Sanpogakuso was an organization for handing down gagaku (Japanese ancient court music and dance), established as a system in the early Edo period and each ho (one office) consisted of 17 musicians and, therefore, sanpogakuso consisted of 51 musicians in total. Sanpo refers to three offices for musicians which were Kyoto-ho (the Imperial court), Nanto-ho (Kofuku-ji Temple), and Tennoji-ho (Shitenno-ji Temple) and the term "sanpo" is also used as a collective name for these offices for those that existed before the Edo period. The gagaku musicians who belonged to sanpogakuso were collectively called sanbogakunin.
Under the ancient Ritsuryo codes, gagaku-ryo (a governmental agency for gagaku musicians) was established, however, various families gradually monopolized gagaku as their family art and the actual base of activities of the musicians was shifted to gakuso (chamber of music) which was established in kurododokoro (the Chamberlain's Office) in the 10th Century associated with the dissolution of the Ritsuryo system. Almost concurrently, gakuso was established in Nanto and Tennoji, and gakunin, the musicians who belonged to these gakuso were also invited to the Imperial court to perform gagaku. However, because of the riots that started with the Onin War as a trigger, gakunin in Kyoto were scattered and the gagaku in the Imperial court declined to the extent that it was scarcely performed only by gakunin of Nanto and Tennoji.
When the Azuchi-Momoyama period started, part of the gakunin were ordered by the Emperor Ogimachi and the Emperor Goyozei to move to Kyoto and the scattered gakunin also gradually returned to Kyoto. In the "Kinriyo-gakuninshu" published in 1603 when the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) was established, the names of 24 gakunin for sanpo.in total were listed. The economic power of sanpogakunin in the early Edo period was about 2.5 million koku in total for 38 families and was poor, and it is said that, apart from Nanto-ho and Tennoji-ho who were protected by the power of temples and shrines, the musicians in Kyoto-ho who were subordinated to the court nobles were bad off. For the 50th Buddhist memorial service of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA in 1665, 57 sanbogakunin went to Edo and it was determined that a territory of 2,000 koku was provided for sanpogakuso. A territory of 2,000 koku provided for sanpogakuso included five items and the breakdown of their distribution was as follows.
When the Meiji period started, gakunin of sanpogakuso moved to Tokyo and joined Momijiyama-gakunin of the Edo bakufu and they together were incorporated in the Gagaku Dept. of the Imperial Household Agency and, currently, the department holds its activities as the Court Ceremony Music Dept. of the Imperial Household Agency with its gagaku being designated as an important intangible cultural asset.
Maigaku, the Japanese ancient music for dancing of Seireikai Society which preserves the tradition of Tennoji-ho, is an important intangible ethnocultural asset, and Nanto-ho hands down not only gagaku but also ancient music such as dengaku and seinoo in mainly Kasuga-taish shrine and has organized 'Nantogakuso' after 'Kasuga Ancient Music Preserving Socity' and Shinto rituals and entertainments in Kasuga Wakamiya Festival performed by 'Nantogakuso' is also designated as an important intangible ethnocultural asset.
It is considered that the custom of handing down from father to son the art of the family had already existed during the Nara period. An Imperial order that utao (men who sing songs handed down from ancient times), utame (women who sing songs handed down from ancient times), and fuefukimono (flute player) had to hand down their artistic skills to their descendants and have them practice the skills, was announced in 684 and, later on in 778, an article called ("Kyokunsho") was present which collected 'the secrets of handing down in various families' and, therefore, it is considered that secret songs to hand down from father to son were present in those days. In the 12th Century, such family art became proprietary ones and it is said that to perform art other than the art of the family was prohibited.
However, there were various changes after the Sengoku period (Period of Warring States) and the families as listed in the table on the right were present as gakuke (musician families) of sanpogakuso. In those days, in addition to the songs handed sown from father to son proprietarily as its family art, some songs were handed down only for one generation from another family were started to be performed. "Handing down" in this case does not mean to teach a specific skill but to give the right to perform. The power of the Imperial court was present in the background of this right and the Yotsutsuji family which performed the role of gakuso betto (chief) and gaku bugyo (assistant) for generations managed the right. The Yotsutsuji family was from the House of Urin (holding military ranks) which adopted the Japanese harp as its family art and, every time sanpogakunin who were jigenin (a lower rank of ancient Japanese nobility) wanted to perform Japanese harps, they received one-day handing down which was effective for the day of the performance.
Until the Genroku era, it was prohibited by to adopt any disciples from ordinary people other than people belonging to gakuke. However, as time passed to reach the period of culture of Bunka and Bunsei, many gakuke including from gakuke each with long history such as the Toyohara family, the Shiba family, and the Tsuji family to families of low-ranked gakunin became so-called iemoto, the head of a system of licensing from a head family of a school with many pupils. It can be considered that this was a measure against the poverty of gakuke caused by the influences of famines and price increases similarly to bakufu and the clans because of the income of gakuke being based on the koku system. Although many of the pupils were warriors and Buddhist priests, merchants, and artisans accounted for 10 to 20% of all the pupils. However, during Meiji period, it was prohibited for some time period to take disciples from ordinary people and gagaku was intensively managed in the Ministry of Imperial Household and, therefore, such an iemoto system has not been continued to the modern times.
The system of gakunin was that the 51 gakunin in sanpogakuso were ranked into three classes of advanced-level artists, intermediate-level artists, and secondary-level artists, art charges were additionally given as wages to those at the advanced level and the intermediate level. What decided those ranks of the musicians was an all-participating-type practical skill examining system called sanpokyudai or gakuko. The examining system started in 1665 and the was conducted every four years until 1865 as far as no special reason for not conducting the system was present.
Gakuko was conducted changing the musical notes for each of its sessions with one note on one day in order of Ichikotsu-cho note, Hyo-jo note, So-jo note, Oshiki-cho note, and Banshiki-cho note (after the Tenpo era, Taishiki-cho note was also included). The subjects were only the three kinds of flutes (sho, hichiriki, ryuteki) and they were played with the accompaniment of only kakko and taiko drums and all the songs were those of sahogaku (togaku). The examinee-musicians had to decide in advance which of the advanced-level examination and the intermediate-level examination to take and those who each obtained the majority in the voting which was conducted after gakuko was finished passed the examination. The voting was conducted in a manner that each of eight examiners of each one office voted for the examinees of the two offices other than the office to which the examiner belonged and, in order to secure the fairness, those of the advanced-level musicians who did not play in the accompaniment during the year were selected as examiners and these musicians further submitted their written oaths. Because the song-and-performer combinations were decided by lottery on the day of the examination, the examinees had to practice all songs in sahogaku, therefore, gakuko performed a significant role in handing down and sophistication of gagaku.
Sanpo was something like a regional school and, in sanpo, a type of iemoto licensing system was employed which handed down the secret skills and secret songs in each head family. However, it can be considered that sanpokyudai was a system to compete for their skillfulness and evaluate each other across such schools and sanpokyudai was a peculiar case in Japanese traditional entertainment. After the Gagaku Department of the Ministry of the Imperial Household was organized during the early Meiji period, the examining method of the department basically was based on sapokyudai.