Also:       syakuhati      

Title: Shakuhachi: The Japanese Flute—Tsuru no Sugomori; Kohachiro Miyata, shakuhachi. Label: Nonesuch. Format: LP. Catalogue#: H-72076. Track: A-3.

Contextual Associations

The shakuhachi is an end-blown edge aerophone (flute) from Japan. Due to its versatility and variety of sound production, the shakuhachi enjoys wide use not only within traditional forms of Japanese music but also in art and international forms of music such as jazz and pop. One strong association of this instrument is with Buddhism; the shakuhachi developed as an instrument for ‘blowing Zen’ and was used by the fuke (or huke) sect in Buddhist services. Many of the core pieces in the present day shakuhachi solo repertoire originated in this context. During the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912 CE) the shakuhachi was incorporated into the sankyoku chamber ensemble (see separate ensemble entry for Sankyoku Ensemble from Japan), in which it has became a standard instrument. Since the 18th century learning to play the shakuhachi has taken place in secular institutions called ryu (‘style’) established by iemoto (acknowledged ‘masters’), who license qualified students to become instructors of new students. The Kinko-ryu and Tozan-ryu are the two major stylistic schools of shakuhachi playing today. Historically women did not play the shakuhachi because of its association with priests, but this is changing in modern Japan.


 [This description focuses on the first shakuhachi pictured on this page.] This shakuhachi is made from a single stalk of a variety of bamboo called odake or madake that is 21.5 inches long (in the traditional measurement system, 1 shaku [‘foot’], 8 [hachi] sun [‘tenth of a shaku’]) and includes five nodes the last of which is at the top of the rootstock.  The shape of this stalk was most likely achieved through heating and applied pressure, followed by a long period to allow it to thoroughly dry. Using a rasp, the slightly tapering bore was hollowed out with the root end of the bore being narrower than its blowing end. Four equidistantly spaced fingerholes are drilled in a line on the topside of the stalk and one thumbhole on the reverse side (see first detail image). The stalk was then cut approximately at its midpoint and provided with a tube joint, making it easy to disassemble and reassemble the flute. The mouthpiece end of the tube is entirely open and includes the utaguchi, the sharp blowing edge notch achieved by sawing at about a 30-degree angle a slice of the upper side exterior wall of the stalk. This edge is strengthened with a trapezoidal-shaped ivory insert that is beveled to a sharp edge (see the second detail image). The bore of the tube is then given several coats of red lacquer for moisture protection. Finally, the joint ends are strengthened with line that is wound around the stalk and covered with black lacquer; another ring of similar design was probably added at some point in the history of this instrument to retard a crack. A trend starting in the late 20th century is to make shakuhachi out of other materials; the second instrument pictured on this page is an example of this--made in China from quince wood turned on a lathe, it was probably manufactured in a fraction of the time it took for a traditional craftsman to create the instrument described above.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The shakuhachi can be played either while standing or sitting in the seiza position (on the knees, legs folded under) on the floor. The lower edge of the mouthpiece rim is placed just below the lower lip, and both hands (either can be on the top) are used to hold the shakuhachi at about a 45-degree downward angle. The first and third fingers of the top hand cover the uppermost two fingerholes while the thumb covers the hole on the backside; the first and third fingers of the other hand cover the two lower fingerholes. The player directs a focused airstream through his embouchure against the utaguchi, which disrupts the airstream and sets the air column in the tube into modes of vibration. When the fingerholes are uncovered sequentially, the pentatonic scale D4 - F4 - G4 - A4 - C5 is sounded; with overblowing and the uncovering of the thumbhole, a range of up to three octaves can be attained. In the hands of an experienced player a complete chromatic scale can be performed and a remarkable range of timbres, dynamics, pitch inflections, and ornaments can be produced through expert finger, breath, embouchure, and airstream direction control.


It is generally acknowledged that the earliest form of the shakuhachi was imported from China in the 8th century CE. This early form was similar to the modern Chinese dongxiao in regard to its number of holes (five finger, one thumb), but differed in the design of its blowing edge (the sharp edge is on the inside rather than the outside of the tube’s wall), which is more similar to the modern shakuhachi. Although in the ensuing centuries several different versions of the shakuhachi emerged, it wasn’t until the early 18th century at the latest that the immediate precursor of the modern shakuhachi, the one-piece fuke shakuhachi, is documented. That instrument was played primarily by lay priests of the fuke sect of Zen Buddhism until 1871, when the sect was dissolved and there was a movement towards secularization of the shakuhachi that resulted in the development of a large repertoire of solo and ensemble music. It was only in the late 19th century that two-piece shakuhachi, like the ones pictured on this page, began to be made.

Bibliographic Citations

de Ferranti, Hugh. 2000. Japanese Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Hughes, David W., and Donald P. Berger. 1984. “Shakuhachi.”NGDMI v.3: 357-360.

Kano, Mari. 2002. "Social Groups and Institutions in Japan." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 755-762.

Nogawa, Mihoko. 2002. "Chamber Music for Sankyoku Ensembles." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 715-717.

Simura, Satosi. 2002. "Chamber Music for Syakuhati." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 7. East Asia. ed. Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben. New York: Routledge, pp. 701-706.

Tsukitani Tsuneko. 2008. “The shakuhachi and its music.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. ed. Alison McQueen Tokita and David W. Hughes. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub. Company, pp. 145-168.


Instrument Information


Continent: Asia

Region: East Asia

Nation: Japan

Formation: Japanese

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

421.141.12 aerophone--open single notch flute: airstream directed over the edge of a notch at the top of the tube; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - tapering with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: notched cut in rim at end of tube or in opening of vessel

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


21.5 in. length

Primary Materials


Entry Author

Roger Vetter, Toby Austin