Shakuhachi Basics

The name shakuhachi means "1.8 shaku", referring to its size. It is a compound of two words:

shaku (尺?) means "shaku", an archaic unit of width equal to 30.3 centimeters (0.994 English foot) and subdivided in ten subunits.

hachi (八?) means "eight", here eight sun, or tenths of a shaku.

Thus, "shaku-hachi" means "one shaku eight sun" (almost 55 centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi. Other shakuhachi vary in length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.3 shaku. Although the sizes differ, all are still referred to generically as "shakuhachi".


A shakuhachi showing its utaguchi (歌口, blowing edge) and inlay

Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of a bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa, and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces.

Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. The honkyoku pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their subtlety and depth.

Unlike a recorder, where the player blows into a duct—a narrow airway over a block which is called a "fipple"—and thus has limited pitch control, the shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (though the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against) and therefore has substantial pitch control. The five finger holes are tuned to a pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but using techniques called meri and kari, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward and upward, respectively, the player can bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more. Pitches may also be lowered by shading or partially covering finger holes. Since most pitches can be achieved via several different fingering or blowing techniques on the shakuhachi, the timbre of each possibility is taken into account when composing or playing. The shakuhachi has a range of two full octaves (the lower is called otsu, the upper, kan) and a partial third octave (dai-kan). The various octaves are produced using subtle variations of breath and embouchure.

A 1.8 shakuhachi produces D4 (D above Middle C, 293.66 Hz) as its fundamental—the lowest note it produces with all five finger holes covered, and a normal blowing angle. In contrast, a 2.4 shakuhachi has a fundamental of A3 (A below Middle C, 220 Hz). As the length increases, the spacing of the finger holes also increases, stretching both fingers and technique. Longer flutes often have offset finger holes, and very long flutes are almost always custom made to suit individual players. Some honkyoku, in particular those of the Nezasaha (Kimpu-ryu) school are intended to be played on these longer flutes.

Due to the skill required, the time involved, and the range of quality in materials to craft bamboo shakuhachi, one can expect to pay from USD $300 to USD $5,000 for a new or used flute. Because each piece of bamboo is unique, shakuhachi cannot be mass-produced, and craftsmen must spend much time finding the correct bore shape for each individual flute to result in correct pitch over all notes. Specimens of extremely high quality, with valuable inlays, or of historical significance can fetch USD $10,000 or more. Plastic or PVC shakuhachi have some advantages over their traditional bamboo counterparts: they are light weight, extremely durable, nearly impervious to heat and cold, and typically cost less than USD $100. Shakuhachi made of wood are also available, typically costing less than bamboo but more than synthetic materials. Nearly all players, however, prefer bamboo, citing tonal qualities, aesthetics, and tradition.



Sketch of a komuso (right) playing shakuhachi

The bamboo flute first came to Japan from China during the 6th century.[1] The shakuhachi proper, however, is quite distinct from its Chinese counterpart[2] – the result of centuries of isolated evolution in Japan.

During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō ("priests of nothingness," or "emptiness monks"), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called "honkyoku") were paced according to the players' breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.

Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shogun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, "Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi", "One two three, pass the alms bowl"). They persuaded the Shogun to give them "exclusive rights" to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shogun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.

In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Shika no tone, became well-known as "tests": if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn't, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.


Performer playing shakuhachi in 60th Himeji oshiro festival,2009

With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shogun's holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.

When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.

Shakuhachi has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this situation is rapidly changing. Many teachers of traditional shakuhachi music indicate that a majority of their students are women. The 2004 Big Apple Shakuhachi Festival in New York City hosted the first-ever concert of international women shakuhachi masters. This Festival was organized and produced by Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, who was the first full-time Shakuhachi master to teach in the Western Hemisphere. Nyogetsu also holds 2 Dai Shihan (Grand Master) Licenses, and has run KiSuiAn , the largest and most active Shakuhachi Dojo outside Japan, since 1975.

The first non-Japanese person to become a shakuhachi master is the American-Australian Riley Lee. Lee was responsible for the World Shakuhachi Festival being held in Sydney, Australia over 5–8 July 2008, based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.[3][4]

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