Shakuhachi (尺八)

The shakuhachi is a traditional Japanese musical instrument. It is a type of woodwind instrument. It falls under the category of reed instruments, and is classified as an "air reed" instrument. It originated in China during the Tang Dynasty, and was transmitted to Japan during that period; however, it subsequently fell out of use for a certain period before reemerging during the Kamakura period, and has been used continuously since, evolving during the Edo period into the precursor of its current form.

The origin of the name shakuhachi is derived from a traditional standardized measure of length, consisting of units expressed in terms of one "shaku" and eight "sun" (or 1.8 shaku, which is approximately 54.5 cm).
The most widely accepted theory of the etymological origin of the word itself traces its appearance to the text in 'Biography of Lucun' in the series of "Jiu Tang Shu" (Old Tang History), which describes that Lucun, a Tang musician who lived in the early seventh century, created a vertical flute tuned to a 12 tone scale, with the Oshikicho tone being the Tang standard tone (according to the 12-tone Japanese scale, the equivalent of the tone D on the scale of the West); the dimension at which this tonic was obtained is said to have been one shaku and eight sun, thus the name 'shakuhachi.'
Amongst players, the shakuhachi is sometimes referred to simply as "bamboo" ("ta-ke"). In English and other languages it is called shakuhachi or bamboo flute.

The rootend of the "madake" bamboo plant is used, and the shakuhachi is generally crafted so as to include seven nodes of the bamboo from the rootend upward. The blowing edge (or "utaguchi") is located at the upper end of the shakuhachi, and a player directs a stream of breath at this blowing edge to cause sound to be emitted. Generally speaking, the layout of the tone holes is four on the front face and one on the rear face of the bamboo.

Instruments from other countries resembling the shakuhachi include the Western flute and the South American quena. These instruments are all air reed instruments that do not use a fipple (block).

Origins and the gagaku shakuhachi

The most widely accepted theory of the origins of the shakuhachi accords with the a depiction found in the aforementioned 'Biography of Lucun' of the Tang dynasty document "Jiu Tang Shu," which records that Lucun (呂才, Japanese: Ryosai; 600 - 665) designed the shakuhachi in the first stage Jogan era (Tang dynasty China) (627 - 649).

The shakuhachi was first transmitted to Japan sometime around the end of the seventh century to the beginning of the eighth century as an instrument used in the performance of gagaku (court music of a type developed in Tang dynasty China). The Shoso-in Treasure Repository from the Todai-ji Temple in Nara stores eight examples of shakuhachi from this period, each of which has six tone holes and three nodes.

Later years in China saw this type of vertical flute with the blowing edge formed cut outward from the uppermost end of the bamboo disappear, and the shakuhachi also ceased to be used as a gagaku instrument in Japan.

The era of the hitoyogiri and komoso

During the period of history in which there is no record of the shakuhachi, a vertical flute called the hitoyogiri (literally, "one node cut") appeared in the Kamakura period. The hitoyogiri was a five hole, one-node vertical flute fashioned from the center section of the madake bamboo plant. Bands of traveling entertainers, formed by people such as priest-like dressed Dengaku performers, who would beg for alms playing the hitoyogiri appeared. Mendicant ascetics called komoso (literally, "straw mat monk") formed, and subsequently established a connection with Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism (a form of Zen related to the Rinzai sect), becoming the komuso (literally, "monks of empty nothingness").

The hitoyogiri was brought to Japan during the Muromachi period by a Zen priest named Roan from China; after Sokun OMORI (1570 - 1625) emerged and became a famous for playing the hitoyogiri, the instrument's popularity spread rapidly. The hitoyogiri reached the height of its popularity during the later half of the 17th century; however, it rapidly fell out of favor thereafter.

Fuke shakuhachi

During the Edo period the shakuhachi was recognized as a Buddhist religious implement used for transmitting the Dharma, and only the komuso of Fuke sect were permitted to play the shakuhachi. Officially, it was prohibited for the general public to play the shakuhachi; in actuality, however, there were people who enjoyed playing the shakuhachi as a pastime. With the onset of the Meiji period, the Fuke sect was abolished, and from that point onward the shakuhachi was permitted to be played by people who were not komuso.

Range of the scale and basic tuning

The range of the scale of the shakuhachi is basically a little over two octaves. However, though infrequently used, overtones, which increase the range by approximately one octave, are sometimes used.

Rudimentary playing techniques produce the sounds of two anhemitonic pentatonic scales (pentatonic scales containing no semitones). Basic playing techniques enable the production of all notes within the western 12 tone scale.

Physical structure of the shakuhachi

The modern shakuhachi is fashioned from the madake bamboo plant and has five tone holes and three nodes of bamboo, including the rootend.

