SCHOOLS OF SHAKUHACHI PLAYING: AN INTRODUCTION

By David Osborn

Understanding the Phenomenon of Schools in Japanese Arts and Society
Many have observed and remarked how “cliqueish” Japanese society is, and how prone it is to creating factions within itself.  This cliqueishness and factionalism seem to pervade all of Japanese society, whether it be in the corporate business world, or even in the arts, whether flower arranging, the tea ceremony, or even Shakuhachi playing; there seems to be a strong, even fanatical, bond of loyalty between student and teacher, or master and disciple.  Some see this extreme allegiance to one’s teacher, and through it, to one’s lineage, as being something that Japanese society and culture got from Chinese Confucianism, but actually, it runs even deeper and more pervasively than that in Japanese society and culture.  This deep allegiance to one’s teacher, and to one’s lineage, seems to be quasi-religious in nature, and indeed, the traditional Japanese arts, being called various kinds of “Do”, from the Chinese “Tao”, or “The Way” do indicate a religious or spiritual orientation.  The Japanese also see their traditional arts as a way of cultivating and refining their ningen sei, which literally means, “human nature”, but would be better translated as one’s spiritual nature, to take it to a higher level.

The word, or Japanese / Chinese character or ideogram that is usually translated as “school” in English is Ryu, which literally means “current” or “flow” – that is, the unbroken flow of the art from teacher to student, or master to disciple, from one generation to the next.  This close bond of devotion between master and disciple, and by extension to one’s school or lineage, can even be found in Hindu religion and society, in which it is called Guru Parampara, or the unbroken chain or lineage of transmission from Guru, or master, to Chela or disciple.  And religiously and culturally speaking, Japanese see the overall chain of transmission of Eastern civilization as starting in India, going through China, and finally reaching its full fruition in Japan.  This emphasis or devotion to transmission and lineage may be a salient or distinctive characteristic of Eastern arts and teachings, but to a greater or lesser extent, it could be found everywhere in the premodern world, as exemplified by the craftsmen’s guilds in medieval Europe.  The dizzying pace of change in the modern world has shaken us loose from our moorings to tradition. 

This tendency to orient itself into schools or lineages in Japanese society and culture has even been called feudalistic by many.  The strict rules and protocol that are inherent in these schools, which govern relations between teacher and student, can make it quite difficult for a student who has a “yen” to study with the teacher of another school to do so.  Definitely, you can’t go behind your teacher’s back; eventually, in one way or another, he will find out – and get very angry with you; you must follow strict rules of protocol, with your teacher’s consent and blessing, and you may do so only after you have gained sufficient proficiency in your own school.  Feudalistically, it seems, the teacher or head of the school exercises absolute dominion and responsibility over all that goes on in his school, and everything that his students do, and the teacher jealously guards his “turf”.  To the outsider, these strict rules can seem so overbearing, even suffocating, that the average Westerner asks, “Why even bother?”  But in recent years, a Japanese psychologist elucidated the answer with amazing insight in a book he wrote. 

That book was Amae no Kozo, or The Anatomy of Dependence, which was written by the Japanese psychologist Takeo Doi.  Actually, there is no direct translation of the first word, Amae, in English – the word “dependence” is its closest approximation.  The word Amae has its roots in the adjective Amai, or “sweet”, and is even present in a verb form, which is Amaeru, which could be translated as “to sweet on” someone – even puppies do it!  In other words, to show dependent fawning and adulation towards a teacher or superior, as a child does to his or her parent.  This Oyako, or parent – child ethos pervades all of Japanese society, with the teacher or superior being called the Oyabun, or “parent party” and the student or inferior being the Kobun, or “child party”.  This phenomenon of Amae and Amaeru pervades all of Japanese society – and especially the schools of the traditional Japanese arts – providing the hidden, intimate “glue” that holds the whole structure together, in spite of what may seem to be excessively strict or rigid outer rules and protocol to the uninitiated outsider.  Amae makes it all worthwhile. 

