Type: Aerophones > Flutes > Notched.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 421.111.12
Region: Far East Asia.
Description: The shakuhachi [in Japanese 尺八、しゃくはち, shakuhachi, in IPA: ʃakʊˈhatʃi] is a Japanese end blown, notched flute. Originally introduced to Japan from China during the 7th century. The shakuhachi underwent a resurgence during the Edo Period [1603-1868]. The oldest shakuhachi in Japan is currently stored in Shōsō-in, Nara. It was used by the monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen [吹禅, blowing meditation].
Etymology: The name of the this particular flute “shakuhachi” is a compound word two different characters. The first word is [尺] “shaku” meaning “1.8 shake” which refers to the size of the instrument. The shaku is an archaic unit of length equal to 30.3 centimetres [0.994 English foot] and subdivided in ten subunits. “hachi” [八] means “eight”, here eight sun, or tenths of a shaku.
History: During the medieval period, shakuhachi were their most notable for their use by the monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. The monks who played the shakuhachi in this sect were known as komusō [虚無僧] which translates as “priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks”. The repertoire practiced by these monks was called Honkyoku. These melodies were paced according to the players’ breathing. In which, they were considered meditation [suizen] and music.
During this era travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate. The Fuke sect managed to obtain an exemption by persuading the Shogun. As apart of their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place. The shogun in turn sent several of his own spies out in the guise of the Fuke sect monks as well. During their travels they played the shakuhachi for alms.
One famous song reflects this mendicant tradition [一二三鉢返の調]. The characters translate as “Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi”, “One two three, pass the alms bowl”. This was made easier by the wicker baskets [tengai 天蓋] that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.
Genres & Recordings: The primary genres of shakuhachi music are honkyoku [traditional, solo]; sankyoku ensemble with koto and shamisen and shinkyoku new music composed for shakuhachi and koto. Also this includes post-Meiji era compositions influenced by Western Music. The first shakuhachi recording that appeared in the United States was produced during the late 1960s.
Gorō Yamaguchi recorded A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky for Nonesuch Explorer Records on LP. One of the pieces featured on Yamaguchi’s record was “Sokaku Reibo,” also called “Tsuru No Sugomori” [Crane’s Nesting]. NASA later chose to include this track as part of the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft. With in Western Music the shakuhachi became popular in Jazz, Free Improvisation, Popular Music, New Age and recording samples in software.
Tuning: The scale of the shakuhachi is set to a pentatonic minor scale.
Construction: Traditionally shakuhachi are constructed from the cutting the bamboo at the desired length from the root end of madake [真竹] Phyllostachys bambusoides. No shakuhachi are alike due to each piece of bamboo being unique. Each instrument is unique there for costing
Citations: Bibliography: Shakuhachi ~ Fundamental Technique Guidance, USA ; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition. pp. 101, 28 ISBN 978-1535460705 ; Yohmei Blasdel, Christopher; Kamisango, Yuko June 1, 2008 ; The Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning [Includes Practice CD] – Printed Matter Press ISBN 978-1933606156 ; Yoshikawa, Shigeru 2017. Websites: Komuso.com – International Shakuhachi Society ;