In former times the shakuhachi was fashioned from a single piece of bamboo (referred to as a "nobekan"); however, at present the most widely used type of shakuhachi is made by cutting the length of bamboo into upper and lower halves, and providing a joint between the two halves. The original intent of this development was to enable more fine tuning of the bore during the fabrication stage; however, it also has resulted in making the instrument more portable, making it more convenient to carry around.

The primary material from which shakuhachi are fashioned is still madake bamboo; however, inexpensive shakuhachi made from wood, plastic and other synthetic materials such as plastic have been developed, and are primarily aimed at improving accessibility to the instrument and targeted at beginning students.

According to scientific theory, the tone of the shakuhachi should not be dependent upon the material from which the instrument is made; however, there are people who disagree with that, and insist that the material does effect the tonal characteristics of the instrument.

The blowing edge of the shakuhachi is formed by cutting the upper end of the bamboo outward at an oblique angle. The blowing edge of shakuhachi produced today are usually reinforced with an embedded piece of water buffalo horn, ivory, ebonite, or the like.

Being influenced by Western music after the onset of the Meiji period, shakuhachi provided with seven, or even nine holes were developed. In comparison to the widespread five-hole shakuhachi, though the seven-hole shakuhachi are not widely used, there are people who use them. An already existing five-hole shakuhachi can be modified into a seven-hole shakuhachi.

Present day shakuhachi are fabricated by removing all traces of the joints from the inside of the bamboo to produce a relatively smooth bore, and then coating the bore with layers of urushi-ji (a kind of workable plaster medium containing natural lacquer) to finely tune the bore. This process allows the volume to increase and the pitch to be fine tuned.

In contrast to the shakuhachi fabricated using the above method, the bore of older shakuhachi called 'ko-kan' (literally, "antique shakuhachi"), or 'ji-nashi-kan' (literally, "shakuhachi without urushi-ji) are not coated with urushi-ji, and remnants of the joints often visible. Because it is generally not possible to obtain an accurate tuning in the older shakuhachi as mentioned above, the player must make adjustments for pitch irregularities while playing. In the performance of classic honkyoku (pieces originally composed and played with the shakuhachi), the unique characteristics of each ko-kan or ji-nashi-kan shakuhachi can be attractive.

Tsutsune (tonic)

The tsutsune (i.e., the tonic) is the tone produced when the shakuhachi is played with all tone holes covered. This represents the lowest basic tone that can be produced by the shakuhachi. The standard shakuhachi is the one-shaku eight-sun length shakuhachi, and has a tsutsune of D4 according to the Japanese twelve note scale. In addition, there are other lengths of shakuhachi that are also used, including the one-shaku six-sun length shakuhachi (tsutsune of E4), which is used to perform the piece "Haru-no-umi" (Spring Sea), and the two-shaku four-sun length shakuhachi (tsutsune A3). There are also numerous other variations based on the length of the shakuhachi, differing in half-tone intervals starting from one-shaku one-sun length to two-shaku four-sun length shakuhachi; however, compared to the more standard lengths of shakuhachi, shakuhachi of these lengths are seldom used.

How to play the shakuhachi

In the same manner as with the flute, the shape into which a player forms his or her mouth (mouthpiece (instrument) embouchure) must be used to adjust to the speed of the air stream blown into the shakuhachi. The recorder (a so-called 'vertical flute') has a structure (instrument) constructed in the form of a fipple, block, which enables a beginner to produce a sound easily; however, to produce a sound on a shakuhachi, it generally takes intensive practice. Because the shakuhachi has only five tone holes (finger holes), in order to play the Miyako-bushi scale (a Japanese scale), a seven-tone scale or a twelve-tone scale, it is necessary to use techniques referred to as "meri" and "kari," involving the covering half of a tone hole and the adjusting of the angle of ones embouchure, to produce sharp or flat tones. By changing the distance between the lips and blowing edge of the utaguchi, the pitch (tone) can be caused to change. Lowering the pitch is called "meri," and raising the pitch "kari." The range of meri-kari expands the closer to the state of being played open (i.e., with the fingers covering no tone holes), with the meri capable of extending to more than four half tones. Under normal playing conditions, meri is generally played with a scope of two half tones, and kari one half tone. With respect to the movements of the player, if the player pulls back and down (withdraws) the point on which the shakuhachi rests (point on the lower jaw between the chin and lower lip), a meri effect is produced, and if the player extends the lower jaw, a kari effect is produced.

By repeatedly performing meri and kari in succession by withdrawing and extending the lower jaw (tate yuri), or by shaking the head gently from side to side (yoko yuri), a type of vibrato can be produced. This type of technique is called yuri (or agoyuri). The yuri technique differs from the technique of varying the volume of breath used to produced vibrato with the flute, and produces a unique, alluring effect. The technique of varying the volume of breath is also used to produce vibrato with the shakuhachi. That technique is referred to as iki yuri (literally, "breath yuri").

