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, however, they were replaced in the ensemble 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 amount of samurai found themselves masterless and some of them began playing the flute for alms as well. Eventually, the flute playing samurai created their own order and began calling themselves the komuso which translates as, “monks of nothingness” (虚無僧).
An official Zen Buddhist sect was formed by and for the komuso called the Fuke-shu. 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 samurai birth with the proper identification papers, pass initiation, and pay an entrance fee. The komuso developed a number of refined musical styles of honkyoku which are considered spiritual or meditative pieces of music.
The banning of the Komuso and all Buddhism
The Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) was a chain of events that restored practical imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji. One of the goals of the Meiji Restoration was to purge Japan of 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 everything, secular shakuhachi playing continued to grow in popularity and the honkyoku were still taught, although to a much lesser extent.
At one point the Meiji Empire tried to ban the shakuhachi all together, however, Araki Chikuo (Kodo II) and Yoshida Itcho succeeded in convincing the Empire to continue to allow the shakuhachi in secular settings. It was also around this time that the fully-pasted two-piece jiari type shakuhachi began evolving. Eventually Buddhist activities were allowed to resume including those of the komuso monks, however, secular shakuhachi music continued to dominate public interest and many more honkyoku pieces were lost as a result.
Higuchi Taizan’s influence on honkyoku
Higuchi Taizan (Suzuki Kodo) (1856 – 1914) was born in Nagoya where he studied sankyoku and his region’s honkyoku in the Seien ryu. He studied under Kanetomo Seien I who received the honkyoku of Fudai-ji (temple) (which was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration) from two komuso named Gyokudo and Baizan. He also studied in the Kinko ryu under Grandmaster Araki Kodo II (Chikuo) and in the Ikkan ryu which was a branch of the Kinko ryu under Takigawa Chuka.
In Meiji 1885 he moved to Kyoto to teach sankyoku music, however, he failed to become successful most likely because Kyoto already had a very established sankyoku community. He was adopted, so to speak, by the Kyoto family the Higuchi’s, so he changed his name to Higuchi Taizan (Taizan being his professional title). He eventually began teaching the Seien ryu honkyoku as well as some of the Kinko and Ikkan ryu’s honkyoku. However, he made some changes in the pitch, ornamentation, and structure of the pieces and his school further evolved or diverged from teacher to teacher over successive generations. Perhaps most notably, he most likely added the furi technique which is a quick shake of the head to create a vibrato, usually done after an Atari or “repeat”. A similar technique can be found in the Shimpo ryu honkyoku of Kyoto of which he did learn a few pieces, but included none in his school.
He rented a new space in Kyoto to act as the base for his school which he named Myoan-ji after the temple that had been destroyed years earlier during the Meiji Restoration’s persecution of all things Buddhist. It remains the base of his style and a major gathering place to this day. As mentioned previously, his school actually contains none of the original Kyoto honkyoku from the first Myoan-ji temple (Shimpo ryu), however, his school is most often called “Myoan” after the temple he founded in Kyoto. When “Myoan ryu” or just “Myoan” is heard today it almost always refers to Taizan’s school. “Myoan” is also sometimes incorrectly used as an umbrella term for “old honkyoku” or “koten honkyoku’, however, this is inaccurate and very misleading. To avoid confusion the original Myoan-ji is often called Kyu Myoan-ji or “Old” Myoan-ji.
Higuchi Taizan instigated the revival of honkyoku in Kyoto and founded a new Myoan-ji which stands to this day and is a hub of activity for shakuhachi events and “pilgrimages”. Taizan’s school became very popular and spread across Japan sometimes effecting or even eclipsing local regional styles and schools. For example, in places like Kyushu it is extremely difficult to impossible to ascertain what the original way of playing was like there before Taizan’s school reached the area. Masters such as Jin Nyodo and Watazumi were heavily influenced by his style and received all of their Seien ryu Fudai-ji honkyoku solely through his school, which by then had developed quite differently from the source material of the Seien ryu (this includes such pieces as Kyorei, Takiochi, Mukaiji, and others).
Jin Nyodo and Watazumi rearrange Taizan Ryu honkyoku
Later, influential masters Jin Nyodo (1892-1965) and Watazumi (1911-1992) (teacher of Yokoyama Katsuya) created their own versions of Taizan ryu honkyoku pieces, including them and many other pieces into their own unique styles. Jin Nyodo and Watazumi’s versions of Taizan ryu honkyoku remain the most popular 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 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.