jack Claar, Dr. Joseph Amato


  1. ^ a b c d e Alison Tokita (2008). The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. pp. 338–. ISBN 978-0-7546-5699-9. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  2. ^ Takashi Ogawa. Traditional Music of the Ainu Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 13, (1961) - Notes that at publication the instrument was only found in museums
  3. ^ Donald R. Schlief (4 April 2005). Jitensha: Down the Japanese Archipelago on a Bicycle. Trafford Publishing. pp. 115–. ISBN 978-1-4120-5033-3. Retrieved 18 May 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d e New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 12 pg 383f.
  5. ^ The Wire. C. Parker. 2005. p. 61. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  6. ^ Ann B. Irish (14 October 2009). Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan's Northern Island. McFarland. pp. 35–. ISBN 978-0-7864-4449-6. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  7. ^ William P. Malm (1959). Japanese music and musical instruments. C. E. Tuttle Co. p. 247. ISBN 9780804803083. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  8. ^ William W. Fitzhugh; Chisato O. Dubreuil; Arctic Studies Center (National Museum of Natural History) (1999). Ainu: spirit of a northern people. Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in association with University of Washington Press. ISBN 9780967342900. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  9. ^ Experimental musical instruments. Experimental Musical Instruments. 1994. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  10. ^ ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology. International Meeting; Ellen Hickmann; Dr. David W. Hughes (1988). The archaeology of early music cultures: Third International Meeting of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology. Verlag für systematische Musikwissenschaft. ISBN 9783922626510. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  11. ^ Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney; American Anthropological Association (1969). Sakhalin Ainu folklore. American Anthropological Association. ISBN 9780598273017. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  12. ^ Garfias, Robert (1975). Music of a Thousand Autumns. ISBN 9780520019775. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  13. ^ Koizumi, Fumio; Tokumaru, Yoshihiko; Yamaguchi, Osamu (1977). "Asian Musics in an Asian Perspective". google.com. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  14. ^ Katsuichi Honda (12 April 2000). Harukor: An Ainu Woman's Tale. University of California Press. pp. 182–. ISBN 978-0-520-21020-2. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  15. ^ A. H. Savage Landor. Alone With the Hairy Ainu, or 3,800 Miles on a Pack Saddle In Yezo and a Cruise to the Kurile Islands. John Murray, Albemarle Street, London 1893.
  16. ^ Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (31 August 1981). Illness and Healing Among the Sakhalin Ainu: A Symbolic Interpretation. CUP Archive. pp. 15–. ISBN 978-0-521-23636-2. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  17. ^ Centre international de dialectologie générale (1962). Orbis: bulletin international de documentation linguistique. Le Centre. p. 212. Retrieved 22 May 2012. - donkori 'Musical instr. stringed like thé samisen', (B) tonkori 'A harp' (traduction médiocre ; sa traduction japonaise, 'ainu no koto
  18. ^ Demetrius Charles Boulger; East India Association (London, England); Oriental Institute (Woking, England) (1969). Asian review. East & West. p. 277. Retrieved 28 May 2012.