Shakuhachi – From Buddhist Suizen to Modern Japanese Music

On its surface, the shakuhachi appears quite simple, and is traditionally made of bamboo. In its most basic form, it is a tube with finger holes: four holes on the front and one on the back, along with a blowing edge at the top (called utaguchi) and a hole at the bottom near the root. So what's the story behind this instrument, and how has it become such an important element of Japanese traditional music?

This type of end-blown bamboo flute first came from China to Korea and then to Japan during the 6-7th century as one of the instruments in Gagaku (Asian orchestra). The shape was different from today (six holes), and it eventually fell out of favor in Gagaku, being less loud and less stable in pitch than similar-sounding instruments (such as sho and hichiriki). Today, the fuke shakuhachi that was developed in Japan is the variety that has survived, making it very much a Japanese traditional instrument. 

For a time, it seemed that the instrument would die out. The shakuhachi came back into play during the Sengoku Era (1467-1615), largely among komusō monks, or "priests of nothingness," many of whom were formerly samurai looking for seclusion and anonymity. These Zen Buddhist monks would play fuke-honkyoku pieces of music on shakuhachi while wearing wicker baskets over their heads as a form of meditation known as suizen (blowing meditation), and would travel around collecting alms in this way.

During the Edo Era (1603-1868), shakuhachi performance came into full bloom, and developed into an artistic endeavor rather than a purely spiritual one. The shape of the instrument changed during this period and came to be closer to what you see in modern shakuhachi today, with the root at the base and certain developments making it easier to play in multiple octaves. During this time, Kinko Kurosawa – a komusō and former samurai from the 18th century – collected fuke-honkyoku from around Japan, composed original pieces, and created the Kinko-style of playing and musical notation that is still in use today.

Following the Meiji period (1868-1912), shakuhachi went through further development, with some models having seven holes, and others having nine holes (kyuko-shakuhachi). These are considered a more modern form, although the more traditional form with five holes (suitable to a traditional pentatonic scale) is still played today. Other styles have since developed around the shakuhachi, leading to increased interest in the instrument as part of a living tradition, and even bringing it into Western music (with compositions such as Haru-no-umi and Rokudan-no-shirabe, as well as pieces that are hundreds of years old). Any style of music that exists today can be – and likely has been – played on a modern style of shakuhachi, including classical, jazz, rock, and pop. 

So why is the shakuhachi not more widely-known and played today? One reason is that it takes years of practice to master tone, and to learn traditional music; Another reason is that a shakuhachi is somewhat pricey, and in that way less accessible than certain other instruments. While cheaper 3D-printed and even metal shakuhachi are beginning to hit the market, many musicians prefer the traditional style, hand-crafted out of bamboo. Of course, the care and attention that goes into fine-tuning each instrument by seikan-shi (pipe makers) is reflected in the cost of the instrument. As for learning to play, with dedication and access to instruction, it is possible to learn the instrument at any age, and tonal ability will improve with practice.


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