Existing dongxiao, the term shakuhachi was devised in association

in Japan since the eighth century, the shakuhachi is arguably one of the
most easily recognisable traditional instruments outside of Japan (Lee, 1993: i;
De Ferranti, 2000: 69-70). The vertical, notched bamboo flute consists of an
obliquely cut mouthpiece and five finger holes, four on the front and one thumb
hole on the back (Hughes and Tokita, 2008: 145). Similar to the non-reed, end
blown flutes of Asia such as the Chinese dongxiao, the term shakuhachi
was devised in association with the length of the instrument (Tukitani et al., 1993: 103; Blasdel
and Kamisang?, 1988: 9). Using the official units of measurement, the ‘shaku’
and ‘hachi ‘elements of the term, refer to ‘eight’ (hachi) sun
measurements (24cm) and one shaku measurement (30cm) meaning the
standard length is around 54cm (Blasdel and Kamisang?, 1988: 9).


the long history of the instrument, the origin of the shakuhachi remains
unclear (Seyama, 1998: 71). Numerous scholars suggest the instrument originated
in China around the beginning of the Tang period before gradually being introduced
to Japan during the Nara period as part of the gagaku court orchestras (Casano,
2005: 17; Blasdel
and Kamisang?, 1988: 71; De Ferranti, 2000: 70). Its dual purpose as both a spiritual tool in Zen Buddhism
and later as a secular instrument in Japanese chamber music has contributed to
much of its popularity and appeal internationally in a variety of traditional
and modern settings (Keister, 2004: 100). Despite undergoing the processes of
dissemination and transformation, the instrument still maintains its
traditional values and it is arguably Westerners appropriation that has allowed
it to thrive (Keister, 2004: 100). In order to explore its dual identity as
both a spiritual and secular tool, this essay will examine the key
characteristics that define and differentiate playing in the two respective
styles. Furthermore, by evaluating the reasoning behind its preservation and popularity
the discussion will fundamentally question its authenticity and relevance in society

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it is important to understand the lineage, religious values and impact of sociological
change on the shakuhachi. The exact nature of the original link between
the shakuhachi and Buddhism remains unclear, particularly the processes
of migration from its secular use as part of gagaku orchestras in courts
to religious use by mendicant monks (Gutzwiller, 1984: 53-54). Yet, the emergence
of the instrument in organised groups of mendicant monks is well documented
particularly with the group known as the komusô, “straw-mat monks” who
travelled Japan throughout the Edo period (Gutzwiller, 1984: 54). As members of
the religious order known as the Fuke sect, monks would participate in a form
of Zen Buddhist meditation known as suizen (blowing Zen) (Keister, 2004:
99). Sanford argues that the dominance of this style of shakuhachi playing
can be explained through early developers of the Fuke sect wanting to
legitimise and disassociate with their status as beggars (1977: 428). He goes
on to suggest further that “they tended to favour a thick, heavy shakuhachi-not
so much for its musical value as for its utility as a weapon”, providing an
explanation for the numerous associations with perceptions of the komusô being
ninjas or spies (1977: 428; Seyama, 1998: 71).


the growing influence of Western culture and music began to impact on Japan,
the beginning of the Meiji era saw the need for rapid modernisation including the
disbandment of the Fuke Sect in 1871 (Casano, 2005: 17-18). Sanctioned to
secular music alone, the sect was dissolved and the use of shakuhachi as
a hõki religious tool, “in other words the handing down of the Fuke
pieces – neared extinction” (Blasdel 1988: 115). Marking the beginning of a new
era of shakuhachi, Kinko-ryü players Yoshida Itchõ and Araki Kodõ
ensured the accessibility of the shakuhachi to all, encouraging a new
form of ensemble playing called sankyoku with other instruments the koto
and shamisen (Blasdel, 1988: 115). Lee suggests the term honkyoku,
“inside music”, referring to the spiritual meditation pieces of the old Fuke
tradition were coined to differentiate from the increasingly popular secular
ensemble pieces known as gaikyoku, “outside music” (1993: 146). New schools
of playing emerged which didn’t incorporate any honkyoku including the Tozan-ryü
whereby their ‘new’ honkyoku consisted of compositions by their founder,
Nakao Tozan (1876-1956) (Blasdel, 1988: 121; Casano, 2005: 18-19). Despite facing
new challenges, both styles of playing grew in popularity suggesting the
instrument was never truly reliant on the Fuke sect for continued growth and
development (Lee, 1993: 148). The process of transmission is defined by a small
minority of former komusô, who continued using the shakuhachi as
a spiritual tool as well as new players embracing gaikyoku (Lee, 1993:
149-150). Similarly, the combination of Japanese and Western elements
into the ‘new’ style of honkyoku whilst retaining a spiritual
focus has ensured its internationalisation in the 20th Century (Keister,
2004: 100).


