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Yakumo Koto

A few weeks ago, Jinja Shinpō ran a pair of articles on the Yakumo Koto. This is a particular kind of koto, a stringed instrument with strings stretched over a long (1 metre or more) sounding board. The strings are plucked, and held at various points to make different notes. Koto have been associated with Shinto ritual since the earliest legends: a koto is used in a ritual described in the Nihonshoki.

The Yakumo Koto does not go back that far; the impetus for the articles was the bicentenary of its invention. It was developed by a man from Shikoku whose name was Nakayama Kotonushi. “Kotonushi” means “Master of the Koto”, so I suspect that he may have taken that name on; in the Edo period, it was very common for Japanese people to take on different names over the course of their lives. He had learned a style of three-string koto, but he was dissatisfied with the secular use of it, so he visited Izumo Ōyashiro and asked for guidance. There, he is said to have received a dream from the kami in which the Yakumo Koto, a two-string koto, was revealed to him. It is called the Yakumo Koto because it is said to be a revival of the Ama no Numakoto that Ōkuninushi stole from Susano’o, and Susano’o wrote the first Japanese-style poem, which starts with the phrase “Yakumo” (Yakumo tatsu, Izumo no yaëgaki, tsumagomini, yaëgaki tsukuru, sono yaëgaki o. — In the land of Izumo where eight-fold clouds arise I will raise an eightfold fence to enclose my wife.)

Because of its origins, the Yakumo Koto is only used for sacred music, whether at Shinto jinja or at Buddhist temples. Soon after it was created, its practitioners split into three lineages, and it seems that it was quite popular in the late nineteenth century. However, it has since gone through a long decline, and seems to be at risk of disappearing.

The articles were written by the senior priest at a jinja in Mië Prefecture, who learned to play the Yakumo Koto at a jinja in Aichi Prefecture on her first assignment after graduating. She has been working to preserve the tradition, for example by teaching the koto to students at Kōgakkan University, and by working with craftsmen so that it is once again possible to make new Yakumo Koto. The lineage she was trained in has, for several generations, only accepted Shinto priests as students, and there is an obvious problem with that if you want to recruit more people to play the instrument. On the other hand, the tradition of restricting the instrument to sacred music is important, which argues in favour of the restriction.

The author also gives two particular good points of the Yakumo Koto. The first is that sacred music can be provided by a single person, which makes it accessible to a lot more jinja. The wind instruments used most commonly these days come in a set of three, and while you can manage with only one, it is not ideal. Right now, of course, the fact that the koto is not a wind instrument is also an advantage, as it can be played with a mask on.

The second point she raises is that much of the music for the koto has lyrics, which means that priests can write new lyrics to suit their own jinja. The melodies are limited in number, and handed down through the lineages, but there is no problem, it seems, with customising the lyrics for your own jinja.

This was an instrument that I had not previously heard of, and it was very interesting to read about another kagura tradition. I do hope that she is able to preserve the tradition and hand it on to the next generation.

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