Our shakuhachi history begins in the Nara period (710-794 AC) when the first shakuhachi-like instruments were brought to Japan from China. 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 the Komoso or “straw-mat monks” who would play for alms. At the beginning of the 17th century the Tokugawa military government consolidated its control over most of the country which left many samurai masterless. Some turned to playing flute for alms and eventually they 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 the Fuke shu was dissolved and most of their temples 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. Today, most Japanese prefer to play contemporary music on jiari type shakuhachi while outside of Japan most shakuhachi players prefer the honkyoku or other classical genres of Japanese shakuhachi music.