By moving the fingers in a manner such as to smoothly transition between closed, half-open, and open states in combination with a meri/kari action, a smooth portamento can be produced. This is called suriage (rising tone) or surisage (descending tone). There is also an effect called korokoro, which involves the repeated fine control of raising and lowering the pitch.

By varying the shape of the oral cavity, the volume of breath and the like, the tone can be modulated so as to produce tone colors traversing harmonic structures such as soft tones, round tones, and so on.

Shakuhachi lineages and number of players

As a full-scale survey of the number of shakuhachi players has not been carried out, the exact number is unknown. It is estimated that there are 30,000 players.

The Kinko school

The Kinko school is a lineage that was founded by Kinko KUROSAWA the first (1710 - 1771), during the Edo period. It is said that he was a samurai retainer of Kuroda domain, whose name was originally Kohachi, who, having become a ronin (a masterless samurai), eventually made his way to Edo, where he came to be engaged in teaching the shakuhachi at the fukiawase-dokoro ("fukiawase" refers to a Zen related mode of instruction that is generally one-to-one, and in the case of shakuhachi involves the teacher and student playing a piece together while seated facing each other across sheet music, and "dokoro" simply means "place") of Ichigetsu-ji Temple and Reiho-ji Temple. He collected and arranged shakuhachi pieces, compiling 36 pieces that form the Kinko school honkyoku. The name of Kinko KUROSAWA was carried for three generations before disappearing; however, thereafter the Kinko school continued to flourish and grow under the guidance of Itcho YOSHIDA, Kodo ARAKI and others.

The Kinko school is comprised of a number of large and small organizations that form the lineage, and is not a unified or monolithic organization.

The Tozan school

The Tozan school is a lineage that was founded during the Meiji period by first generation Tozan NAKAO, and is not directly connected to Fuke sect. By collaborating with Michio MIYAGI and coming to hold the exclusive rights to publishing shakuhachi notation for MIYAGI's compositions, introducing a council system and the like, Tozan NAKANO established a centralized organization that grew to become the largest organization in the shakuhachi world.

The Ueda school

The Ueda school is a lineage that was founded in 1917 by Hodo UEDA, who had been expelled from the Tozan school. The Ueda school adopted the staff notation system, seven-hole shakuhachi and the like, and worked to modernize the shakuhachi. In addition, the Ueda school also wrote shakuhachi parts for many nagauta (long epic song with shamisen [a three-stringed Japanese banjo] accompaniment) pieces. Although the Ueda school eventually abandoned five-line Western notation, the seven-hole shakuhachi developed by the Ueda school continues to be used.

At present, the name of the Ueda school calls themselves as "Ueda-ryu Shakuhachi-do" (Ueda school Way of Shakuhachi).

The Chikuho school

The Chikuho school is a lineage that was founded by Chikuho SAKAI in 1917. Taking up the influence of the Soetsu school, the notation does not use the letters Ro, Tsu, Re and Chi, but Hu, Ho, U, Eh, Ya and Ee, which is referred to as the HuHoU system.

Shakuachi music

There are many types of music played on the shakuhachi. The most emphasis on distinguishing types of music played with the shakuhachi falls on the genres called "honkyoku" and "gaikyoku," which occupy opposite ends of the conceptual field.
The term honkyoku means, 'music that was originally performed only on a specific instrument and which is the original music played on that instrument,' whereas the term "gaikyoku" means, 'music of a different type of genre that has been arranged to be played on a specific instrument not originally used in that genre.'


The term honkyoku originally referred to the pieces that were practiced by adherents to the Fuke sect; however, following the abolition of the Fuke sect in 1871, the scope of meaning of the term expanded to include solo musical compositions unrelated to religion that were played on the shakuhachi, and even compositions consisting of more than one part for the shakuhachi came to be called honkyoku. In order to maintain a distinction between the more modern compositions that came to be referred to as honkyoku and the honkyoku practiced by adherents of Fuke sect, the term "koten-honkyoku" (literally, "ancient honkyoku") is sometimes used to refer to the latter.

Honkyoku of Fuke sect

With respect to honkyoku played by the komuso (mendicant Fuke sect priest) during the Edo period, which included those in the repertoire of the Kinko school, there are more than 150 pieces known to have been transmitted at present. These pieces were brought into being and transmitted as part of a meditative religious practice, and generally speaking, the names of the composers and the dates of composition are unknown. Nezasa-ha Kinpu school of Hirosaki, the Seien school of Nagoya, which incorporates influences from the Fudai-ji Temple of Hamamatsu, the Myoan Jinpo school of Kyoto's Meian-ji Temple as well as the Myoan Taizan school, the Hakata Itchoken school, the Echigo Meian-ji Temple school, the Fusokan school of the Tohoku region, the Shoganken, and the like are schools that have been transmitted.