Amae is why there is such a close bond between a teacher and his or her students within a school of traditional Japanese arts, and such a sense of mutual devotion and belonging.  There is a special atmosphere of intimacy to everything that pertains to the school, which is designated as Uchi, or “in house”, versus the cold and distant outside world, which is referred to as Soto, or “outside”.  The Sensei or teacher is, indeed, the student’s parent or Oyabun in the art form being learned, and will not give the student or pupil his or her Shihan, or teacher’s license from the school until the pupil has thoroughly demonstrated that he or she is good and ready.  Once you earn your Shihan, which is granted or bestowed upon you by your Sensei, you gain your artistic independence, and are free to seek and acquire your own students or pupils, but until then, you are still a dependent in the house of the artistic school you belong to.  Certain rare individuals, who have attained an extraordinary level of distinction in their chosen art form, are designated as Ningen Kokuho, or human / living national treasures by the Japanese government. 

An Introduction to the Schools of Shakuhachi Playing
Whereas the phenomenon of forming distinct schools or lineages pervades all of the traditional Japanese art forms, each art form in itself constitutes its own “world”, which is governed by its own rules, names and forms.  And so it is with the world of the Shakuhachi; when one becomes a student of a Shakuhachi teacher or Sensei, one gets initiated into this world, and gradually “learns the ropes”, so to speak.   Your own personal instrument, your Shakuhachi, is referred to as your Take, or Bamboo.  Fellow students of the same teacher call themselves Take Kyodai, or “bamboo brothers”.  There are differences between schools of Shakuhachi playing in the physical construction of the instruments they play, with the major ones being the Kinko, Meian / Myoan, and Tozan styles of Shakuhachi – these are also the main Ryu or schools of Shakuhachi playing as well. 

Then, there are the various pieces that one learns from one’s Sensei, or teacher, which are generically referred to with the suffix Kyoku.  Each major school of Shakuhachi playing has its own Hon Kyoku, which can be variously translated as “original pieces”, “main pieces” or “root pieces”, which form the nucleus of the school’s repertoire.  Since the Shakuhachi had its origins with the Fuke sect of Zen monks, who solicited alms with it, these Hon Kyoku, or original pieces are the most Zen oriented and inspired.  Then there is a body of San Kyoku, or “three part pieces”, which are pieces of traditional Japanese chamber music written for three instruments: the Shakuhachi, as well as the Shamisen, or three stringed banjo, as well as the Koto, or thirteen stringed zither.  These San Kyoku pieces also have vocal parts as well.  In addition, a school may also have Gai Kyoku, which are “outside pieces”, or those that were borrowed from other schools and traditions of Shakuhachi playing, as well as Shin Kyoku, or “new pieces”, which are pieces that were composed in recent or modern times. 

Another interesting phenomenon within the world of the Shakuhachi, which is also shared by other traditional Japanese art forms, is the taking of artistic names.  An artistic name is usually chosen by the pupil upon obtaining his or her Shihan, or teaching license, but there are certain conventions that exist within the various schools and their respective factions or lineages regarding the form the artistic name will take.  For example, in the Tozan school, which is the most modern or recent of the three major schools, new teachers or Shihan licensees take an artistic name that ends in the suffix –zan, which means, “mountain”.  And so, the American Shakuhachi master John Neptune, when he took his Shihan, took the name Kaizan, which means, “Sea Mountain”.  Since Neptune was the Greco-Roman god of the sea, and he was originally a surfer dude from California, it’s easy to see why he chose this artistic name.  Those within the Kinko school who trace their artistic lineage back to the great Araki Kodo (with Kodo, the artistic name, meaning literally ‘old child’) take an artistic name with the suffix –do, meaning “child”, being a child of one sort or another.

