About the Shakuhachi

This page is an essay on the Shakuhachi and contains personal observations. We welcome comments, suggestions and corrections.

The history of Shakuhachi (its origin)

The Shakuhachi piece “Kyorei” is said to be the oldest Shakuhachi piece known in Japan. Hottou Kokushi, a Japanese Buddhist monk, learned this one piece only while studying in China during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 CE) and returned to Japan in the 1200s.

    A prevalent theory on the etymology of Shakuhachi is that “during the Zhēnguàn period (627 – 649 CE) of the early Tang Dynasty, the musician Lü Cai created twelve flutes in accordance with Shí-èr-lǜ, the classical Chinese twelve pitch chromatic scale, and of those, the tube which corresponded to Huáng Zhōng, the standard tone (tonic) was 1 shaku 8 (hachi) sun in length, and therefore, the instrument came to be called Shakuhachi.”  (Source: from “Shakuhachi music is fun” by the Kyoto Wabunka No Kai, http://design.kyoto/wabunka/009-1.html)

    *Generally, the length of a standard Shakuhachi tube is to be 1 shaku 8 sun (about 54.5 cm), but 1 shaku 8 sun in the Zhēnguàn period appears to have been shorter. “1 shaku 8 sun corresponding to Huáng Zhōng during the Tang Dynasty was 43.7 cm. In China, the standard of length changed with each dynasty. A Shakuhachi whose outer rim of the blowhole was carved at a slant died out, and the dòngxiāo flute of the Song Dynasty and later has the inside of its blowhole carved.” (Source: from “Shakuhachi music is fun” by the Kyoto Wabunka No Kai)

How, then, about the origin as a sound source?

    There is the “bone flute” as a possible origin of the flute. A bone flute made from a crane wing bone has been excavated at the Jiǎhú site in the Hénán Province in eastern central China. Research shows that it is from the Neolithic era, and is believed to be the world’s oldest flute. Bone flutes are believed to have been used to lure game animals by mimicking bird calls. Gradually, they began to be used as musical instruments to celebrate success in hunting, and with the sophistication of human esthetics, the tone holes of the bone flute increased from 5 to 7 or 8. (“National Treasures Tell Their Tales”  (2) Jiǎhú gǔdí: https://youtu.be/bsQn78eXv-w (China Radio International))

    Traditional Chinese music is in the pentatonic scale, but it was discovered that Jiǎhú bone flutes with 7 holes can produce sounds close to the Occidental heptatonic scale, and the general understanding of classical Chinese music changed because of this. In the course of 9,000 years, the bone flute evolved into the vertical and traverse bamboo flute instruments.

    Also, with respect to the bone flute, it has been noted that “one of the origins of the music culture of the Silk Road can be found in Mesopotamia of the ancient Near East. The oldest evidence relating to music in Mesopotamia goes back to the 5th century BCE. This is because bone flutes said to be from this period have been excavated.” (Genichi Tsuge, Professor Emeritus, Tokyo University of the Arts http://dsr.nii.ac.jp/music/02persian.html

    As for the world’s oldest flute, late Paleolithic era flutes made of mammoth tusks and bald eagle wing bones of about 35,000 years ago have been found at the Hohle Fels cave site in Schelklingen in southwestern Germany. (Nature, 25 June 2009 issue)
The bald eagle flute is about 22 cm long with 5 tone holes, and there are 2 deep V-shaped notches at the blowhole. (AFPBB News:  http://www.afpbb.com/articles/-/2614815)

    It may be hasty to connect the bone flute and Shakuhachi, but the similarities between the two, such as most bone flutes having 5 tone holes and the position of the blowhole, are most interesting.

Editorial postscript 

Tradition supports innovation 

The Shakuhachi was brought to Japan as a Gagaku instrument in late 7th century or early 8th century.
Subsequently, the Shakuhachi disappeared in China, and in Japan, it was eliminated from Gagaku ensembles as a result of the Imperial Court music reformation in the early Heian period. In the Kamakura period, a Zen Buddhist monk Kakushin (later, Hottou Kokushi) went to Song Dynasty China to study, and learned the piece Kyorei, and that piece only, from the 16th Zen Shakuhachi (Fuke Shakuhachi) master Zhāng Cān, which he brought back to Japan, but Fuke Zen Shakuhachi went through a decline with the anti-Buddhist movement which occurred in the Meiji period.
    Interestingly, it appears that the Shakuhachi, which was brought to Japan with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, followed a fate similar to Buddhism which had virtually died out in India and China.
    However, just as it is said that Buddhist thought which matured in Japan returns to China and India, we firmly believe that a Shakuhachi player carries the important mission of conveying Japanese culture to China, India and the world through the Shakuhachi, the most matured soul of Japan.

(TOCOL Music Department)