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The Historical Background of the
Shakuhachi & Honkyoku


The following is an excerpt of the 3rd chapter from Riley's Ph.D. dissertation, written in 1992. The entire thesis can be downloaded from the thesis page on this website.

Alternatively, a copy of the dissertation, entitled "Yearning for the Bell; A Study of Transmission in the Shakuhachi Honkyoku Tradition" can be ordered through Monty Levenson's website.

Please note that kanji characters referenced in the text may or may not display correctly depending on whether you have the appropriate fonts/language kits installed on your system.

Chapter 3 - Excerpt
Throughout history, a number of reedless, end-blown bamboo flutes with from five to as many as nine fingerholes have appeared in Japan. Made from pieces of bamboo of varying lengths having one, three, or more nodes, they are all thought of as belonging to the same family of instruments, that is the shakuhachi. The mouthpiece in all the Japanese end-blown flutes is made by first cutting the bamboo perpendicular to the pipe, usually at a node or joint of the bamboo, and then further cutting a small, wedge shaped piece from one side of the end, that is obliquely, but outwards, thus forming the blowing edge (illustration 1). Though the blowing edge of one of the end-blown flutes, the tempuku 天吹く, see below), differs slightly from the other flutes in that it is much smaller and shallower and filed inward toward the bore, it is characteristically cut outward as well. It is primarily because of the distinctive shape of their mouthpieces that these instruments are classified as a single family of flutes.

According to Tukitani et al., (1991:1), there are no other examples of the outward facing type of blowing edge found anywhere in the world, including China. In contrast to the Japanese end-blown flutes with the blowing edge bevelled outward, other end-blown flutes have a blowing edge that is either merely cut perpendicularly (e.g., nose flutes), or that is rounded slightly at the perpendicular cut (e.g., the nei and the kaval). The flutes most closely resembling the shakuhachi such as the present day Chinese dongxiao 洞簫, Japanese: dôsho), are made by cutting or shaving the pipe towards the inside of the bore rather than towards the outside.

Japanese bamboo flutes have been given various names. Each of these names has been applied to slightly different instruments at different points in their history. Generally speaking, the term shakuhachi has been used as a generic term to denote all of the end-blown flutes of Japan. In addition, the term hitoyogiri (一節切, literally 'cut from one node') has been used since the 17th century (Tukitani et al. 1991:3) to denote a shakuhachi made from a piece of bamboo with only one node and with five fingerholes, and the term tempuku, (see above) denotes a very small shakuhachi (approx. 28 cm. in length) that has three nodes, five fingerholes and a very shallow blowing edge.

The way these and other terms have been applied is, however, arbitrary and at times contradictory or confusing. This will be discussed in more detail below (pp.86-102).

The history of shakuhachi in Japan dates back to the latter half of the seventh century, when the shakuhachi and other musical instruments were brought from China to become part of a court ensemble fashioned after that of the Tang dynasty. The music of this court ensemble became known in Japan as gagaku (雅楽) and was only one of many elements of Chinese culture that were adopted by the Japanese during this and later times. According to the Tang dynasty document Jiu Tang Shu (旧唐書, Japanese: Kutôjo, Old Tang History, the older of two major histories of the Tang dynasty), the flute with the outward facing blowing edge was invented by the person Lucun (呂才, Japanese: Ryosai) between 627 and 649 A.D. (Kamisangô 1974:10, Ueno 1984:46, Tukitani et al. 1991:1). It is probable that an instrument of this type was introduced into Japan with the gagaku ensemble and remained a part of that ensemble for several centuries. Therefore, the shakuhachi of the Nara and Heian periods are generally known as gagaku shakuhachi. These shakuhachi were performed for, and frequently by, the nobility of ancient Japan from the time of their introduction from China until at least the 12th century.

3.1.1 Shakuhachi of the Shôsôin and Hôryûji)

Eight specimens of gagaku shakuhachi have been preserved in the Shôsôin (正倉院), a repository built in 756 for the treasures of Tôdaiji, an important temple in Nara housing the daibutsu (大仏, 'great Buddha'), the largest statue of Buddha in Japan inside a building, completed in 749.

Four of these flutes are recorded in Tôdaiji Kenmotsu Chô (東大寺献物帳, 758) (Ueno 1984:9), a catalogue of the items that had belonged to Emperor Shômu (聖武天皇, r.724-749) donated to Tôdaiji in 756 by Empress Kômyô (光明皇后) after the death of her husband. These flutes were gifts from a king of the Paekche Kingdom of mid-8th century Korea. A catalogue dating from that time states that Emperor Shômu had been particularly fond of the four instruments (Harich-Schneider 1973:59). In view of what is known about shakuhachi of this period, it is possible that the remaining four flutes were also imported into Japan, but this cannot be concluded with certainty.

Of the eight shakuhachi in the Shôsôin collection, only five are made of bamboo. The remaining three flutes are made of jade, ivory and stone. One of the bamboo flutes and the stone flute are completely covered with delicate patterns carved on their surfaces. All but one of the instruments are quite playable, with the jade instrument said to be especially so (Harich-Schneider 1973:61). The jade, stone and ivory flutes are carved to imitate the nodes of bamboo.

Whereas shakuhachi from around the 14th century until the present time have only five fingerholes, and a variable number of nodes, all of the flutes perserved in Shôsôin have six fingerholes and three nodes, not counting the uppermost node on which the blowing edge is cut. Although a number of hypotheses concerning the extra fingerhole of the shakuhachi of the Nara period have been put forward, the reason for the difference in the number of fingerholes between the gagaku shakuhachi and later shakuhachi has never been conclusively shown (see below).

