The pear-shaped biwa lute has enchanted listeners in Japan for centuries. Played with a large wooden plectrum, the instrument has four or five strings of twisted silk stretched over four or more deep frets positioned on the neck. Along with the rich, percussive sounds of the wood striking these silk strings, the biwa is known for its distinctive buzz (sawari), which is produced when the string comes into contact with the hard wood of the neck.

Since around the 10th century, the biwa has been mainly performed as an accompaniment to the voice, but this was not always the case. The biwa first entered Japan during the seventh and eighth centuries as part of the gagaku court-ensemble in a purely instrumental role, which can still be heard today. During the Heian Period (A.D. 794-1185), it was performed by professional court musicians, as well as courtiers and nobles. In the representative chronicle of that period, "Tale of Genji," music, including the biwa, is mentioned in almost every chapter.

Priests found the biwa ideal as an accompaniment to ritual sutra-chanting. A group of blind country priests in Kyushu (moso) adopted the biwa in their exorcism rituals, and more high-ranking priests in the capital of Kyoto also used the biwa in ritual, linking it with the vina played by the Indian goddess of knowledge, Sarasvati.