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, 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

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

komuso shakuhachi woodblock

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

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 large influence on shakuhachi history. He learned the original Fudaiji Seien ryu honkyoku pieces (Kyorei, Koku, Tachiochi, Mukaiji, etc.) in his home region of Nagoya and then he went on to study Kinko ryu and Ikkan ryu in Kanto prefecture. Finally, he moved to Kyoto, at which point he created his own style known as Taizan ryu or Myoan. He achieved this by rearranging the pieces he had learned into his own unique versions. For example, he added the furi (~) technique which is not present in the original Fudaiji Seien ryu honkyoku. His school is often called Myoan because he founded a new Myoan temple in Kyoto since the original was burned down. However, his style does not contain any of the original Kyoto Shimpo ryu honkyoku. Higuchi Taizan’s style was very popular spreading across Japan and fusing with or 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.