“Shakuhachi” refers to a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute, which was first used for court music and later was played by Komuso (a mendicant monk of the Fuke sect of Zen) as the part of the ascetic training.

The sounds of Shakuhachi spread among the public, which are now collaborated with contemporary music.

It has been familiar with a wide range of occasions such as noble and gorgeous places like court and ordinary days.

Today, Shakuhachi has been spread as Japanese unique music abroad beyond Japan.

Let’s get closer to charm of “Shakuhachi” tracing its history.

History of Shakuhachi

The origin of “Shakuhachi” lies in the Nara period(710-794).

The earliest extant Shakuhachi has been housed in Syoso-In Todaiji Temple, which has six tone holes and three nodes.

It came from To (China), but after it was abolished in China, Shakuhachi made its unique progress in Japan.

“Shakuhachi” was initially played as “Gagaku Shakuhachi (court ensemble)”, but after the Heian period(794-1192), it declined gradually.

In the Middle Ages, Shakuhachi came to represent the religious aspect.

“Komuso” appeared, who played “Shakuhachi” as the part of ascetic training same as Zazen (zen medeitation).

They formed “Fuke-shu (Fuke sect)” as one school of Zen.

Shakuhachi which was used by this “Komuso”, was the direct origin of the current form of Shakuhachi.

The spirits of strict morals went well with those of Samurai warriors, which led the shogunate to approve officially in the Edo period(1603-1867).

In the Meiji period(1868-1912), “Fuke-shu” was abolished once by a new government.
“The official approval by the shogunate” may have done the harm.

The strong bond with the Edo shogunate and the privileges like free transportation across the country, did disturb the Meiji government to complete the equality of all people.

However, this fact contrarily ended in accelerating the popularity of “Shakuhachi” among ordinary people.

Shakuhachi had been already popular among the public in the Edo period(1603-1867), but, once some of “Komuso” turned to a master of “Shakuhachi”, the trend got stronger.

On the other hand, in the Kansai area(the west area), free culture bloomed since the Edo period, which developed it more flexibly.

In the late Edo period, Soetsu Kondo (1821-1867) established Soetsu-ryu playing three instrument-ensembles by So (Koto, Japanese harp) and Sangen (Shamisen, three-stringed musical instrument), which grew Shakuhachi to popular music to the puclic.

From Soetsu-ryu, Tozan Nakao (1876-1956) appeared.

He adjusted the unique techniques, musical notation, ensemble formation, the style of the school to develop the current form of Shakuhachi.

Schools of Shakuhachi

Thus, there are mainly two schools; one influenced strongly by “Komuso”, and the other developed newly in the Meiji period.

The former is called “Kinko-ryu”, and the latter is “Tozan-ryu”.

“Kinko-ryu” was formed by Kinko Kurosawa, who was a samurai warrior of Kuroda-domain in Fukuoka.

Kinko Kurosawa restructured pieces of music inherited from Komuso Temple across the country to create the basis of Kinko-ryu called “Kinko-ryu Honkyoku”.

The characteristic of “Kinko-ryu” is deep taste of each sound.

Since it was based in Zen sect, its music score did not have any divisions like a normal score.

On the Kinko-ryu score, rhythms and beats are instructed by notes written in Katakana (Kinko-ryu’s scale has five notes; Ro, Tsu, Re, Chi and Ri).

Each sound is played with breathing like Susokukan (Breath counting meditation) based on Zen breathing, which changes its taste blending powerful and deep sounds.

This characteristic also applies to all schools of Shakuhachi, which is represented in Kinko-ryu the most.

On the other hand, “Tozan-ryu” was founded by Tozan Nakao.

“Tozan-ryu” formed affected by civilization in the Meiji period, has simple music scores with divided bars, which made it easier to play in ensemble with other musical instruments.

Shakuhachi that is used for “Tozan-ryu” can control the tune easily, which makes it suitable to play in ensemble with Western musical instruments.

“Tozan-ryu” has been developed with the unique taste of “Shakuhachi” to become the most popular school with the biggest number of players by exploring the high adjustability and possibilities of “Shakuhachi”

Styles of Shakuhachi

Now, let’s see the details of Shakuhachi.

Shakuhachi is made from a bamboo called “Madake (timber bamboo)”.

It takes long time to prepare the bamboo; first cut down the matured 4-5 years-old hard bamboo, remove oil by drying over a fire, dry in the sun, and preserve a few years before being used.

The picture below is the part called “Utakuchi”.

Utakuchi has a black reinforcement inside, which is made from ivory or horns of water buffalos.

Shakuhachi is not a reed instrument like the woodwind (a musical instrument making sounds by vibration of a reed material), but an air-reed one, with which lips work the function of a reed.

That is why it has unique taste of deep sounds different from those of other musical instruments.

Shakuhachi consists of two parts connected at the mid-joint called “Nakatsugi”.

This makes it more portable and also has many other merits such as making it easier to paint the inside with lacquer, to send the air stably, and to adjust the inner structure in details.

This Nakatsugi is decorated with calameae and precious metals to increase the strength.

Shakuhachi has a structure which can easily be accumulated with saliva inside, but Nakatsugi makes it easier to clean.

The picture below shows the part of “Kanjiri” of Shakuhachi.

By keeping the shape of dried bamboo, it has a turnip at roots, which expresses unique taste and beauty of Shakuhachi.

Also, this turnip part brings subtleness and profoundness to the sounds of Shakuhachi.

Since it uses the root, only one Shakuhachi is made from one bamboo tree, which requires the right judgment of craftsmen.

Shakuhachi Today

Shakuhachi was regarded as “Gagaku Shakuhachi” for court and a ritual apparatus for “Komuso”, but now, it gets familiar with ordinary people at societies of universities, or public lectures as such.

Hozan Yamamoto (1937-2014), a living national treasure, studied Tozan-ryu and inherited the traditional “Shakuhachi” to collaborate with Yosuke Yamashita, a jazz pianist, at the music piece called “BREATH” and create music for the movie “Makai Tensyo (Samurai Reincarnation)” directed by Kinji Fukasaku and produced by Toei, which shows his active attitude towards various exchanges.

Also, the players like Dozan Fujiwara (1972-) and Daisuke Kaminaga (1985-) have collaborated actively with the classical, the jazz, J-POP, the world music to expand the possibilities of “Shakuhachi” in various ways.

Future of Shakuhachi

As it is also called as “Suizen”, blowing in by using all strength, each aspect of “Shakuhachi” is shared by both players and audiences; its breathing, its sounds, its echoes, and its soundscapes.

Its performance with respecting the genuine sounds of bamboo is realized not only by the playing method, but by the spirits of Zen training, which has been strongly inherited in “Honkyoku”.

On the other hand, with the appearance of distinctive players and the innovation of sound techniques, the limitation of volumes which can produce by bamboo has been removed, which makes the possible opportunities of Shakuhachi wider more than traditional ensemble with So (Koto) and Sangen (Shamisen), orchestra, big bands, or J-POP.

It is exciting to see the future of “Shakuhachi” keeping its development with preserving its Japanese ancient sounds.

We hope more people enjoy the sounds of “Shakuhachi”.