shakuhachiThe shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown notched flute with five finger holes, four on the front and one thumb hole.  It is related to other flutes in the Far East, such as the Chinese xiao and dongxiao, and the Korean danso and tungso. The sound is produced by blowing against the sharp edge of a notch in the rim of the flute, as opposed to the recorder, which has a duct inside the pipe to direct the airstream against the labium.

'Shakuhachi' ( 尺八 ) means '1 (Japanese) foot 8 inches' or about 54.5 cm. This corresponds to the standard length of a shakuhachi in D. By extension the word is used for all flutes of the same type, regardless of their length, which can vary from 1.1 to more than 3 feet. Another name for the dongxiao, a very similar flute with an extra finger hole from the Chinese province of Fujian, is chiba ( 尺八 ), which also means '1 foot 8 inches'.

The shakuhachi is traditionally made of a length of madake-bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoïdes) with seven nodes, which has been cut just above the root. On the root side it has four nodes on top of each other. The notch is cut out in the seventh node, which forms the rim of the instrument.  The cutting above the root, the nodes, the natural irregularities and the stains in the bamboo are all part of the aesthetics of the instrument. Whether or not the bore is lacquered inside depends on the building school. At present there are also lathe-turned wooden and synthetic shakuhachis, but these are mainly instruments for beginners.

By successively opening the five finger holes the pentatonic tone scale D-F-G-A-C-D is obtained.  It doesn't have semitones, whereas semitones are very common in Japanese music. A fully chromatic scale, with all twelve semitones, can be obtained by various fingerings and by changing the blowing angle. As a result the instrument doesn't have a uniform tone quality on all notes. In Western music this may be considered a shortcoming, but for Japanese musicians this multitude of timbres constitutes the richness of their music. A shakuhachi player even deliberately seeks sounds which are considered unmusical or parasite sounds in the West, such as breath sounds and audible fingering. This inclination to impurity is also typical of other Japanese musical instruments.

The shakuhachi was first imported in Japan from China in the early eighth century, along with the other instruments of the gagaku court orchestra. After a while the instrument became obsolete, but a few centuries later it reappeared in Japanese sources.  In its present form the shakuhachi strongly resembles the instrument played since the seventeenth century by the wandering komuso begging monks. For these Zen monks of the Fuke school shakuhachi playing was an accompaniment to meditation.  The repertoire of the komuso monks was noted down and published in the eighteenth century. The pieces collected at the time are known as honkyoku. They constitute the basic repertoire of the Kinko school. The notation does not give actual notes, but indicates fingerings and tone colour. The rhythm and ornamentation are visually suggested.

In 1871, at the beginning of the Meiji period, the Fuke school was closed, and the shakuhachi repertoire was secularized.  Since then flutists have also played minyo (folk songs) and chamber music, along with the traditional honkyoku. In the traditional trio with koto (zither) and shamisen (luit) the shakuhachi has gradually taken the place of the kokyu (fiddle).

Besides the Kinko school the Tozan school was founded in the early twentieth century. It created a new repertoire and developed a new type of notation that precisely indicates the rhythm.

Now Western musicians discovered the shakuhachi and some followed a full traditional training in Japan, transmitting their art abroad in their turn. Shakuhachi players keep writing new pieces. Contemporary composers like Toru Takemitsu, Akira Tamba and the Belgian Claude Ledoux have written pieces for shakuhachi and Western orchestra or other Japanese instruments.

The Mim's shakuhachi (inv. 0714) is made of a length of madake. The nodes at the root end have been polished away. The inside is lacquered red. The kinko type mouthpiece is strengthened with horn. The instrument bears the maker's mark.

This flute was part of a set of twelve high quality  Japanese instruments that were donated to the museum by the Music Institute of Tokyo in 1884, after they had been exhibited at the International Health Exhibition  in London.

Claire Chantrenne


shakuhachi mouthpiece
shakuhachi fingerhole and maker's mark
shakuhachi back
San’An, traditional piece, version of the Niigata region