ko·​to ˈkō-(ˌ)tō How to pronounce koto (audio)
: a long Japanese zither having 13 strings

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A Japanese musical instrument, the koto is a long zither with movable bridges and usually 13 strings. It lies on the ground or a low table, and the strings are plucked by picks worn on the fingers of the right hand while the left hand alters the pitch or ornaments the sound of individual strings by pressing or manipulating them. It is played solo, in chamber ensembles, especially with the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) and the samisen (a three-stringed instrument resembling a banjo), and in gagaku music, the traditional court and religious music of Japan. The koto is Japan's national instrument.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Dan Kuramoto recalled a student from Tokyo University approaching the band after a concert and marveling at its use of the koto. Los Angeles Times, 29 Oct. 2022 At a large Asian American community picnic in Griffith Park in the early 1970s, Kuramoto spotted June Okida playing the koto, a zither-like instrument that typically has 13 strings. Los Angeles Times, 29 Oct. 2022 When the music does loop back to the beginning of a piece, a secondary performance of koto, shamisen, taiko, etc. Ollie Barder, Forbes, 22 June 2022 Participants include Washington, D.C. high school students, the award-winning koto musician Yumi Kurosawa, Reverend Inryū and curator Feltens. Antonia Mufarech, Smithsonian Magazine, 5 May 2022 Kurosawa, who performs on a 20-string instrument called the koto, is joined by Emil Israel Chudnovsky (violin) and Yimin Miao (Chinese flute) for a program featuring classical Japanese and Chinese music. Washington Post, 31 Mar. 2022 Head outside of the American Art museum in Chinatown for taiko drumming and koto performances and Les the DJ spinning Japanese pop and soul records, and stick around for family crafting and coloring. Washington Post, 17 Mar. 2022 The final act of the 2021 Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz is the unique Californian ensemble Hiroshima, who play jazz on traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto, shakuhachi and taiko, as well as electric bass, guitars and keyboards. Christopher Arnott, courant.com, 18 May 2021 The closing night presentation of CAAMFest takes place at Herbst Theatre, with storyteller and activist Brenda Wong Aoki delivering a live performance set to music by Emmy Award-winning composer Mark Izu and koto master Shoko Hikage. G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 2018 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'koto.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History



First Known Use

1795, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of koto was in 1795

Dictionary Entries Near koto

Cite this Entry

“Koto.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/koto. Accessed 29 May. 2023.

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