shakuhachi’s dual identity as both an instrument of Zen Buddhism and
secular ensemble playing, emphasises the Japanese cultural focus on the need
for boundaries that maintain purity in a spiritual sense. For successful
preservation to occur, great significance is placed on the reproduction of form
(Keister, 2004: 101). In this way, the playing of honkyoku values the process
of producing the sound over that of the sound created (Tukitani et al, 1993:
111). The basis of learning is defined by its individualistic approach for the
collective goal of one spiritual form rather than for personal innovation or
gain. In this sense, the goal is not for artistic perfection but development of
the self whereby the individual “both mentally and physically becomes the form
of art” (Keister, 2004: 101). The never-ending process of self-development is
rooted in the values and behaviour known as kata gained from the
relationship between student and teacher (Keister, 2004:101). As Casano suggests:
“When transmitting a honkyoku to a student one is not only transmitting
the sound and technique of the honkyoku, but also transmitting one’s own
cultural values and ideals.” (2005: 30).


contrast in the teaching practices of the shakuhachi compared with the
West is striking, and this is arguably where some of the appeal in learning the
traditional instrument lies. The philosophical approach emphasising the physical
aspect of the instrument over cognitive thinking is the antithesis of the
learning process of Western art music. A Western outlook concerning the ‘mastery
of art’ seeks to promote the need for individual interpretation over imitation,
encouraging individual interpretative expression. Although it is a simplistic
view of playing the shakuhachi, the appeal of stripping music back to
become an act of physical imitation strengthens the element of the fascination
and the exotic, moving away from the constrictions of Western society. Addressing
Western ideas of the Orient in his book Orientalism, Said’s concept of ‘imaginative geography’
explains how images of the Other shapes and helps us to build a clearer sense
of our own identity (2014, 49-73).  In this sense, the shakuhachi aids us to
understand the purpose, audience and true values of Western Music. However, as
argued by Keister, the relationship between the shakuhachi and the
West is more complicated. Summarising Westerner’s idealistic and romanticised
philosophy to Zen, he suggests: “This romanticism…is no mere ideological whim
of exotic orientalism…but a strategy for appropriating the music from a place
as culturally distant as Japan.” (2004:108).


In order to
understand both Western and Japanese associations with Buddhism and the shakuhachi, Keister distributed a survey across internet forums
(2004: 122).

He found the
opinions regarding shakuhachi’s
relationship to Zen Buddhism differed across
Western and Japanese respondents (2004: 122). Interestingly, the majority of
Western respondents made a direct connection with Zen Buddhism whilst in
contrast, the majority of Japanese respondents rejected such suggestions (2004:
123). This provides evidence to support the concept of “insider” and “outsider”
relationships that are prominent throughout shakuhachi. Westerner’s
appropriation of Zen Buddhism is arguably the most accessible way to gain
insight into the playing of shakuhachi. Lee discusses the importance of understanding
this relationship in the tradition, emphasising how it promotes a community of
‘insiders’ who can engage in a form of music similar to that of the komusô (1993: 14-24). Whilst
remaining ‘outsiders’ to Western society, the shakuhachi transcends the
social hierarchy and social organisation of not only Japanese culture but also
the West (Keister, 2004: 106). Following an individual path of enlightenment,
this provides an explanation as to why Westerners often place greater emphasis
on the spiritual aspect of shakuhachi, as a way ‘inside’ the community
where they are unable to partake in the typical socialisation process.


