World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article




A shakuhachi flute, blowing edge up.
  • Left: top view, four holes.
  • Right: bottom view, fifth hole.

The shakuhachi (尺八、しゃくはち, pronounced ) is a Japanese end-blown flute.

It was originally introduced from China into Japan in the 8th century and underwent a resurgence in the early Edo Period. The shakuhachi is traditionally made of bamboo, but versions now exist in ABS and hardwoods. It was used by the monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen (吹禅, blowing meditation).

The instrument is tuned to the minor pentatonic scale.


  • Overview 1
  • History 2
  • Notable players 3
  • Recordings 4
    • Synthesized shakuhachi 4.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


The name shakuhachi means "1.8 shaku", referring to its size. It is a compound of two words:

  1. shaku () is an archaic unit of length equal to 30.3 centimeters (0.994 English foot) and subdivided in ten subunits.
  2. hachi () means "eight", here eight sun, or tenths of a shaku.

Thus, "shaku-hachi" means "one shaku eight sun" (almost 55 centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi. Other shakuhachi vary in length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.3 shaku. Although the sizes differ, all are still referred to generically as "shakuhachi".

A shakuhachi showing its utaguchi (歌口, blowing edge) and inlay

Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of a bamboo culm and are extremely versatile instruments. Professional players can produce virtually any pitch they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original Zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa, and shamisen, folk music, jazz, and other modern pieces.

Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings, embouchures and amounts of meri can produce notes of the same pitch, but with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. Holes can be covered partially (1/3 covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by changing the blowing angle. The honkyoku pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their subtlety and depth.

Unlike a recorder, where the player blows into a duct—a narrow airway over a block which is called a "fipple"—and thus has limited pitch control, the shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (though the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against) and therefore has substantial pitch control. The five finger holes are tuned to a pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but using techniques called meri and kari, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward and upward, respectively, the player can bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more. Pitches may also be lowered by shading or partially covering finger holes. Since most pitches can be achieved via several different fingering or blowing techniques on the shakuhachi, the timbre of each possibility is taken into account when composing or playing. The shakuhachi has a range of two full octaves (the lower is called otsu, the upper, kan) and a partial third octave (dai-kan). The various octaves are produced using subtle variations of breath and embouchure.

A 1.8 shakuhachi produces D4 (D above Middle C, 293.66 Hz) as its fundamental—the lowest note it produces with all five finger holes covered, and a normal blowing angle. In contrast, a 2.4 shakuhachi has a fundamental of A3 (A below Middle C, 220 Hz). As the length increases, the spacing of the finger holes also increases, stretching both fingers and technique. Longer flutes often have offset finger holes, and very long flutes are almost always custom made to suit individual players. Some honkyoku, in particular those of the Nezasaha (Kimpu-ryu) school are intended to be played on these longer flutes.

Due to the skill required, the time involved, and the range of quality in materials to craft bamboo shakuhachi, one can expect to pay from US$300 to US$5,000 for a new or used flute. Because each piece of bamboo is unique, shakuhachi cannot be mass-produced, and craftsmen must spend much time finding the correct bore shape for each individual flute to result in correct pitch over all notes. Specimens of extremely high quality, with valuable inlays, or of historical significance can fetch US$10,000 or more. Plastic or PVC shakuhachi have some advantages over their traditional bamboo counterparts: they are lightweight, extremely durable, nearly impervious to heat and cold, and typically cost less than US$100. Shakuhachi made of wood are also available, typically costing less than bamboo but more than synthetic materials. Nearly all players, however, prefer bamboo, citing tonal qualities, aesthetics, and tradition.


Sketch of a komusō (right) playing shakuhachi

The bamboo flute first came to Japan from China during the 6th century.[1] The shakuhachi proper, however, is quite distinct from its Chinese counterpart[2] – the result of centuries of isolated evolution in Japan.

During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō ("priests of nothingness," or "emptiness monks"), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called "honkyoku") were paced according to the players' breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.

Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shogun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, "Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi", "One two three, pass the alms bowl"). They persuaded the Shogun to give them "exclusive rights" to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shogun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.

In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Shika no tone, became well known as "tests": if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn't, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.

Performer playing shakuhachi in 60th Himeji oshiro festival, 2009

With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shogun's holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.

When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.