A school of Shakuhachi playing finds its identity not only in its teacher to student lineage and its history, but also in its overall philosophy and approach to the art, and the artistic ideals it clings to.  Although the smaller schools of Shakuhachi playing, especially if they are small enough, consist of a single lineage of transmission, larger schools, like the Kinko Ryu or Kinko school, boast several main lineages within their general umbrella organization.  For example, the main groups or lineages within the Kinko school of Shakuhachi playing are the Kodo Kai, consisting of those who trace their lineage back to Araki Kodo, and before him to Kurosawa Kinko, the school’s founder; the Chiku Mei Sha (Bamboo Light Society), who trace their lineage to Yamaguchi Goro and his father, Yamaguchi Shiro; and the Reibo Kai, who trace their lineage to Aoki Reibo and his forebears.  Another important lineage within the Kinko school is that of Kawase Junsuke.  A study of the various schools of Shakuhachi playing and the various lineages that exist within them is equivalent to a study of the history of Shakuhachi playing, and the artistic politics that exists within the world of the Shakuhachi. 

Each school of Shakuhachi playing traces its history back to an illustrious founder, who became the artistic source and inspiration for the school.  These founders of the various schools were legendary, larger-than-life figures; they also had the charisma and artistic ability to attract and hold students, and to gain a following.  In other words, artistically and musically speaking, each one of them had something special, something that naturally attracted disciples who wanted to follow in their footsteps.  Shakuhachi playing was originally a religious phenomenon, and closely associated with the Zen monks of the Fuke sect; originally, they were the only ones allowed to play the Shakuhachi, but secular reforms in the Tokugawa era opened up the world of the Shakuhachi to lay people as well.  The first and oldest school of Shakuhachi playing was the Kinko school, which was founded by Kurosawa KinkoThe next major school to be founded was the Meian / Myoan school, with its spiritual headquarters at Meianji in Kyoto.  And finally, the most recent or modern school is the Tozan school, which was founded in the nineteenth century by Nakao Tozan.         


Mamino Yorita, a female Shakuhachi player, performs Shika no Tone, one of the most known and loved of the 36 Kinko Ryu Honkyoku. The scenery and graphics are spectacular.

A Closer Look at the Major Schools of Shakuhachi Playing
The three major schools of Shakuhachi playing are the Kinko Ryu, the Meian Ryu, and the Tozan Ryu.  Incidentally, each one of these three major schools has, in its history and origins, close connections with the old Fuke sect of Shakuhachi playing Zen monks.  Also, the instruments played by members of these three main schools are also the three major types of Shakuhachis that are played.  How can you tell the difference?  Below is a summary of these differences:

Kinko Ryu:
The inlay on the utaguchi, or mouthpiece, is trapezoidal shaped.  The inner bore of the instrument is sculpted and built up with a mixture of urushi lacquer mixed with tonoko, or powdered clay.  The very root end of the bamboo stalk or culm is used, and the instrument usually comes in two pieces, with a tenon and socket joint in the middle.

Meian / Myoan Ryu: The Meian / Myoan Shakuhachi is generally the most primitive, and closest to the original instrument played by the monks of the Fuke sect.  The mouthpiece or utaguchi has a crescent shaped inlay.  The inner bore has very little ji, or buildup with clay and lacquer paste, or none at all, being ji nashi.  Many Meian instruments are in one piece, and are often made from a bit higher up on the stalk or culm than the extreme root end. 

Tozan Ryu: The mouthpiece or utaguchi of Tozan Ryu Shakuhachi are also crescent shaped, like instruments of the Meian Ryu.  The inner bore may have an additional sub-coat of plaster in addition to the clay and lacquer buildup more superficially, which gives a Tozan Ryu Shakuhachi a tone that is more glossy and polished in its sound.  In addition, the bore may be more tapered and narrow towards its bottom end than the Kinko Ryu Shakuhachi.  A Tozan Ryu Shakuhachi usually comes in two parts, with the joint in the middle, and is made from the extreme bottom end of the bamboo stalk or culm, like the Kinko Ryu Shakuhachi. 


