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Biwa (Lute)

Motif Information
Motif biwalute 01.jpg
Rōmaji Biwa
English Japanese lute
Kanji 琵琶
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Auspicious Yes
Motif Type Man-made

Biwa is a Japanese four stringed lute descended from the Chinese pipa. It is played with a plectra and is one of the traditional gagaku instruments. Smaller portable biwa were carried by biwa hōshi (琵琶法師, lute priests) and used to accompany recitations of heikyoku (平曲, Tales of the Heike), an epic retelling of the Genpei War.

The peak of biwa popularity was attained in the Edo period as the instrument was a favorite of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established todo, guilds, for the support of biwa players and afforded them special privileges.

The biwa underwent a reversal of fortunes in the Meiji period. With the abolishment of the samurai class, todo lost their patrons. By the Taisho period, the biwa was in sharp decline, with many of its players switching to shamisen or koto.

Interest in biwa underwent a revival in the late 1960s, but it remains a rare instrument today.

Seasonal Use, Exceptions & Pairings

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Motif Connotations & Symbolism

The biwa is strongly associated with biwa hōshi and the Tale of Heike. It is often used with other symbols of the fragility of life to represent the tragic fate of the Taira clan. From the Kamakura period up until the Sengoku period the biwa hōshi were seen as responsible for the placation of vengeful Taira spirits responsible for plagues and disasters.

Auspicious Nature

The biwa is also associated with Benten, the Shinto goddess of music, poetry, and education.

Common Motif Pairings

Identification & Style Variations

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Motif Examples

Motif in Literature & Other Usage

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In Poetry

Article Notes

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