The Japanese biwa is a type of lute which traces its origins to ancient Persia, and it made its way to Japan from the Silk Road via China. Even today in Arab cultures, a biwa-like instrument called the oud is played, and its precursor made its way to Europe where it evolved into the Western-style lute. The biwa is thought to have first appeared in Japan in the 7th or 8th century, and a biwa from that era can be found in the Shosoin Treasure House (which belongs to Todai-ji Temple) in Nara.
Originally used to accompany the reading of sutras, the biwa was taken to other parts of Japan by wandering blind Buddhist monks who would play the instrument as they chanted sutras. This led to the instrument being called the moso biwa (lit., “blind monk biwa”). The moso biwa found its way to Kyushu, where it was widely used to accompany religious rites, as well as for amusement, in the provinces of Satsuma (now Kagoshima) and Chikuzen (now Fukuoka). A monk named Gensei Hoin is considered the father of the Chikuzen style of moso biwa music, and he is also known for establishing a temple called Jojuin in what is now Takamiya in Minami Ward.
There are several kinds of biwa, each with its own shape and method of playing. The contemporary style of Chikuzen biwa playing dates back to the middle of the Meiji era (1868-1912). Biwa player Ichimaru Chijo (who would later become Tachibana Kyokuou I) developed this style by adapting playing techniques used with the shamisen for the biwa. The Chikuzen biwa is small and lightweight with a deep, soothing tone, so it soon became a popular instrument for women throughout Japan to learn.
Today, however, there is only one artisan who makes and repairs Chikuzen biwa— the Italian-born Doriano Sulis, who is also the head of the Italian Center of Fukuoka. He has been working on Chikuzen biwa for 45 years, but unfortunately, he has no understudies. This is why he launched a project to share his techniques with the next generation, and he also plans to hold exhibits and other events to showcase the Chikuzen biwa.
Read our interview with Doriano Sulis here.