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It is in the 6th century that one can find manuscripts mentioning bamboo flutes were used in Japan. In the 7th century, the bamboo flute belonged to instruments used during representations given at the court, music known under the name of Gagaku.

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).

This flute more known under the name of Gagaku Shakuhachi was used during representations of Gagaku up to the 9th century then it was taken off orchestra during the reform of music.  

Shôsôin, the House of treasures of the Tôdaiji temple (known for its great Buddha) preserved 8 of these flutes. On the 8 flutes, only 5 are in bamboo. The 3 others are made of jade, ivory and stone. These 3 flutes were carved in order to represent the nodes of the bamboo.

A 9th Gagaku Shakuhachi is also preserved at the national museum of Tokyo, and would have belonged to the emperor Shôtoku Taishi (574-622). Shôtoku Taishi was known for his knowledge and love of music.

One says that the Shakuhachi of the Fuke sect was introduced in the 13th century from China to Japan by the Grand Master Hottô. Shakuhachi was then considered not as a musical instrument but as a spiritual instrument.

This Zen Buddhist sect Fuke opened at its origin to everyone, accepted later during the Edo period only members issued from the noble class of warriors, the Samurai.

These warrior monks called Komuso (虚無僧 monks of Emptiness), were itinerant monks.

During Edo period (1603-1868), Komusô pilgrim monks played an important role in the maintenance of law and order established by the Shogun government of Tokugawa aiming to maintain a durable peace and to thwart political intrigues. This internal political stability made it possible to preserve a lasting peace during 265 years.

In the 18th century, a new style of music raised through the Kinkoryû school. Kinkoryû style evolved with time and traditional and sober pieces were arranged to become more furnished putting more emphasis on sound volume. This style derived from the Fuke sect left many writings on its development.

At the end of Edo government, number of people not belonging to the class of the warriors were putting on the clothes of Komusô for various reasons. These “impostors” were playing popular pieces not belonging to Fuke sect repertory and absolutely prohibited by the Fuke sect.  

With Meiji restoration (1868), in 1871, Fuke sect was banned by the new regime in place because of its implication and its active role in the government of Tokugawa.  

Recitals in public with three instruments (Sankyoku: Shakuhachi, Koto, and Shamisen) were privileged to spiritual solo practice. It is from this time that Shakuhachi was democratized and penetrated middle-classes of the society via recitals given in public.

The tradition and the teaching from Master to disciple of the Fuke sect despite continued to be transmitted through great Masters like Miyakawa Nyozan (宮川如山), Kobayashi Shizan (小林紫山), Okazaki Meido (岡崎明道), Katsuura Shozan (勝浦正山), Takahashi Kûzan (高橋空山), and today Fujiyoshi Etsuzan (藤由越山), but still remain discreet because of its elitist and secret character. 

These genius instrumentalists while preserving the heritage they had received, opened of new horizons to Shakuhachi.  

With Meiji era (1868-1912), some members of the Fuke Shakuhachi sect around Kyôto decided to continue their practice openly and the friendly association of the Myôanji temple was created in 1883 (name drawing its origins from the Myôanji temple of the Fuke sect located at Kyôto). This association, more known nowadays under the name of school Myôanryû (明暗流) is often studied by members of Kinkôryû and Tozanryû schools who seek to approach original pieces which are not taught any more in their style.

The Tozanryû school appeared at the end of the 19th century. Its creator Nakao Tozan was born in Kansai where the style developed and continues to thrive. Tozan created and developed specific pieces for his style. This school is currently the most important in number of practicing people.

All these schools and various styles contributed to enrich and develop the repertory of the bamboo flute. These same schools gave rise to many other modern schools.

If one could attend the drift of some styles - where noise and artifacts are privileged to music refinement and where some passages having to be played with smoothness are played with heaviness - and the appearance of a certain form of musical decadence, one can estimate that they reflect their time and enabled the Shakuhachi to evolve more or less well with its time. Moreover for a few years one has attended to a return to more reliable values.

Hitoyogiri Shakuhachi

The hitoyogiri shakuhachi is a small flute of about 34 cm. Its name means one node (hito yo).

This flute has more and less disappeared in the 18th century and is renown for the indescribable  beauty of its sound that was seducing all those listening.

One says it was a Chinese Zen monk named Roan who have brought to Japan during the Bunmei era (1469-1487) this flute that many renowned monks and warriors such as the Monk Ikkyû , Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, or Tokugawa Ieyasu were playing.

Shinoburyu the Ninja flute

Ninjas of the clan of Koga were playing shakuhachi, a tradition known as shinoburyu or shinobiryu. This flute was used for communicating, to hypnotize people in dwellings where ninjas were penetrating, and as a spiritual tool to enter into communion with nature and environment.

Yamada Shozaburo the 18th successor also known as Shinobi Seizan, Miyakawa Yoshinobu the 19th successor, and Takahashi Kûzan the 20th successor have transmitted the content of this secret tradition; 31 major pieces including the "3 secret pieces of the moon".

Other shakuhachi and traditions