Katsuya Yokoyama plays San An, one of the Koten Honkyoku. Think of it as a musical Zen prayer for a safe childbirth. The power and feeling of Katsuya Yokoyama's playing are without equal.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the history, origins and defining characteristics of each school:

Kinko Ryu:
The Kinko Ryu is generally acknowledged to be the oldest of the three main schools of Shakuhachi playing, and originated in the eighteenth century in Tokugawa era Japan.  The name “Kinko” means, “old zither”; the founder of the school was Kurosawa Kinko (1710 – 1771), also known as Kurosawa Kohachi.  There were four Kurosawa Kinkos, and then the main line of transmission went to Araki Kodo, and there have been six generations of Araki Kodos, with generations five and six living in Seattle, Washington in the USA.  The students of these various Araki Kodos, of which the third was quite famous and prolific, forms the Kodo Kai, which is the largest group within the Kinko school.  The first Kurosawa Kinko traveled around Japan studying the various pieces that were played by the Fuke monks, and arranging and adapting them into his own Hon Kyoku, of which the Kinko school has 36.  These 36 Hon Kyoku of the Kinko school are much admired, played and emulated, even by members of other schools of Shakuhachi playing.  For one thing, they tend to be of a longer length, which is more conducive to attaining a tranquil, meditative state of mind, both in the player as well as the listener.  Other key teachers, players and exponents of the Kinko school are Katsuya Yokoyama, Yamaguchi Goro and Aoki Reibo.

Source: https://www.komuso.com/people/people.pl?person=649    

Meian / Myoan Ryu:
The Meian Ryu, also known as the Myoan Ryu, as the first character can be read as either Mei or Myo, is usually regarded as the true heirs to the Fuke or Komuso monks in their playing of Shanuhachi Hon Kyoku.  The name of the school, Meian, is somewhat of an exercise in Yin and Yang, since Mei means “bright”, and An means, “dark”.  The spiritual headquarters of the Meian Ryu is the Meianji temple in Kyoto, which is also the headquarters of the Fuke sect.  I was privileged to have attended an ensokai or concert gathering of Meian Ryu Shakuhachi players at Meianji temple when I was studying Shakuhachi in Japan back in the 70s.  Outside the temple is the famous granite monolith with the characters Sui Zen, or “Blowing Zen” engraved on it – which, of course, refers to Shakuhachi playing. 

Actually, the Meian Ryu is now an umbrella term for a loose association of schools that all trace their lineage back to the Fuke monks of Meianji in Kyoto.  The Meian school started as the Meian Shinpo Ryu, or the “Meian True Dharma Sect”.  The mission of this sect was to continue the authentic  Hon Kyoku tradition of the Fuke sect after its dissolution; the founder of the Meian Shinpo Ryu was Ozaki Shinryu (1820 – 1888).  It was one of Shinryu’s students, Katsuura Shozan (1856 – 1942) who became the school’s main master; Katsuura went on to head the Meian Kyokai in 1881 and taught many students, being considered the leading exponent of Fuke sect Hon Kyoku   He also outlived many of his contemporaries, and was considered to be the last Komuso.  Katsuura’s repertoire of Fuke sect Hon Kyoku continues to be transmitted today through the various loosely associated schools and lineages that form the Meian Ryu. 

