Scholars now widely agree that the shakuhachi was introduced into Japan from China via the Korean peninsula during the Nara period (710–794) as one of the instruments in the gagaku (court) ensemble (Tsukitani, Seyama, Shimura 1994: 105) – although other renditions exist.
The earliest extant examples of the shakuhachi are found at the Shōsōin, a repository built in 756 in Nara, which contains eight shakuhachi used in the ceremony performed for the consecration of the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji temple in 752 (Tsukitani 2008). These shakuhachi have five finger holes in the front plus a thumbhole and produce a heptatonic (seven note) scale as probably used contemporaneously in China. Out of the eight shakuhachii in the Shōsōin repository, three were made from ivory, stone and jade. The remaining five were made from a smaller type of Chinese bamboo.

When the gagaku ensemble was reorganized in the mid-tenth century, the shakuhachi fell into desuetude and no references to the instrument appear in surviving historical documents until the 13th century, by which time it had undergone a Japanisation process and become a five-holed flute made of Madake (Phyllostachys bambusoides) – the most common bamboo in Japan.

The first mention of the instrument after this hiatus appeared in 1233 in the Kyōkunshō, a ten-volume treatise on gagaku written by Koma Chikazane: ‘the short flute is called shakuhachi. It is now played by mekurahōshi [blind monks] and performers of sarugaku [early nō].’ The first known illustration of a shakuhachi, here called hitoyogiri, or ‘one node shakuhachi’, is found in the Taigenshō (1512), which is dated to the late fourteenth century (Tsukitani 2008: 147). The hitoyogiri has five finger holes and an outwardly oblique mouthpiece similar to that of the gagaku shakuhachi. The hitoyogiri and the miyogiri (a three-node shakuhachi) are regarded as the links between the gagaku shakuhachi and the Fuke shakuhachi we know today (Weisgarber 1968: 313). During the late 15th to early 16th century, monks known as komosō (straw mat monks), who begged for alms by playing the hitoyogiri, appeared. The hitoyogiri flourished, reaching its peak in popularity during the late 17th century. Thereafter, this instrument declined rapidly, reaching near extinction by the early 19th century.

During the early 17th century, shakuhachi-playing monks organized themselves within an institutional setting under the Fukeshū or Fuke sect, a subsect of Rinzai Zen. The monks of the Fuke sect were termed komusō or “priests of nothingness.” The komusō monks was granted special privileges by the Tokugawa government (the de facto rulers of Japan during the Edo period) in the 17th century, which included monopoly rights over the use of the shakuhachi and travel passes that allowed them to travel to any part of Japan. According to the rules of the sect the shakuhachi was to be used exclusively as hōki, or sacred tool, for the purpose of spiritual training and for takuhatsu (religious mendicancy). This served as the legal basis for the establishment of the Fuke sect, which only admitted men of the samurai (military nobility) class and rōnin (samurai with no master to serve) as members of the order (Takahashi, 1990).

In all, Nakatsuka Chikuzen lists 77 Fuke temples scattered around Japan during the Edo period. Three of the most important were Myōanji in Kyoto and Ichigetsuji and Reihōji in the Kantō region, the area around Edo or present day Tokyo. Each temple developed its own corpus of music which, when taken together, comprise the repertoire of approximately 150 honkyoku from the Edo period known today. Interaction among the temples, including musical exchange, took place by means of komusō monks who wandered from temple to temple (Shimura, 2002). Music other than honkyoku was referred to as gaikyoku (outer pieces) or rankyoku (disorderly pieces).

The Edo government was overthrown in 1868 and replaced by the new Meiji government (1868–1912). The new Meiji government’s persecution of Buddhism, abolishment of the komusō monk order in 1871, and then prohibition of begging from 1872 till 1881 had a strong impact on shakuhachi music.

Many shakuhachi players began to perform in sankyoku ensembles in order to survive although it was known that komusō monks performed secular music prior to the Meiji restoration in 1867 (Takahashi 1990: 122). [The sankyoku ensemble originally consisted of the koto (13-string zither), the shamisen (three-stringed long-necked lute) and the kokyū (three-string bowed spike fiddle). However, the shakuhachi soon took over the role of the kokyū; thus the conventional sankyoku ensemble comprises the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi.] Inspired by other Japanese art forms, secularists began to structure the shakuhachi world into ryūha (often translated as ‘schools’ or ‘guilds’), a process that had already begun with Kurosawa Kinko I (1710-1771), who had collected a corpus of honkyoku from several temples. This marked the beginning of Kinko-ryū (the Kinko school’s style of playing).

After this secularisation of the shakuhachi, new schools such as Tozan-ryū (founded 1896), Ueda-ryū (founded 1917) and Chikuhō-ryū (also founded 1917) arose (Shimura 1996: 272). These new schools attracted new students, who played shakuhachi as secular music. They were organised in a hierarchically structured manner and the shakuhachi became more and more popular, particularly with the creation of a modern repertoire largely based on Western principles such as ensemble playing, and composed using functional harmonies. Schools such as those of Tozan and Chikuhō possessed a large repertoire of music in this style.


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