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. The Komoso were not ordained Buddhist monks so the “monk” portion of their name may have just been because they begged for alms like ordained monks did. 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 like the Komoso and eventually they created their own order and began calling themselves the Komuso which translates as, “monks of nothingness” (虚無僧).
The Komuso eventually formed an organization called the Fuke shu. The Komuso developed a number of honkyoku Zen pieces of music which are considered spiritual or meditative in nature.
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 a new nationalist version 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 easily dissolved due it never being officially recognized. Apparently most of their temples were burned or converted resulting in the loss of honkyoku pieces. Despite everything, secular Sankyoku shakuhachi playing continued to grow in popularity and the nonsecular honkyoku were still taught and played, although to a lesser extent.
Apparently, 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 (it was invented by Araki Chikuo). Eventually, Buddhist activities were allowed to resume including those of the Komuso, however, secular shakuhachi music continued to dominate public interest and many more honkyoku pieces were lost as a result of a lack of interest. Today, the majority of Japanese shakuhachi players prefer to play contemporary music on jiari type shakuhachi. In contrast, most non-Japanese shakuhachi players prefer the honkyoku or other classical genres of Japanese shakuhachi music like secular Sankyoku.