Source: https://www.komuso.com/schools/index.pl?school=39  

Tozan Ryu:
The Tozan school of Shakuhachi playing is the most modern and progressive of the major schools; it was founded by Nakao Tozan (1876 – 1956), who was a gifted Shakuhachi player and composer.  His real name was Nakao Rinzo, but he took the name Tozan as his artistic name, having been a pupil of Katsuura Shozan of the Meian school.  In 1894, at the age of 17, he became a Komuso monk, soliciting alms with the Shakuhachi.  Two years later, on February 15, 1896, he opened a music studio in Tenma, Osaka city, and this date is celebrated as the birthday of the Tozan school. In 1903, Nakao Tozan composed Sogetsu Cho, the first Tozan Ryu Hon Kyoku, and in 1908, he published his first Shakuhachi tutor and sheet music.  There are some 66 Hon Kyoku f the Tozan school, which were all composed by Nakao Tozan himself.  Perhaps his best known and loved Hon Kyoku composition is Kogarashi (The Withered Tree), which was written to express the grief and desolation he felt in the aftermath of Tokyo’s great earthquake and fire.  This happened after he had moved the headquarters of the school to Tokyo in 1922.  In 1930, Nakao Tozan retired from performing to concentrate on teaching and composition, and to nurture the younger generation of Tozan performers.  After the Second World War, Nakao Tozan returned to his hometown of Hirakata City, near Osaka, and in 1949, he moved to Kyoto.  In 1953, he was honored with the Japan Arts Academy Award for his outstanding contributions to Japanese music; he died in 1956 at the age of 80. 

Sources: https://www.komuso.com/people/people.pl?person=668   https://www.komuso.com/schools/index.pl?school=18    

Jin Nyodo and the Koten Honkyoku
One important and seminal figure in the world of the Japanese Shakuhachi was Jin Nyodo (1891 – 1966), who was considered to be a direct heir or descendant of the Fuke tradition of Hon Kyoku playing.  He attracted many students and followers, who were enchanted by his style of playing and interpretation of the Koten Hon Kyoku.  The Koten Hon Kyoku are the original Hon Kyoku pieces of the Meian school, what the Fuke monks were playing before the founding of the Kinko school.  His artistic name, Jin Nyodo, literally means “The Way Towards Divinity” – pretty heady stuff!  Jin Nyodo had many teachers and formative influences, many of them being of the Kinko school, but his natural talents and interpretative style drew him towards the old Koten Hon Kyoku of the Fuke sect, which he interpreted like none other.  Even today, Jin Nyodo is considered to be one of the all time greats of the Shakuhachi, and still has many students, followers and admirers.  In 1980, Jin Nyodo’s record album of the 39 Koten Hon Kyoku was awarded the Outstanding Album of the Year Award by the Japanese Ministry of Education.  In contrast to the Hon Kyoku of the Kinko school, which are more smooth and polished, the Koten Hon Kyoku are more plain, simple and heartfelt – which continues to attract many Shakuhachi players to these pieces, and the Jin Nyodo style of playing them. 

Source: https://www.komuso.com/people/people.pl?person=641  

The Zen Enchantment of the Shakuhachi Honkyoku
There are many foreigners who have studied, or who are studying, the Shakuhachi, and what draws them to this instrument like nothing else are the Zen-inspired pieces, which are the Hon Kyoku of the various schools.  A Hon Kyoku piece will take you into a transcendent, meditative state of mind and spirit, whether you are playing it, or just listening to it.  By contrast, almost no foreigners have studied the Shakuhachi mainly because they wanted to learn the San Kyoku or traditional chamber music pieces – let’s face it – it is indeed an acquired musical taste at best.  When I was a student of Araki Kodo V while at the University of Washington in Seattle, I had the good fortune to study the Kinko Ryu Hon Kyoku with him.  While living and working in Japan on a cultural activities visa, I studied Shakuhachi with Iida Sesshu, and he kept on leading me on, like a donkey with a carrot on a stick, making me learn one San Kyoku piece after another when all I really wanted to do was to study the Hon Kyoku – by all means, don’t get stuck in a situation like that if you are not studying what you love!  Iida Sensei only taught me my first Hon Kyoku piece a few days before I returned to the United States – what a waste of time!