factors such as the growing impact of the media and technology have increased
participation in the tradition. Technological advancements have enabled members
of the international community to have access to not only an instrument but
also playing guides, online tutorial videos and thousands of literary resources
(Casano, 2005: 28). Websites such as Tai Hei Shakuhachi, allow an
individual to become involved in a community of like-minded individuals,
promoting a sense of belonging and collectivism (Shakuhachi.com, 2018). Working
towards the common goal of preserving the shakuhachi these groups mirror
the original desires of the komusô. However, the impact of technology is
not always positive, and the role of the media in promoting players of the
tradition can be mixed. Presenting a form of shakuhachi with increasingly
modern values, the media pressure on the shakuhachi community to “produce
a type of player who can be “sold” to the consumer public” is gradually
becoming more evident (Smith, 2008: 52). 
As young players carve their place in the market, the growing need for
individuality becomes increasingly necessary. Popular artists such as Obama
Akihito and the group Hanya Teikoku are learning to balance the need to
maintain tradition whilst also simultaneously promoting individual expression
for the growing consumer market (Smith, 2008: 53-58).


change and development is necessary for a tradition to be transmitted and
transformed to suit the needs of modern society, the dual identity of the shakuhachi
proves challenging to analyse as its constantly juxtaposed in a variety of
genres today (Seyama, 1998: 70). In order to understand how the two genres of honkyoku
and gaikyoku represent the ancient shakuhachi tradition
differently, I will explore two case studies that consider the defining characteristics
of both styles.


of the greatest difficulties surrounding the analysis of both honkyoku and
gaikyoku is the lack of transcriptions and literature by players on the
subject (Lee 1993: 306). Lee suggests the lack of interest is due to the
emphasis placed upon the present processes in any given performance in relation
to honkyoku (1993: 307). Despite formal structures still being
formally identifiable, they become relatively unimportant as structure has a
‘different place in the mind of a Japanese musician’ (Gutzwiller, 1974: 87). Gutzwiller
further objects to the processes of transcription as they are not truly
compatible with the central aesthetics of the art form (1974: 138-142). As the
product cannot be separated from the process, by enforcing the use of European
musical terminology the creation of transcriptions seeks to form theoretical
boundaries that are meaningless (Lee, 1993: 311). Instead, the analysis of the
two case studies will focus on the oral aspects of one particular performance
of a type of sankyoku and gaikyoku. Not only will this solve the
prevalent issue of lack of access to full transcriptions, but also takes into
account how the tradition would have been primarily transmitted.


the examination of the basic requirements of both the honkyoku and gaikyoku,
the restrictions placed on the instrument are clearly dependent on its role
within the ensemble or as a solo instrument. In sankyoku (meaning three
parts), the shakuhachi is paired with the shamisen, a plucked
three string lute, koto, a 13-string zither and the voice (De Ferranti,
2000: 72). As with the act of playing in any musical ensemble, a universal
tuning and strict adherence to the beat are demanded from all musicians to
maintain a sense of unity (Hughes and Tokita, 2008: 160). In the case of sankyoku,
the tuning revolves around the shakuhachi playing a steady tone for
both the koto and shamisen (Blasdel, 1988: 59). It is
often left to the shakuhachi player to monitor and adapt to changes in the
tuning as Blasdel suggests: “Pitch, like rhythm, is organic and constantly
changing.” (1988: 59).