The lengths of the flutes in the Shôsôin vary from 437mm. to 343.5mm and the diameters of their bores vary from 12mm. to 16mm. A more detailed description of these flutes and their measurements can be found in the book Shôsôin no Gakki. Though pitches obtained by playing each instrument have also been recorded (see Shôsôin no Gakki 正倉院の楽器, The Musical Instruments of Shôsôin, 1967), the data cannot be regarded as definitive because it is not known how the instruments were originally played. Reconstructing the performance practices of the gagaku shakuhachi and the pitches used by the performers at the time is particularly problematic due to the variability of pitch production possible with the shakuhachi mouthpiece.

Finally, a ninth specimen of the gagaku shakuhachi of similar date to those preserved in the Shôsôin is on permanent loan to the Tokyo National Museum from the Nara temple, Hôryûji (法隆寺). Made of bamboo and similar in proportions to the Shôsôin shakuhachi, the Hôryûji shakuhachi also has six holes. A commonly told legend is that this instrument was used by Shôtoku Taishi (聖徳太子, 574-622), the founder of Hôryûji and the first princely patron of Buddhism in Japan. Furthermore, the 13th century book Zoku Kyôkunshô (續教訓抄) written by Koma no Asakuzu (狛朝葛) in 1270, and the Taigenshô (體源抄), an authoritative reference on Japanese music written in 1512 by Toyohara no Muneaki (豊原宗統秋), both state that Prince Shôtoku used the instrument to perform the piece Somakusha (蘇幕者) to accompany the dance of a celestial maiden who had appeared before him (Kurihara 1918:36-41; Ueno 1984:39). There is no factual basis for either the legend or the written account (Kamisangô1974:10; Ueno 1984:39).

The association of Prince Shôtoku and the shakuhachi is an example of the frequent occurrence of important historical figures having been given central roles in their origin myths, in traditional Japanese musical genres and other traditional Japanese arts.

The shakuhachi instruments preserved in the Shôsôin repository and by Hôryûji are the only extant instruments of their type in the world and are therefore of great value. Unfortunately, no documents such as manuscripts, treatises or musical notation for the gagaku shakuhachi survive from the Nara and Heian periods. Besides the actual instruments themselves, the only additional data are mentions of the instrument in a few lists and government reports, and some pictorial evidence showing its use.

3.1.2 Pictorial and Written Evidence of the Nara and Heian Shakuhachi

According to Gutzwiller (1974:6), an acquisition list at Hôryûji includes several shakuhachi among a set of instruments purported to have been brought from China to Nara during the reign of the Chinese Emperor Wen (r. 581-604). The records of the dedication of the Shôsôin, written in 756, list the extant shakuhachi preserved in the depository, mentioned above. Also, the Saidaiji Shizai Chô (西大寺資材帳), another list of instruments imported from Tang China written in 780, record a single patterned bamboo shakuhachi (斑竹尺八, madaratake shakuhachi) and eight other shakuhachi (Kurihara 1918:48). Gutzwiller (1974:7) points out that the shakuhachi mentioned in the Hôryûji and Saidaiji lists are clearly of Chinese origin. In addition the Shôsôin instruments that are made of ivory and jade, and possibly the bamboo ones as well, were also most probably imported into Japan either directly from China or via Korea.

A representation of the gagaku shakuhachi being played can be seen on one of the panels of a large bronze temple lantern made around 752 which is prominently located in the centre of the open courtyard in front of the steps leading to the main entrance of the Hall of the Great Buddha (東大寺, Todaiji) in Nara. Each panel on the lantern depicts a Bodhisattva dancing or playing a musical instrument amidst swirling clouds.

The Shôsôin repository also contains pictorial evidence of the shakuhachi from the Nara era. In the collection of articles donated by Emperor Shômu is a dankyû (弾弓), a longbow made of bamboo said to be of Japanese manufacture and dated 730. Realisitic figures of musicians, dancers and other performers are painted on the bow. On the lower end of the bow, together with twenty-eight other figures, is a dancing man playing a wind instrument which, according to Harich-Schneider (1973:55) is "held vertically like a hichiriki (篳篥) or a shakuhachi". The length of the instrument being played (the bottom end is nearly at waist level) and the angle at which it is being held suggest that it is a shakuhachi rather than a hichiriki, or the longer and now obsolete ôhichiriki (大篳篥). The fact that the figure is dancing might, however, indicate that the instrument being played is a hichiriki, as the mouthpiece of the shakuhachi would make simultaneous dancing and playing extremely difficult. There is no way of knowing with certainty what instrument in the drawing.

On the upper part of the bow, near the middle is a group of nine musicians, eight of whom are squatting or sitting cross-legged. One of the musicians is playing what seems to be a shakuhachi. It is interesting to note that the shakuhachi player is the only one sitting in the seiza (正座) position. Though seiza is the customary and most formal way of sitting on the floor in Japan today, in the gagaku ensemble tradition, almost all of the musicians customarily sit cross-legged or squat rather than sit seiza. Finally, a standing performer of a shakuhachi-like vertical wind instrument can be seen on the longbow (Ueno 1984:125). The musician is dressed in the same Chinese manner as the seated musician, wearing robes and headgear that were fashionable during the early Heian period or earlier (Harich-Schneider 1973:142).

The musicians, dancers, acrobats and other performers painted on the dankyû illustrate two forms of secular music of the Nara period, namely gigaku (技楽) and sangaku (散楽). Gigaku was a masked dance form accompanied by drum, gong and flute, originating in South China and developed by Mimashi (味魔之), an important figure in ancient Japanese music, who was from Kudara (百済), a kingdom of the Korean peninsula (HHJ 1984:269). Sangaku refers to miscellaneous public entertainment including acrobatic dances imported from Tang China and popular in Japan from the Heian through the Kamakura periods (HHJ 1984:442).

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