Shakuhachi history

From the mainland to Japan and from the court to the commoner

We’ll begin our story with the first shakuhachi-like instruments that were brought to Japan from mainland Asia during the Nara period ( 710-794 AC). These instruments were a part of the Gagaku “court music” ensemble which was reserved for nobility. The instrument its place in the ensemble and later resurfaced in the hands of commoners, particularly blind beggars and various performers. In the mid 17th century we see the first mention of shakuhachi playing mendicant monks called komoso. The komoso wore straw hats as well as straw mats on their backs thus their name translates as “straw mat monks” (薦僧). It was the practice of the komoso to play shakuhachi for alms.

Komoso to komuso – From the commoner back to the nobleman

Due to a number of changes during the Edo period many samūrai found themselves rōnin or “masterless”. The life of the mendicant komoso ascetics appealed to a great number of these rōnin so they naturally began joining their ranks. However, eventually the samūrai-class rōnin changed their titles from “komoso” to “komuso” which translates as “monks of no-thing-ness” (虚無僧). This change in title was most likely made in order to set themselves apart from the komoso presumably because they were commoners.

Furthermore, the samūrai komuso are credited with popularizing root-end shakuhachi. It is theorized that the komuso preferred making shakuhachi out of the thicker root-end so that they could double as weapons which unfortunately became a popular theme in plays. This provided the public with a less than ideal image of the komuso. They may have also used the root-end to further disassociate themselves from the earlier komoso.

Eventually an official Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect was formed by and for the komuso called The Fuke-shu which was named after the Chinese monk Fuke Zenji. Fabricated connections to Zen lineages and falsified documents were enough to satisfy the Tokugawa Shogunate to grant the komuso official status which came with various rare privileges such as being able to travel across borders freely. The Tokugawa Shogunate used the komuso to manage the growing number of wandering rōnin samūrai.

In order to become a komuso of the Fuke Shu or to legally play the shakuhachi for alms you had to be a of samūrai birth with the proper identification papers, pass initiation, take oaths, and pay an entrance fee (often paid for by trading in swords). 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.

The Meiji Restoration and the banning of the Komuso and all Buddhism

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

Now far a very turbulent time in not only shakuhachi history but also Japan’s history as a country. The Fuke Shu, the Komuso, their temples, and playing shakuhachi for alms were all banned/abolished during the Meiji Restoration. One of the early Meiji slogans was “Sweep aside the Buddha. Smash Buddhism”. Most of the shakuhachi komuso temples of the Fuke Shu were burned or converted. Despite these sentiments secular shakuhachi playing flourished and the honkyoku continued to be taught although to a much lesser extent.

Later, The Meiji Empire decided they wanted to ban the shakuhachi completely, 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 including begging for alms by any Buddhist. These events and “Westernization” precipitated the creation of the fully-pasted two-piece “jiari” type shakuhachi presumably to meet the ever growing demands of pitch and volume.

Eventually the Empire allowed Buddhist activities to resume including those of the komuso monks. The shakuhachi temples, such as Fudai-ji, were redefined as schools or “ryu”, in the case of Fudai-ji into the “Seien ryu”. However, the growing popularity of secular shakuhachi music such as sankyoku continued to dominate the public’s interests. Many honkyoku pieces continued to be lost due to lack of interest. The Tozan ryu became the largest school of shakuhachi because it focused on “modern” music and it continues to be the largest in Japan today.

Higuchi Taizan’s massive influence on honkyoku (“Taizan-ha”)

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 huge effect on shakuhachi history. He learned the original Fudai-ji/Seien-ryu honkyoku pieces (Kyorei, Koku, Tachiochi, Mukaiji, etc.) in Nagoya and then 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 “ryu” known as Taizan ryu 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. His school is often called “Myoan ha” or “Meian” which was borrowed from the existing Kyoto Myoan style and Kyoto Myoan temple, however, it is best to refer to his school as Taizan ryu to avoid confusing it with the original Kyoto Myoan style, 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. Jin Nyodo and Watazumi’s style of playing are the most prevalent or popular outside of Japan. Jin Nyodo was most well known for playing very long tones in a more slow deliberate manner while 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, in America and abroad the vast majority of shakuhachi players prefer the honkyoku or other traditional Japanese forms of music.