The first non-Japanese person to become a shakuhachi master is the American-Australian Riley Lee. Lee was responsible for the World Shakuhachi Festival being held in Sydney, Australia over 5–8 July 2008, based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.[3][4] Riley Lee played the shakuhachi in Dawn Mantras which was composed by Ross Edwards especially for the Dawn Performance which took place on the sails of the Sydney Opera House at sunrise on 1 January 2000 and televised internationally.[5]

Notable players

The International Shakuhachi Society maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur, and teaching shakuhachi players.[6]


Honkyoku recording

Problems playing this file? See .

The first shakuhachi recording to appear in the United States was Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky, performed by Gorō Yamaguchi for Nonesuch Explorer Records on LP.

New recordings of shakuhachi music are relatively plentiful, especially on Japanese labels and increasingly so in North America, Europe, and Australia. Although the instrument is sometimes considered quaint and outdated in Japan, it is experiencing growth overseas.

The primary genres of shakuhachi music are:

  • honkyoku (traditional, solo)
  • sankyoku (ensemble, with koto and shamisen)
  • shinkyoku (new music composed for shakuhachi and koto, commonly post-Meiji era compositions influenced by western music)

Shakuhachi are often used in modern film scores, particularly ones by James Horner. Films in which it is featured prominently include: The Karate Kid parts II and III by Bill Conti, Legends of the Fall and Braveheart by James Horner, Jurassic Park and its sequels by John Williams and Don Davis, and The Last Samurai by Hans Zimmer and Memoirs of a Geisha by John Williams.

Renowned Japanese classical and film-score composer Toru Takemitsu wrote many pieces for shakuhachi and orchestra, including his well-known Celeste, Autumn and November Steps.

In the domain of contemporary music, Carlo Forlivesi's composition for shakuhachi and guitar Ugetsu (雨月) is one of the most challenging works ever written for the instrument. "The performance techniques present notable difficulties in a few completely novel situations: an audacious movement of ‘expansion’ of the respective traditions of the two instruments pushed as they are at times to the limits of the possible, the aim being to have the shakuhachi and the guitar playing on the same level and with virtuosity (two instruments that are culturally and acoustically so dissimilar), thus increasing the expressive range, the texture of the dialogue, the harmonic dimension and the tone-colour."[7]

Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes formed a Jazz quintet in 2002 called The N.Y.C. Shakuhachi Club. They play Avant-garde jazz versions of tradition American Folk & Blues songs with Ritchie's shakuhachi playing as the focal point. In 2004 they released their debut album on Weed Records.

Synthesized shakuhachi

The sound of the shakuhachi is also featured from time to time in non-traditional non-Japanese music, from electronica to pop-rock to jazz music, especially after being commonly shipped as a "preset" instrument on various synthesizers and keyboards beginning in the 1980s.[8] Here is a short list of well-known tracks from various musical genres where you can hear the sound of an electronic or emulated shakuhachi:

