Dozens of court musical instruments of the 8th and 9th century are excellently preserved in the Shōsōin imperial storehouse in Nara. Most were gifts from the Chinese court, reflecting the major importation of élite Chinese culture at that time. Since Japan's historical era begins in the 8th century with the first written sources, knowledge of musical life before that time must depend largely on archaeology (see Hughes, 1988).
The people of the Jōmon period (c10,000–300 bce) lived largely by hunting, fishing and foraging and had developed the art of pottery. Lacking written or iconographic evidence, we are often at a loss to know whether particular artefacts were intended as sound-producers. For example, dozens of pots with small holes around their rims have been suggested as possible drum bodies, the holes being used to affix a membrane with pegs or cord; however, numerous types of evidence eliminate this possibility, at least for most of the pots. More intriguing are the flattish hollow clay objects found from 2500 bce onwards, mostly 8 to 15 cm long and often in stylized animal or human shapes. These often have a single hole on each surface but at opposite ends, suggesting orifices of the body. It is possible to blow into these, but it is not clear if these were intended as aerophones.
More convincing still are the objects in fig.1, which are taken to be two-string zithers and date from the first five centuries bce. Strings would have been tied to the tooth-like projections, but no strings or bridges survive. Most are 35 to 55 cm long. The overall shape of these zithers recalls the Ainu tonkori (see §VIII, 2 below) of historical times, the antecedents of which are unknown.
The ensuing Yayoi period (c300 bce–300 ce) saw the beginning of metal-working. Only three instruments will be discussed here, all of which have Chinese antecedents but differ from them in ways that suggest native artisans struggling to imitate instruments they did not possess. All three are extremely varied in Japan, lacking standardization.
Dozens of egg-shaped ocarinas (tsuchibue, ‘earthen flutes’) clearly derive from the Chinese Xun but differ in having their more pointed end at the bottom, opposite the extremely wide blow-hole; they have four finger-holes on the front and two thumb-holes on the back, as opposed to more diverse arrangements in China. No safe conclusions about tuning can be drawn: a 15th-century Korean source notes that one must simply make a large number of ocarinas (hun) and then throw out the ones that are out of tune, so whether we have recovered the good ones or the bad remains uncertain. After this period, ocarinas disappear.
The Yayoi period has also yielded several hundred cast bronze bells known as dōtaku. These range in height from 20 to over 100 cm and can exceed 25 kg in weight. The cross-section is elliptical with pointed ends. There is no precise Chinese model for these. Early dōtaku seem suited for playing, but later ones were so fragile and decorous that they must have been intended only as art works or perhaps signs of political power, as they were often cached on remote hilltops near power centres. Several caches of a dozen or more bells have been found, but given the diversity of form and tuning within each cache, these were clearly not intended for actual playing as bell-chimes like the Chinese bianzhong. Oddly, dōtaku also disappear after this period.
The third Yayoi-period instrument of relevance, the Wagon, appears in mid-Yayoi and continues to the present. Now a six-string zither with movable tuning bridges, used to accompany indigenous court vocal music (mi-kagura; see §V, 2 below), it originally had either five or six strings. Prior to standardization as an elaborate, highly decorated instrument by the 9th century, several dozen diverse examples of actual instruments have been found, as well as clay funerary sculptures (haniwa) showing the instrument being played (see figs.2 and 3). In the earliest written sources, the word koto indicated this instrument; wagonis a later term, derived from two Chinese characters meaning ‘Japanese zither’. Indeed, native scholars claim it as Japan's only indigenous string instrument. While its relationship to Chinese zithers with movable bridges is undeniable, each string is attached to a ‘tooth’, very much like those on the Jōmon two-string zithers but unlike any continental string attachment method. The following Kofun period (c300–710 ce) has yielded no important new instruments, but the haniwa funerary sculptures that date from this period at least confirm that the wagonwas held on the lap, recalling somewhat the Korean kayagŭm rather than any current Japanese zither.
Drums and transverse flutes, which dominate folk ritual music today, are virtually absent prior to the 8th century, but drums are known from haniwadepictions, and both are known from poems presumed to be of Kofun-period date. All other major Japanese instruments were imported in or after the 8th century and subsequently indigenized.