Shakuhachi came to Japan from China via Korea in the 8th century, in the gagaku ensemble as an instrument for court music. By the 15th century, the 6 holed gagaku shakuhachi had become the 5 holed shakuhachi of the komoso, who seem to have been Buddhist street performers. Little is known about the komoso, though it is thought that their religious affiliation may have already connected them to Fuke, a character in the history of Chinese Buddhism.

By the 16th to 17th centuries, the komoso tradition had been absorbed or transformed into the komuso, ‘monks of no-thingness’, referring to the doctrine of Sunyata which in Buddhism points towards the indescribable Ultimate Truth of reality. These komuso were all from the samurai class, and took shakuhachi as their main means of spiritual practice. There music is referred to as ‘honkyoku‘, meaning the ‘original music’ of the shakuhachi, and their branch of Zen Buddhism was known as ‘Fuke Shu’, the Fuke sect.

The 1870’s saw revolution in Japan, and once the new Meiji Government took over control of the country, a terrible Buddhist persecution was carried out in an attempt to rid Japan of this ‘foreign impurity’ (Buddhism having come from China, and ultimately from India). Instead they created a new Shinto religion based largely on what they considered the native religion of Japan, though ironically highly influenced by Confucianism, which is another Chinese philosophy. However, what was perhaps most important was gaining political unification and control of Japan, and the new enforcement of Shintoism served this nationalistic purpose. Unfortunately, Buddhists suffered terribly with monasteries and temples being destroyed across Japan, statues decapitated and many precious documents and artefacts burned. Although this turmoil lasted only a few years before Buddhism was finally given more acceptance again, it was enough time for the Fuke sect to have been entirely abolished, and all of the temples destroyed.

Since shakuhachi was only officially allowed to be used by the komuso during the Edo period, and since their sect was now abolished, it was natural for their religious tool, the shakuhachi, to also be abolished. However, Araki Kodo II (later known as Araki Chikuo) and Yoshida Itcho presented their case to the Meiji government, pursuading them that shakuhachi could contribute valuably to secular music, and that it has indeed been a precious instrument for over a thousand years for the Japanese nation. It is to them, then, that we are all greatly indebted for the continuance on the shakuhachi tradition.

See the following pages for more information about the different genres of music played on shakuhachi such as honkyokusankyoku; the regional honkyoku styles originating in the Edo period, and the great honkyoku masters and the repertoires they collected since the end of the Edo period.