The Japanese Shakuhachi and the Western World
All Music Guide - Fall 2001
(Used by permission - © 2001 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

For the past 30 years or so, a large number of musicians have been showing a growing interest in learning non-Western musical instruments from traditional cultures around the world: Africa, South America, and Asia. In regard to Japanese music, the interest has been mainly about one particular instrument: the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute played by Zen Buddhist monks. Usually, when a Western musician learns a non-Western instrument, it is primarily a musical interest. With the shakuhachi, the interest is not solely musical, but probably more so spiritual as well. A musician might start to learn it for musical interest, but as he goes deeper into his or her training, the interest appears to switch from a musical one to a more spiritual one.

In the following essay, I would like to give, first of all, a brief history of the shakuhachi. Then I will take a look at the situation for the past 30 years, in which a growing number of Westerners have been learning the shakuhachi not necessarily to become professional musicians, but, for many of them, for its spiritual appeal. On the other hand, the situation in Japan is somewhat the opposite: The interest by the Japanese is slowly declining. It appears that the interest by Westerners in the shakuhachi has helped it survive. It is very common to hear that traditional musicians in many Asian countries perform in near empty halls, while Western music fills them up. While on the other hand, these traditional musicians will easily fill up halls in Western countries.

A Brief History of the Shakuhachi

The shakuhachi originally came from China during the Tang Dynasty (i.e., around the 6th or 7th century), as did other instruments (e.g., the biwa and the ancestor of the koto, the wagon) that previously arrived in China from the Middle East. The shakuhachi was used in such music as the Gagaku court music, but it did not remain part of the orchestra for long. It was not until the 13th century that it was revived by the Buddhist Fuke sect, finding in it a way to replace Buddhist sutra chanting. It was then called "suizen," i.e., "blowing zen." It was in the 17th century (during the Edo Period) that the shakuhachi reached its final phase of development. At that time, the country was unified under the control of a supreme ruler known as the shogun and feudal Japan began to disappear. Since uprooted samurai warriors, called "ronin," could not fight anymore, many of them decided to join the ranks of itinerant Fuke sect monks known as "komuso." Begging and traveling around while playing shakuhachi, they wore large baskets over their heads to indicate their detachment from worldly matters. Disguised as monks, these ronin quickly became spies for the shogun. A number of these ronin used their shakuhachi as a fighting club. Toward that end, the shakuhachi went through some major changes and became longer and stouter. Also, the instrument slowly grew in interest and a larger number of people, non-monks and non-samurai from the merchant class, started to learn it. A chamber music ensemble, called Sankyoku, was created, which brought together a koto, a shamisen, and a kyoku (a bowed lute). Later on, the kyoku was replaced by the shakuhachi, which was better suited. The Fuke sect and the komuso almost disappeared at the end of the last century with the demise of the shogunate; in fact, they were not supported and endorsed by the new Imperial government. Yet the popularity of the shakuhachi has remained strong. Although the ronin might have been using it to fight with, the shakuhachi was able to maintain its status as an instrument suitable for spiritual development, self-mastery, and enlightenment, among both monks and the merchant class.

The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute with five holes, tuned to a pentatonic scale. The sound is produced by controlling the angle of the mouthpiece against the lip. Because of the way the embouchure is made, it is a difficult instrument to play and can take weeks if not months to produce a decent sound and years for a quality sound. This particularity, however, also allows for a diversity of penetrating and breathy sounds and timbres, intonations, and tones rarely found on other musical instruments. It is an instrument that requires a high level of self-discipline, self-mastery, and dedication to learn, something very appropriate for spiritual training.

The main style of music played on the shakuhachi is called the " honkyoku" (meaning "original music"). While this is the style of playing used by the Fuke sect, there are other different styles of playing, as well. It is played solo, although a second part was added to some pieces which are played in duet. There is also the " gaikyoku," which is a newer music for shakuhachi, and it can be played solo with other instruments such as the koto and the shamisen, which is the style of the Sankyoku chamber music ensemble.

Following the major changes that occurred during the 17th century up until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, there were changes, but they weren't as important as previous ones. During that time, there was one major style of playing called the Kinko style. In the 20th century, the instrument went through few major changes. At the beginning of the century, a new style of playing was created, called Tozan. Tozan has its own notation, differing from Kinko notation, and was influenced, in a certain way, by Western music, although it remains typically Japanese. Tozan made few changes on the instrument. In the 1950s, a seven-hole shakuhachi was created. It did not catch on, except for playing folk songs. Today, Shakuhachi players still prefer the traditional five-hole instrument. In the first half of the century, the style of playing gradually became quite virtuosic. But in the '50s, some players went back to a more "pure," traditional, and simple style of playing. But one of the major changes at the end of the 20th century was the growing interest by Westerners in learning the shakuhachi.

The Interest of Westerners About the Shakuhachi

Westerners started to show an interest in the shakuhachi by the late '60s and early '70s, an interest which caught on and grew more steadily in the '80s and '90s. This interest is mainly toward playing the instrument, but includes making it as well. The first Westerners to learn to make a shakuhachi were Tom Deaver and Monty Levenson at the beginning of the '70s and later John Kaizan Neptune. Monty Levenson is from California while Deaver and Neptune live in Japan. And there are a few others.

