Saturday’s Instrument: The Shakuhachi

The shakuhachi is a Japanese and ancient Chinese longitudinal, end-blown bamboo flute.

It was originally introduced from China into Japan in the 7th century and reached its peak in the Edo period. (17th–18th century).

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The oldest shakuhachi in Japan is currently stored in Shoso-in, Nara. The shakuhachi introduced into Japan changed its form and scale many times after that, and the present shakuhachi was completed in the Edo period in the 17th century.

Origins of the name:

The instrument’s name is derived from its original length—one shaku (30.3 cm) and eight (Japanese: Hachi) sun (3 cm)—but it actually comes in many lengths. Normally it has four finger holes plus a thumbhole. Its repertoire is solo and chamber music.


Shakuhachi derived from the Chinese bamboo-flute. Bamboo-flute first came to Japan from China during the 7th century. Shakuhachi looks like the Chinese instrument Xiao, but it is quite distinct from it.

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During the medieval period, the shakuhachi was 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.

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.


The shakuhachi’s blowing end is cut obliquely outward, and a small piece of ivory or bone is inserted at the edge so that subtle varieties of tone color can be produced. The bell (flared end) consists of the trunk of the bamboo plant with its root ends. The body is naturally or artificially bent above the bell for aesthetic reasons.

Popular uses:

Shakuhachi is often used in modern film scores, for example, those 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.

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The Australian Shakuhachi Master and composer Jim Franklyn has composed an impressive number of works for solo shakuhachi, also including electronics. After extensive research and consultation with virtuoso Yoshikazu Iwamoto, British composer John Palmer has pushed the virtuosity of the instrument to the limit by including a wide range of extended techniques in Koan (1999, for shakuhachi and ensemble).

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 traditional American Folk & Blues songs with Ritchie's shakuhachi playing as the focal point. In 2004 they released their debut album on Weed Records.

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