Shakuhachi history

The first shakuhachi-like instruments were brought to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-794 AC). These instruments were a part of Gagaku “court music” which was reserved for nobility. The instrument lost its place in Gagaku and later resurfaced in the hands of commoners, particularly beggars who would play for alms. Much later, in the Edo period (1603-1868), an increasing number of samūrai found themselves rōnin or “masterless”. The life of the flute playing beggars appealed to a growing number of these rōnin samūrai so they began joining their ranks. Eventually the samūrai diverged from the beggars by creating their own order and calling themselves the komuso monks which translates as “monks of no-thing-ness” (虚無僧).

An official Zen Buddhist sect was formed by and for the komuso called The Fuke-shu which was named after the Chinese monk Fuke Zenji (Zhenzhou Puhua). The Tokugawa Shogunate granted the komuso official status which came with various rare privileges such as being able to travel across borders freely. In order to become a komuso of the Fuke-shu or to legally play the shakuhachi you had to be of samūrai birth with the proper identification papers, pass initiation, take oaths, and pay an entrance fee. The komuso developed a number of refined musical styles of playing shakuhachi and they anonymously composed many honkyoku which are considered “spiritual” or “meditative” pieces of music (see “Honkyoku shakuhachi music”).

The banning of the Komuso and all Buddhism

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

The Meiji Restoration was a chain of events that restored practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. One of the goals of the restoration was to purge Japan of foreign religions such as Buddhism in favor of the national religion of Shintoism. One of the early slogans of the Meiji Restoration was “Sweep aside the Buddha. Smash Buddhism”. During the Meiji Restoration many of the komuso temples of the Fuke-shu were burned or converted resulting in the loss of many honkyoku pieces. Despite these sentiments secular shakuhachi playing continued to grow and the honkyoku were still taught, although to a much lesser extent. The Meiji Empire decided to try and ban the shakuhachi alltogether, however, Araki Chikuo (Kodo II) and Yoshida Itcho petitioned The Empire and succeeded in convincing them to continue to allow the shakuhachi in secular settings.

The honkyoku were still officially banned as well as all komuso activities. It was also around this time that the fully-pasted two-piece jiari type shakuhachi began evolving, possibly to meet the ever growing demands of pitch and volume. Eventually, Buddhist activities were allowed to resume including those of the komuso monks, however, secular shakuhachi music continued to dominate and many more honkyoku pieces were lost due to a lack of interest.

Higuchi Taizan’s influence on honkyoku

famous shakuhachi players (left to right) Higuchi Taizan, Jin Nyodo, Watazumi

famous shakuhachi players (left to right) Higuchi Taizan, Jin Nyodo, Watazumi

Higuchi Taizan (1856-1914) had a big effect on shakuhachi history. He learned the original Fudai-ji/Seien-ryu honkyoku pieces (Kyorei, Koku, Tachiochi, Mukaiji, etc.) in his home Nagoya and then he went on to study Kinko ryu and Ikkan ryu in Kanto, Japan. Finally, he moved to Kyoto, at which point he created his own style or known as Taizan ha or Myoan. He achieved this by rearranging the pieces he had learned into his own unique versions in addition to making changes in pitch and ornamentation. For example, he added the furi technique which is not present in the original Seien ryu pieces. His school is often called Myoan because he founded a new Myoan temple in Kyoto since the original was burned down. However, it is perhaps best to refer to his school as Taizan to avoid confusing it with the original Kyoto Myoan style, Myoan Shimpo ryu. Higuchi Taizan’s style was very popular, spreading across Japan and fusing with or even eclipsing other styles.

Jin Nyodo and Watazumi rearrange Higuchi Taizan’s honkyoku

Later, influential masters Jin Nyodo (1892-1965) and Watazumi (1911-1992) (teacher of Yokoyama Katsuya) created their own versions of Taizan’s honkyoku pieces, including them and many other pieces into their own unique styles. Jin Nyodo and Watazumi’s versions of Taizan’s honkyoku remain the most pupular honkyoku pieces today. Furthermore, Jin Nyodo and Watazumi’s style of playing are the most prevalent or popular outside of Japan. While Jin Nyodo was most well known for playing very long tones in a more slow deliberate manner, Watazumi was best known for his explosive dynamic playing.

The shakuhachi in modern times

Today, shakuhachi is mostly used for modern music. Interestingly, most Japanese prefer to play modern music on jiari type shakuhachi, usually with other “Western” instruments such as the piano. However, outside of Japan the vast majority of shakuhachi players prefer the honkyoku or other traditional genres Japanese shakuhachi music.