Welcome to heaven...Here's your koto!
The Far Side, one of America’s most beloved cartoons, shows a line of people waiting to go through the gates of heaven. The heading reads, “Welcome to heaven…Here’s your harp. Welcome to hell...Here’s your accordion.”
I am not sure what anyone has against the accordion, but the harp has always been associated with the music of heaven. Standing vertically, the instrument sends our eyes upward. Glissandos flow effortlessly up and down the strings with no unpleasant “wrong” notes to pain the ear. Undampened strings, plucked with the fleshy part of the fingers, brings forth resonate mellow tones.
These angelic melodies have been a source of healing and comfort, since long before David eased the troubled mind of Saul.
“When the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV)
What about the koto, the Japanese harp?
Koto strings are plucked downward and harshly with picks, bringing out strident tones. Melodies are fragmented and halting, suggesting sighs and groans. Sounds emanate underneath the instrument toward the ground. One could associate the koto with a kind of earth-bound “heaviness.”
This heaviness can also be found in traditional Japanese buyō dancing. Body weight is kept low. The knees are bent, and the feet are shuffled. The stage is stamped noisily. What a contrast to Western ballerinas who often stand on their toes in pointe shoes to give the illusion of weightlessness. They hold their arms high, cross the stage on the shoulders of others, and leap into the air with a feathery lightness.
Perhaps the most striking differences between Western and Japanese harps are in the notes themselves. Characteristically melancholy Japanese songs are constructed from the tuning of the koto. Of only five notes in the scale, four are a half-step away from each other, creating the most dissonant interval possible. Dissonance, in the language of music, is brokenness.
Can the Japanese harp show us the beauty of heaven?
Kanzo Uchimura, a famous Japanese pastor from the early 1900’s, wrote, “With a single touch of the exquisite sound of heaven, the koto strings of my heart reverberate.”1
Uchimura’s heart resonates deeply with the koto not just because of its beauty but because it expresses something we all feel deeply.
“I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart.” (Romans 9:2 KJV)
We live in a world full of pain, sickness, and death. We know and experience “downward motion.”
The music of the koto though speaks to me of grace amidst the harsh realities of this world, pointing us to the Lamb who was slain, the source of all our healing.
Jesus redeemed our “heaviness” by carrying the heaviness of the cross. Jesus’ path of heaviness and brokenness are now no longer paths of disintegration but of healing, the thumbprint of God on a broken tree for a broken world.
When John gets a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, he writes about the sound of the harps.
“I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps.” (Revelation 14:2)
What if the harps John heard in heaven were the sound of the Japanese koto? What if the brokenness of Christ on the cross is eternally celebrated through the brokenness of the music of heaven?
By Jesus’ stripes, we are healed. By Jesus’ heavy footsteps on Golgotha, our spirits can soar. Perhaps, after all, nothing expresses God’s redemptive plan for creation more beautifully than this traditional Japanese art. Would there be anything more fitting than to be greeted and welcomed into the gates of heaven by the sounds of the Japanese koto?
1 “How to achieve great literature.” Kanzo Uchimura. Kokumin no tomo, No. 265/266, October 12, 1895. Translation by Christopher Born.
This excerpt comes from a larger bilingual collection of meditations on faith, art, and culture in Japan by Roger W. Lowther.