recording of Echigo-jishi (Dance of the Lion from Echigo Province) on
the CD “Urban Music of the Edo Period (1603-1868)” by the Hijiri-kaï ensemble
is one example of sankyoku. The 16-minute-long track is an example of tegoto,
whereby the vocal part has a prominent role throughout expressing the text
which is full of double meanings and “anendotal allusions impossible to
translate” (Hijiri-kaï ensemble, 2005: 9). The relationship between the parts
is especially interesting to observe as they develop and change throughout,
often described as like bones (shamisen), flesh (koto) and skin (shakuhachi)
(Hughes and Tokita, 2008: 160). The shamisen and koto provide
a simple unison accompaniment at the beginning of the track, supporting the
singer with chordal playing. As the shakuhachi enters at 00:40, a two-tiered
hierarchical structure becomes apparent with the voice and shakuhachi intertwining
(and also playing in unison in parts) with long sustained melodic lines which
contrast that of the accompaniment. Despite the sense of a relatively free
tempo in the vocal part, all instruments play with a clear regular beat almost
always taking on a melodic role as the vocalist takes a breath, for instance,
at 04:56. At 06:00, an increase in tempo is noticeable and greater virtuosity
is displayed from both the koto and shamisen. Although the role
of the shakuhachi and voice is more prominent, they act as a single
entity whilst simultaneously having a well-defined sense of individual
expressionism in relation to the text of the composition. Interestingly, I
would suggest the equal role of each instrument is also mirrored in the sitting
position of the ensemble. Although the analysis of this track is oral based,
the author of the liner notes on this particular CD included a photo of the
group on the back (Fig.1). The formalised seating position is known as seiza,
with the shakuhachi always positioned stage left with the koto stage
right and the shamisen in the middle depicting a highly ritualized
“formalism that is an integral part of the musical expression.” (Blasdel, 1988:
59-60).  Despite functioning as secular
music, it is particularly notable that such control is still executed over
spontaneous expression in response to the music.










Fig.1 (Hijiri-kaï ensemble, 2005)

position of the Hijiri-kaï ensemble. Shakuhachi: Teruhisa Fukuda, Koto:
Aiko Noda and Junko Harada, Shamisen/vocals: Shiho Kineya





second case study will focus on the honkyoku music before making notable
comparisons between the different playing styles. The chosen track is called Tsuru
No Sugomori (A Crane on the Nest) from the CD titled Japon/Yoshikazu
Iwamoto, flûte shakuhachi. The main reasoning behind
analysing this performance was its use of unconventional tremolos and other
extended techniques. Originating in northern Japan, the liner notes describe
the composition as an exploration of the “Joys and sorrows are life…through the
depiction of the various movements of the crane, the sacred bird” (Iwamonto,
1995: 13). A striking difference in comparison to the sankyoku track is the
immediate lack of pulse and frequent use of silence. Clearly, the addition of
silence (also known as ma) is indicative
of the meditative function with the lack of pulse also contributing to the
relaxing element of the overall tone. Similar to the sankyoku, there
appears to be no discernible structure to the listener without reference to a
score. Despite this, the prominence of repetition of small tonal cells is
notable in this track as well as clear build to a climax in the middle of the
recording. Beginning at a slow tempo, the use of extended techniques only
becomes apparent later on, for example, the use of overtones through the excess
air blown into the instrument intensifies the sound to mimic the cry of the
bird at 09:00. The high tessitura and increased tempo presents the climax of
the piece, takane (high sound) moving
to a secondary climax (ten) before the


Arguably, the greatest
difference between the two styles which defines the role of the shakuhachi in both
types of compositions is the tone quality. Its ability to play more intricate passages
as well as longer sustained notes exploring the micro tonalities of the
instrument, fit perfectly with the function of the instrument in either
ensemble or solo playing, or for the purpose of spirituality or secular use. Ultimately,
“it is the sound of the shakuhachi and the music of the shakuhachi itself to
which our hearts and minds are drawn” and I would argue the simplicity of the
instrument as well as ability to evoke an ‘other land’ is the reason behind its
Western appeal (Nakamata, 1993: 95). Despite not having the scope to analyse
the use of the shakuhachi in either
film music, modern composition or the oral transmission processes in much
detail, it is clear that the instrument has formed a new identity that suits
the needs of modern society today. Whether that be authentic to the values of
the komusô and Japanese
musical culture is a question that can never be fully answered. But, its
“unique ability to enliven a single tone with all the colours of the spectrum”
will undoubtedly ensure its preservation for future generations to come from
both Japan and the West.