Shakuhachi: What is it?

Have you had the opportunity to experience the shakuhachi in person?

The shakuhachi is a traditional Japanese bamboo flute that has been used for centuries in various forms of Japanese music. In this video, Shakuhachi player, Kiku Day, explains the origin of this fascinating instrument.

A traditional Japanese instrument

Nick: Let's move on to the topic of this episode, and it's about this beautiful instrument, the shakuhachi. But maybe a lot of my audience don't really know what it is. So what is shakuhachi? And what is the meaning of the name?

Kiku: The shakuhachi, the name means 1.8. So shaku is one unit of measurement. It's very often translated as foot. I don't know if that's a good translation. But anyway, it's a unit of measurement, and so 1.8 hachi.

And that is the length, the standard length of the shakuhachi, and that's why it got the name. It's had this name for a very long time, because it already had this name when it was imported from China.

Well, it's more complicated than that. But it used to be a part of a Chinese court ensemble, and it was a Tang Dynasty kind of ensemble and music that Japan imported from Korea in the eighth century.

And at that time, in the eighth century, it was already outdated in China, but it was still going on in Korea. And this ensemble and music is still going on as a court music in Japan, gagaku. But it doesn't exist in Korea anymore.

So the shakuhachi was part of that, but it looked very, very different, it was much smaller, much thinner, and had six holes. Today, it's made out of Japanese bamboo. So it's a bamboo flute. And it's got five holes, so it plays more Japanese scale modality.

Nick: Yeah, when I first started to develop an interest in it, I was kind of surprised by the name, because the name’s this exotic sounding name. But then I thought that it’s basically 1.8: hachi means eight. I also think that’s unusual. So I had this preconceived idea that it meant something very special.

Kiku: Something very deep.

Nick: Yeah.