Weekly Shiritori #43

Last week’s post was about jinrikisha (じんりきしゃ / 人力車), so this week I need to start with either しゃ (sha) or や (ya). A big thank you to everyone who joined in this week – JapanAustralia with shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ / a Japanese variant of a hot pot), yakitori (焼き鳥 / grilled chicken on a skewer), Yamadera (山寺 / Tohoku’s most sacred temple complex), and Yakushima (屋久島), ZoomingJapan also with Yakushima, yakisoba (焼きそば / fried noodles), and Yamaguchi Prefecture (山口県), and lovelycomplex22 with Yakult (ヤクルト). They were all great suggestions, but this week I decided to write about…

Shakuhachi (しゃくはち / 尺八)

(Image source)

The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute which is traditionally made from bamboo, but can also be made from other wood. Originally introduced into Japan from China in the 6th century, the shakuhachi was used by the monks of the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen (吹禅 / blowing meditation). The monks from the Fuke sect of Zen who practiced suizen were called komusō (虚無僧 / literally “emptiness monks”).

Daikokuji-Sasayama Komusō Shakuhachi

(Image source)

Here’s some more information about the history of the shakuhachi, taken from Wikipedia:

During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komusō, 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. Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shogun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, “Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi”, “One two three, pass the alms bowl”). They persuaded the Shogun to give them “exclusive rights” to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shogun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker baskets that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Shika no tone, became well known as “tests”: if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shogun’s holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents. When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koto, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.

Shakuhachi has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this situation is rapidly changing. Many teachers of traditional shakuhachi music indicate that a majority of their students are women. The 2004 Big Apple Shakuhachi Festival in New York City hosted the first-ever concert of international women shakuhachi masters. This Festival was organized and produced by Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, who was the first full-time Shakuhachi master to teach in the Western Hemisphere. Nyogetsu also holds 2 Dai Shihan (Grand Master) Licenses, and has run KiSuiAn, the largest and most active Shakuhachi Dojo outside Japan, since 1975. 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. Riley Lee played the shakuhachi in Dawn Mantras which was composed by Ross Edwards especially for the Dawn Performance which took place on the sails of the Sydney Opera House at sunrise on 1 January 2000 and televised internationally.

The shakuhachi has a soulful, haunting sound, which I absolutely adore. If I had the time to take up a musical instrument I think the shakuhachi would be something I would seriously consider, especially having learnt that it’s less common for women to play it. I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of shakuhachi performances in the UK; here’s one by Bruce Huebner, with Joji Hirota on vocals:

Joji Hirota also plays the shakuhachi, often using the instrument with his taiko drumming ensemble.

Joji Hirota plays the shakuhachi

Joji Hirota plays the shakuhachi

I know some of my readers are interested in Japanese words and kanji, so let’s take a look at ‘shakuhachi’, which is written 尺八. 尺 (shaku) is an archaic measurement, and 八 means ‘eight’, but here it means ‘eight sun’ or ‘eight tenths of a shaku’. So, ‘shakuhachi’ means ‘one shaku eight sun’ or ‘1.8 shaku’ (which is about 55 centimetres – the standard length of a shakuhachi).

Although the shakuhachi looks quite similar to a recorder, the instrument operates differently, more like a flute. The shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across the top of an empty bottle (though the shakuhachi has a sharp edge to blow against, which looks more like that of a recorder) and therefore has substantial pitch control, which you don’t get with a recorder. I can’t read music and don’t know much about playing instruments, but I thought these fingering charts for the shakuhachi were interesting:

I’m not entirely sure what all of it means, but if you do want to know more about playing the shakuhachi, japanshakuhachi.com seems to be a website with just about everything you could need to know on it, right down to blowing your first notes


Shakuhachi (しゃくはち) ends with ち (chi), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “chi”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below and I’ll give you a mention next week. It’s getting tougher now as the year comes to an end, so I really appreciate your ideas and input! But don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v

4 thoughts on “Weekly Shiritori #43

  1. Great choice this week. I would love to try playing a shakuhachi and like Zooming Japan says above it would make a great souvenir from Japan. A few suggestions for next week include Chichibu Tama National Park (North of Tokyo) and Chiri-hama (beach in Hakui famous as Japan’s UFO viewing capital).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s