Riley Lee and the Chikuho Ryu
Riley Lee has always been something of a legend in the world of the Shakuhachi – especially among us gaijin (foreigners) who have studied the instrument and its music.  Riley Lee’s accomplishments, both as a player of the Shakuhachi as well as a scholar and historian of the instrument and its music are nothing short of phenomenal.  Videos of his masterful playing grace the web pages of YouTube.  One of the many things that has distinguished the career of Riley Lee, an American musician who first came to Japan in the 1970s to study Shakuhachi, was that he became a disciple of Sakai Chikuho, the second generation direct descendant of the founder of the Chikuho Ryu (Chikuho literally means, ‘bamboo preservation’).  The Chikuho Ryu took Riley Lee under its wing, and he quickly became one of their top performers and exponents.  Riley Lee then went on to study with Katsuya Yokoyama, an equally legendary master of the Kinko school, becoming his top foreign disciple.  I am including a link to a short historical thesis on the Chikuho Ryu written by Riley Lee, which appears on the International Shakuhachi Society’s website, below because it not only does a superb job in relating the history of the school, but it also gives the foreigner or gaijin a good glimpse into the life, duties and activities of the head of a school of Shakuhachi playing, and through it, a valuable glimpse into the world of traditional Japanese arts and music: https://www.komuso.com/schools/index.pl?school=38

Conclusion: Navigating the Human World of the Shakuhachi
Iida Sensei, besides teaching me about the Shakuhachi and its music, also did his best to teach me about traditional Japanese thinking regarding society, and the human being.  Hito wa samazama, he would say, meaning that people are different and varied; but in traditional Japanese society, the individual is subsumed more thoroughly into the group, and being able to satisfy one’s individual needs and goals within the more structured environment of traditional Japanese society and culture is much more tricky and challenging than it is in the West, where a more individualistic spirit prevails.  Writing the simple Chinese character or ideogram for “person” on a sheet of paper, Iida Sensei explained to me that people need each other, because the very character for “person” depicts two lines, one leaning upon the other.  The Japanese person, therefore, can’t fall for the “lone ranger” myth, the rugged individualism of the American cowboy.  The American West, they say, was an open and continuously expanding frontier; if you didn’t like the people you were with, you could just move on.  Japan, they are quick to point out, is an island nation with a shimaguni konjo, or an island nation consciousness – and when you’re all in the same boat together, you have to run a very tight ship.    

The very compound of two Chinese characters that means, “human being” in Japanese is in itself an interesting study in the Japanese social consciousness.  The first character of ningen, or “human being”, the nin, is the same character for “person” that Iida Sensei wrote on a piece of paper – two lines, one leaning upon the other – the very Anatomy of Dependence that Takeo Doi wrote about.  The second character, gen, describes the concept of an interspace, specifically the interactive interspace of relationship.  In other words, the human being is defined primarily through his or her behavior in relationships with others – there is human behavior, which is cultured, civilized and appropriate, as opposed to sub-human or brutish behavior.  Once we thoroughly understand the traditional Japanese concept of ningen, or human being as defined by these two characters, we can understand why the Japanese are so keen on cultivating their ningen sei, or human / spiritual nature, and taking it to a higher level.  With their honoring of Ningen Kokuho, or Human / Living National Treasures, the traditional Japanese arts are making a spiritual statement – that the true wealth of a nation is defined not so much by its material wealth and assets as by its human resources. 

The school or lineage system that prevails in the world of the Shakuhachi, and in other traditional Japanese art forms, may not be perfect, but it is the system that Japanese society, and its traditional art forms, have evolved in order to ensure that these traditional arts, which Japanese society has judged to be of sublime or transcendent value and importance beyond the immediate and ephemeral tides of popularity that characterize rock music or other forms of popular, commercially based culture,  endure, and continue to be passed on to future generations.  And these traditional arts continue to inspire not just the Japanese, but those from all over the world.  It may be a safe bet to say that most young foreigners living and working in Japan have come to study one or another of the traditional Japanese arts – including the Shakuhachi. 

Acknowledgements
As my main source of historical data and information regarding e various schools of Shakuhachi playing, I have used the excellent website of the International Shakuhachi Society, www.komuso.com  .  Those who want to learn more about this subject, as well as other specialized and technical aspects of the Shakuhachi and its music, are directed to this site.