Year Artist or band Album Song, range, notes
1974 Tangerine Dream Phaedra "Sequent C'" [full 2:18 track]
1983 Osamu Kitajima Face to Face "Tracks 2,3,5,7,9" [Tacoma Records TAK-7107]
1985 Tangerine Dream Le Parc "Yellowstone Park" [0:00–0:05, 2:23–2:50]
1985 Tangerine Dream Legend OST "Opening" [0:00–0:30]
1985 Tangerine Dream Legend OST "Unicorn Theme" [0:00–0:10]
1985 Dire Straits Brothers in Arms "Ride Across the River" [0:00-0:06]
1985 Echo & the Bunnymen Songs to Learn & Sing "Bring On the Dancing Horses" [0:45-0:53 and in every chorus that follows]
1985 Wang Chung To Live and Die in L.A. (OST) "Wake Up, Stop Dreaming" [???–???]
1985 Tears for Fears Head Over Heels (single) "When in Love with a Blind Man" (b-side) [0:44-0:54, 1:32-1:36, 1:45-1:56]
1986 Shriekback Oil and Gold "Coelocanth" [whole song]
1986 Coil Horse Rotorvator "The First Five Minutes After Death" [1:15–1:45, 2:38–3:38, 4:30–end], morbid shakuhachi.
1986 Peter Gabriel So "Sledgehammer" [0:00–0:16, 3:16–3:34]
1987 Coil Gold Is the Metal "The First Five Minutes After Violent Death" [0:30–1:30, 2:45–3:45, etc., morbid shakuhachi.
1987 Coil Unnatural History III "Music for Commercials": Liqueur [0:41–1:26] Natural Gas [03:15-04:00]
1987 Roger Waters Radio K.A.O.S. "Me or Him" [0:09–0:22, 1:27–1:35, 2:06–2:20, etc.]
1987 Rush Hold Your Fire "Tai Shan"
1988 And Also the Trees The Millpond Years "The Sandstone Man" [0:33–0:39, 3:25–4:36]
1988 Vangelis Direct "The will of the wind" [1:02–1:53, 2:22–3:13]
1988 Sade Stronger Than Pride "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" [0:28–0:33, 2:08–2:14, 2:28–2:33, 3:08–3:30, etc.]
1989 The Sugarcubes
(Björk's ex-band)
Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! "Pump" [2:06-2:22]
1990 Enigma MCMXC a.D. "Sadeness (Principles of Lust, Part 1)" [1:14–1:54, 2:56–3:16]
1991 Klaus Schulze Beyond Recall "Airlights" [0:00–0:05, 0:15–0:20, 0:40–0:50, 1:00–1:05, etc.]
1992 Snap! Exterminate! "Exterminate! Feat. Nikki Harris" [2:20-2:52, etc.]
1993 Dave Brubeck Late Night Brubeck "Koto Song" [4:30–9:50] - Bobby Militello's flute emulation
1993 Future Sound of London Cascade "Cascade 1" [2:05–6:25] + "Cascade 6" [1:40–2:15], opener/closer tracks
1994 Future Sound of London Lifeforms "Little Brother" [4:00-5:13(end)], closer track
1994 Klaus Schulze as
Richard Wahnfried
Trancelation "The End - Someday" [2:17–2:36]
1995 Michael Bolton Greatest Hits (1985-1995) "Can I Touch You... There?" [0:00–0:04, 3:26–3:50, 4:24–5:07]
1995 Juno Reactor Beyond the Infinite "Samurai" [scattered throughout]
1996 Toshio Iwai SimTunes Piper, blue "bug" available voice, Low C3 to C5
1998 Symphony X Twilight in Olympus "Lady of the Snow" [0:00-0:26]
2001 Incubus Morning View "Aqueous Transmission" and "Circles"
2001 John Zorn The Gift "Samarkan" [1:17-6:39] actual instrument
2003 Linkin Park Meteora "Nodoby's Listening"
2004 Air Talkie Walkie "Cherry Blossom Girl"
2004 Autumn Tears Eclipse "At a Distance" [0:32–0:56, 1:19–2:15, 2:37–3:04, 3:47–4:15]
2010 Andrea Carri Partire "Dove Andremo?" [0:31–1:21]
2011 Zenithrash Restoration Of The Samurai World "Ritual","Harakiri","The Samurai Metal"
2012 Adam Tucker Music by Peter Hallock "Night Music"
2013 Nagy Ákos "Soli(e)tude"

See also


  1. ^ "History of the Shakuhachi".  The Shakuhachi flute has been traced back as far as ancient Egypt and is thought to have migrated through India and China before being brought back to Japan by monks who were studying abroad in China during the 6th century.
  2. ^   Diplomatic and cultural exchanges between Chinese continent and Japan being common, we can think that this flute was introduced in Japan with other musical instruments that were intended to give entertainments at the court (Gagaku; court music)."
  3. ^ World Shakuhachi Festival 2008, accessed 24 October 2008
  4. ^ The Empty Bell - Blowing Zen, Into The Music, ABC Radio National, accessed 24 October 2008
  5. ^ "Dawn Mantras (1999)". Ross Edwards. Retrieved 2014-07-30. 
  6. ^ "People whose speciality is shakuhachi". The International Shakuhachi Society. Retrieved March 10, 2012. 
  7. ^ ALM Records ALCD-76
  8. ^ The "E-mu Emulator II shakuhachi" is number nine in "20 Sounds That Must Die" by David Battino, Keyboard Magazine, October 1995

Further reading

  • Iwamoto Yoshikazu, The Potential of the Shakuhachi in Contemporary Music, “Contemporary Music Review”, 8/2, 1994, pp. 5-44
  • Tsukitani Tsuneko, The shakuhachi and its music, in Alison McQueen Tokita, David W. Huges (edited by), The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music 7, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008, pp. 145-168
  • Riley Lee (1992). "Yearning For The Bell; a study of transmission in the shakuhachi honkyoku tradition", Thesis, University of Sydney
  • Seyama Tōru, The Re-contextualisation of the Shakuhachi (Syakuhati) and its Music from Traditional/Classical into Modern/Popular, “the world of music”, 40/2, 1998, pp. 69-84

External links

  • International Shakuhachi Society
  • Shakuhachi at DMOZ
  • Shakuhachi flute Fingering Chart
  • Fuke Shakuhachi Official Site
  • Shakuhachi
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.