Measuring at 54.5 cm the ostensibly simple Japanese vertical bamboo flute called shakuhachi 尺八boasts a history spanning over one thousand years and today can be heard and seen in a variety of different contexts from lone mendicant priests begging for alms, the concert hall, to fusion ensembles like the Silk Road Ensemble, and the fusion group Wagakki Band. These three examples are far from exhaustive but help to demonstrate the worldwide appeal that the shakuhachi has developed over the years. In this essay, I will discuss the early history of shakuhachi including: its arrival in Japan; how it survived through relative obscurity between the tenth and fifteenth centuries; how it became the instrument of mendicant monks between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries; some important historical figures and performers; and some basic principles of shakuhachi repertory and music theory.
By the end of the eighth century, seventy-five different instruments from all over East and Southeast Asia were housed at the Shōsōin Repository at the temple Tōdaiji, a massive Buddhist complex in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. This included the earliest forms of shakuhachi that were introduced to Japan sometime during the seventh century from China and the Korean Peninsula, first appearing as a member of the gagaku 雅楽 (court orchestra) ensemble. These shorter flutes had six tone holes and are referred to as Shōsōin shakuhachi and were made of jade, ivory, and other materials. Two of them were made of bamboo, showcasing the rarity and importance that bamboo had at that time (Blasdel and Kamisango 2008).
Musicians playing all different kinds of musical instruments from India, Persia, Manchuria, Indonesia and Korea made landfall in Japan in 752 at Tōdaiji’s Inaugural Ceremony of the Great Buddha (Koto and Tanaka 2016.) These Shōsōin shakuhachi fell out of favor and were removed from the gagaku ensemble in the ninth century to better conform to “Japanese tastes and musical inclinations of the Imperial Court” (Blasdel and Kamisango 2008). Another reason might have been that the Shōsōin shakuhachi could not compete dynamically with the other louder instruments. This is not to say that the shakuhachi was not played publicly between the ninth through thirteenth centuries, but simply was not seen or heard on a regular basis.
In the fifteenth century, two major myths regarding the shakuhachi and its creation emerged, written by the priest Ikkyū Zenji 一休宗純 (1394-1482) whose writings, particular the Kyōun-shu (“Crazy Cloud Collection”) reference the shakuhachi. From these writings we can infer that he most likely played the instrument during his travels and teachings. By the early Tokugawa Period (1615-1868; also called Edo Period), Ikkyū had become a folk hero and more stories emerged but can still be distilled to those two same myths written in the fifteenth century:
In the first, Ikkyū and a fellow monk, Ichirōsō, lived apart from the world in a hut in Uji. They cut bamboo to make shakuhachi and always played the instrument. The other legend mentions a foreign monk named Rōan who lived in a hut called Kyūen and had a close relationship with Ikkyū. Rōan was very fond of the shakuhachi and called himself Fūketsu Dō komusō. Both legends seem to be variations on the same theme, and quite possibly Ichirōsō and Rōan were the same person, but there is no positive proof…one legend mentions that…Rōan brought the hitoyogiri from overseas…however these legends date from a relative recent date and were probably created for convenience rather than for historical accuracy. (Blasdel and Kamisango 2008)
Another common origin story of the earliest shakuhachi style of playing emerged in the seventeenth through eighteenth centuries with the creation of the mythical hero Fuke Zenji , a Zen monk who in the ninth century traveled from China to Japan. Allegedly there was a young monk who wished to study Buddhism with Fuke Zenji. Fuke refused him. One day the young monk heard him chanting: “Myō tō rai myō tō da. An tō rai an tō da. Shi hō hachi men rai. Sen pō da. Kokū rai ren ga da.” (If attacked from the light, I will strike back at the light. If attacked from the dark, I will strike back at the dark. If attacked from all quarters, I will lash out like a flail.) (Kamisango 2008.) Upon hearing the sound of the chant and the bell, the monk ran home, grabbed a flute and tried to imitate the sounds he heard. This composition was titled “Kyotaku” (“The False Bell”; Tsuge 1977). After several generations the name of the title changed to “Kyorei” and is considered the oldest piece in the shakuhachi repertoire. Regardless, in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries the Fuke Sect used this story of the birth of shakuhachi playing in order to grant their order more legitimacy in the eyes of the Tokugawa military government (shogunate).