The honkyoku of these schools have been conveyed by the mendicant komuso active in each of the respective provinces. There are many instances of honkyoku transmitted at the various temples throughout the country that have the same name, but are completely different compositions. "Reibo," "Sanya," "Tsuru-no-sugomori," and the like are representative names of honkyoku; however, depending on the piece, more than ten versions of some pieces have been passed down to the present, each of which has a different melody.

Honkyoku as religious music continues to be practiced to this today; the following lineages of honkyoku, including those transmitted after Meiji Restoration across the country, has been transmitted as follows; Kinko school honkyoku, which was gathered throughout the country by Kinko KUROSAWA; and that of Taizan HIGUCHI (1856 - 1915), who first learned the Seien school shakuhachi and established Myoan Taizan school, and later made effort to restore Myoan Kyokai (Myoan Church).

Kinko school honkyoku

The Kinko school honkyoku consists of a repertoire of 36 pieces that the founder of the lineage, Kinko KUROSAWA the first, gathered in his travels to komuso temples throughout the country. As head instructor at the fukiawase-dokoro, Kinko KUROSAWA set the pieces he had gathered to notation and established an order in which the repertoire of honkyoku was to be studied, as well as laid the foundation enabling the Kinko school to later adapt the shakuhachi to secular music.

Tozan school honkyoku

The Tozan school honkyoku repertoire consists of pieces composed by Tozan NAKAO, as well as compositions for the shakuhachi for solo or multiple parts.

Sankyoku ensemble pieces

Edo period jiuta (a genre of traditional songs with samisen accompaniment) pieces were performed by an ensemble consisting of koto (a long Japanese zither with thirteen strings), shamisen, and kokyu (a bowed three string instrument). This is the origin of the term sankyoku pieces (literally, "compositions for three instruments"). After the Meiji Restoration, kokyu was replaced by shakuhachi. It can be imagined that there were instances of collaborative performances between the shakuhachi and koto or shamisen even during the Edo period, however, it was not until after the abolition of Fuke sect that shakuhachi went out of hands of Fuke sect and the ensemble was permitted. At present, sankyoku ensembles almost always include the shakuhachi. In the case of adapting a classical sankyoku pieces for shakuhachi, the shakuhachi part was generally added in a manner so as to roughly parallel that of the shamisen part.

Sankyoku compositions of this sort, which have been adapted to include a single shakuhachi player, along with Meiji shinkyoku, which are a type of music composed in Japan after the Meiji period reflecting the influence of classical western composition, and including Shin Nihon compositions, such as Haru-no-umi, by Michio MIYAGI, form the genre of music commonly referred to as modern Japanese music.

Among sankyoku ensemble performers, classical jiuta-sokyoku pieces (jiuta compositions based on the koto part) are referred to as kokyoku (old pieces, or classical pieces), pieces composed by Michio MIYAGI and other from the Meiji period up to the beginning of WWI are referred to as shinkyoku (new pieces), and pieces composed subsequently are referred to as modern pieces.

Folk song shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is often used to accompany performances of folk songs. Many oiwake-bushi (a form popular in many parts of central and northern Japan) and mago-uta songs, in particular, are performed accompanied by the shakuhachi. In the case of Esashi oiwake-bushi pieces (from the coastal regions of Hokkaido, ports along the Sea of Japan, etc.) shakuhachi accompaniment is mandatory.

Modern music and the shakuhachi

Starting from about the 1960s, the shakuhachi began to be adopted in compositions of modern classical music. Shakuhachi player Katsuya YOKOYAMA appeared with the New York Philharmonic in 1964 to high acclaim, performing a piece called "November Steps," which was composed by Toru TAKEMITSU for biwa player Kinshi TSURUTA of the Tsuruta-school lineage, a lineage influenced by the Satsuma style of biwa playing.

Popular music and the shakuhachi

At present, performers such as Dozan FUJIWARA, ZAN and Tone are active performing modern music on the shakuhachi.

Making shakuhachi
Making shakuhachi is called "seikan" (literally, "making the tube"). The maker of shakuhachi is called "Seikan-shi" (literally, "a maker of the tube"). Aside from professional shakuhachi makers, there are players who make their own shakuhachi. Among makers, there are those who are linked exclusively to a particular lineage or teacher. There are also amateur shakuhachi players who take up an interest in trying their hand at making shakuhachi.

[Original Japanese]