It appears that one of the main, if not the main reason behind the interest by Westerners to learn the shakuhachi is linked to the spiritual and meditative aspects surrounding the instrument, the self-discipline that is required to learn it. As such, it is a very demanding instrument to learn, as mentioned above. On the other hand, the musical quality of sound that the shakuhachi produces is quite mesmerizing. Paradoxically, it is an instrument that is very simply made: a end-blown embouchure with five holes, yet it allows for a large variety of tone colors and musical effects not possible on Western wind instruments.

This interest is not directed solely at learning this fascinating instrument, but as well at becoming master, i.e., receiving the different titles or shi-han coming along with the mastering of the instrument. It was by the middle of the '70s and beginning of the '80s that Westerners started getting their shi-han. The first few names to mention that are still very active in 2001 are Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin, John Kaizan Neptune, John Singer, and Riley Lee. Most of them are teachers, performers, and recording artists. It is impossible to know exactly how many Westerners are learning the shakuhachi, but there are at least 300 players and quite surely much more and growing, since this number does not necessarily include students who do not perform; in Japan there are somewhere around 1,000 shakuhachi players (which is not much for a population of more than 120,000,000 people).

On the other hand, the situation in Japan is quite the opposite. Since Word War II, there has been a sharp decline of interest in traditional music and arts in general, as is unfortunately so common among many, if not most, Asian countries. The general interest is more about learning Western instruments rather than nurturing traditions. Most professional shakuhachi musicians are over 50 years old, and near to 90 percent of shakuhachi players are not musicians. The number of young Japanese interested in learning the shakuhachi is very small. The youngsters taking up the instrument are generally very talented.

The growing interest in the shakuhachi by Westerners brought along the creation of a series of shakuhachi societies, such as the International Shakuhachi Society founded in England in 1988; The Shakuhachi Society of the Long River based in Massachusetts in 1992; and Kaito the Dutch Shakuhachi Society in 1996, all dedicated to the promotion of the shakuhachi. Although the number of Westerners learning the shakuhachi is still rather small (i.e., 300 players), their interest is strong enough to promote it through the creation of societies.

More than that, a few shakuhachi festivals were organized in the 1990s. There were two small shakuhachi festivals in Australia; in 1994 in Bissei-Cho, Japan, there was the first World Shakuhachi Festival, and the second one was in Boulder, CO, in 1998. The second festival brought together around 350 participants, including 50 invited shakuhachi masters, both Japanese and Westerners. Among these masters were such well-known great Japanese players as Goro Yamaguchi, Hozan Yamamoto, Katsuya Yokoyama, Reibo Aoki II, and Kodo Araki V, as well as rising masters, such as Masayuki Koga, Yoshio Kurahashi, Akikazu Nakamura, Teruo Furuya, and Ichiro Seki, to give just a few names. It was the first time that these five great masters had the opportunity to perform together on one stage and, unfortunately, the last since Goro Yamaguchi passed away in January 1999 and Katsuya Yokoyama had to give up performing for health reasons. On one occasion more than 200 participants performed together. The festival included classes on performance techniques, practice methods, improvisation, breathing, and shakuhachi making. Some makers were on site to present their instruments. There were also solo and ensemble concerts, as well as concerts with koto, shamisen, taiko players, and more. Following the 1998 festival, Shakuhachi Summer Camp in the Rockies ( was organized in the summer, in Boulder, CO, where invited masters give intensive classes.

Finally, on the internet there are an impressive number of websites dedicated to the shakuhachi. Many of them are personal pages of shakuhachi musicians, while probably the most important one is Monty Levenson's site ( which is somehow the focal site on shakuhachi in the world. The International Shakuhachi Society ( and the other societies also have websites.

Does this interest by Westerners influence the situation in Japan? It is impossible to know for sure, but some shakuhachi players believe so. This interest by Westerners in the shakuhachi is not that well-known by the general public outside Japan, yet there is a lot of work and effort being done to keep alive a New World tradition based on a Japanese meditative tradition. This is an interest that goes beyond the music.

More and more shakuhachi players travel to the Americas and Europe not only to give concerts but also classes, in particular Yoshio Kurahashi, who travels to North America twice a year to give classes in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Texas, San Francisco, Montréal, and to participate in the shakuhachi summer camp in Boulder, CO. A few Japanese shakuhachi players have moved to Western countries and are teaching in these countries, such as Masayuki Koga, who is teaches in California, and Yoshikazu Iwamoto, who teaches in England.


I sincerely thank these people for their help in making this essay possible:

Monty H. Levenson, Tai Hei Shakuhachi, shakuhachi maker, based in California and Tokushima, Japan.

Yoshio Kurahashi, shakuhachi master, living in Kyoto, Japan.

Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin, shakuhachi master, living in New York.

Ronald Nelson, president of the International Shakuhachi Society.


"The Shakuhachi — Some Views," Christopher Yohmei Blasdel (< P>"The Sound of Zen," Christopher Yohmei Blasdel (

"Shakuhachi: The Sound of Nature" and "Origins & History of the Shakuhachi," Monty Levenson (

"Bells Ringing in the Empty Sky of Boulder: World Shakuhachi Festival 1998," Stuart Goodnick (



© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran.
Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
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