Like many historically significant Japanese things (Zen Buddhism, character writing, the kimono, temple architecture), the shakuhachi originated in China. And while, like the parenthetically aforementioned items on this list, the shakuhachi can claim Chinese origin, over the course of its history, it has diverged and evolved quite differently from its Chinese relative, the xiao. The shakuhachi is an end-blown Japanese flute, made traditionally (and predominantly) of bamboo. It is used in music, as well as in the meditation practice of suizen by the Fuke School Buddhists. (And read “What the Heck Is a Shruti Box” for a look at another meditative instrument.)
Shakuhachis can be made at a variety of lengths, the most common being 1.8 feet long. And this actually corresponds to its name, as the word shaku (尺) is an ancient measurement roughly equivalent to the modern foot, and hachi (八) means eight, referring to eight sun, or tenths of a shaku, giving us the standard of 1.8 feet. It can varies in length from 1.3 to 3.6 feet, which affects its octave range.
The instrument features five holes, four on the front and one on the back that function very similarly to those on your elementary school recorder. It is tuned to a minor pentatonic scale. But unlike a recorder, adjusting the angle you blow into the shakuhachi allows you to bend the pitch by as much as a whole tone, occasionally even more.
Curious what the heck a theremin, guzheng, djembe, or glockenspiel are? Check out the full “What the Heck Is a…” series here!
So the bamboo flute originated in China. It was brought back to Japan in the 6th century by the traveling Fuke sect of monks, who visited the mainland with exclusive permission from the Shogun. These monks were also granted exclusive rights to play the instrument, for spiritual purposes. Because there was a strict ban on travel by the Shogunate, the Fuke monks were in a special position to be hired as spies, and those funky wicker baskets that the monks wore as a symbol for their detachment from the world, would provide perfect cover!
When in the Meiji Era the shogunate was abolished, so was the Fuke sect, and along with it, all shakuhachi playing! Playing the instrument became illegal, so much of the traditional repertoire was lost, as it was generally passed down and taught between practicing Fuke monks over the course of many years. What contributed to saving the performance of this instrument, as well as inspiring its revival, was that the Meiji Government allowed modern shakuhachi music to be performed in ensembles along with the koto and shamisen.
Nowadays the instrument is practiced all over the world. A variety of styles are possible with the shakuhachi, so we may hear its music being played on recordings in jazz, rock, blues, classical, and other genres. The International Shakuhachi Society is an international community database and information hub for people everywhere who play, teach, compose, and innovate on the instrument.
Honkyoku (traditional, solo)
This genre incorporates the practice of “blow-zen,” which is used by monks for meditation. It is similar to zazen, or sitting meditation, as the slow-breathing and abstract rhythmic techniques used to play the instrument’s traditional repertoire are conducive to entering a meditative mental state. The term “honkyoku” really represents the traditional repertoire for solo shakuhachi, and there are many schools of honkyoku composition that have helped shape the songs around Japan.
Sankyoku (ensemble, with koto and shamisen)
Essentially, this is classical chamber music written for an ensemble of traditional instruments with vocal accompaniment.
Shinkyoku (new music composed for shakuhachi and koto, influenced by Western music)
This just refers to any post-Meiji era compositions, commonly influenced by Western music. It may incorporate influences from a range of styles.
+ Read more: Learn more about the guzheng, China’s version of the koto, in “What the Heck Is a Guzheng.”
Playing the Shakuhachi
Like most instruments, the shakuhachi takes years of practice to master. One of the key details about learning to play this flute is understanding and becoming fluid with the flow of air from your lips through the instrument, which in fact, should get lighter over time in order to perfect the bitch bends and shape each tone exactly as it is written. This is one of those instruments that looks deceptively simple to play, but upon investigation, is incredibly subtle and difficult.
I won’t go into exactly how to get started playing, but this website has an overwhelming wealth of instructional resources for you to get started. And if I’ve piqued your curiosity enough, you could lose a few hours just browsing all the info available there! Now, here’s a video of contemporary shakuhachi player Aaron Shragge improvising. Shragge also performs jazz on the instrument, as well as trumpet in a number of ensembles.
And here’s a clearer example of the fusion style of collaborative playing.
The Shakuhachi has appeared on tons of recordings where you least expect it. Many Western film score composers have used the flute’s rich tonal properties to bring mystery and drama to life in their scores, including Hans Zimmer (The Last Samurai), John Williams (Jurassic Park, Memoirs of a Geisha), Bill Conti (The Karate Kid II & III), and James Horner (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart). Artists like Rush, Michael Bolton, Echo & The Bunnymen, Linkin Park, Incubus, and Peter Gabriel have all used it (usually as a gimmick) in some of their songs. I betcha never realized that the flute intro to “Sledgehammer” was actually a shakuhachi!
The E-Mu Emulator II’s Shakuhachi soundbank came in at #9 on David Battino’s “20 Sounds That Must Die” (1995, Keyboard Magazine).
Apparently, making homemade shakuhachis out of PVC pipes is a thing. All you need to do is search YouTube for “PVC shakuhachi” and you’ll come upon a ton of people’s uploaded examples.
Shakuhachi is also a boutique women’s clothing store selling proto-hippie threads for people who don’t exactly care what they look like in public.
And finally, since there must always be a pet involved somehow, why don’t we all just contently imagine that the ancient monks also had to deal with wrist-biting felines while spending hours perfecting this majestic instrument. [link broken, we couldn’t find replacement, so dear reader, we issue the challenge to you to find our next cat and shakuhachi video!].
“I’ve played many instruments, but the shakuhachi truly changed my life.” — Perry Yung
“The Shakuhachi has an extremely simple physical form of five holes in one piece of bamboo yet can produce up to eighty-six different pitches/timbres. As a vessel for the intimacy of breath, playing the Shakuhachi allows me to connect to my innermost sense being.” — Aaron Shragge
“The traditional playing practices of the shakuhachi provide a whole new way of thinking about sound: lengths of breaths rather than in beats or measures, tiny shifts in pitch and timbre over fast passage work, and emphasizing the many different ways to conclude a sound toward shaping the silences that can result after. These are just a few of the things I love being able to bring into my own music-making with it now.” — Jeffrey Lependorf
Love learning about obscure instruments? Check in with the full “What the Heck Is a…” series here!