SIZES OF SHAKUHACHIS

By David Osborn

Introduction: The Name is the Standard Length
If you speak Japanese like I do, it is immediately apparent what is the size or length of the standard Japanese Shakuhachi: It’s one shaku, which is a traditional Japanese unit of measurement that is roughly equivalent to one foot, or about 30 cm., and eight, or hachi, sun, which is a traditional Japanese unit of measurement equaling one tenth of a shaku, or about 3.0 cm. In Japanese, the full form of the Japanese designation for the standard size Shakuhachi is Isshaku Hassun Kan. Isshaku means one shaku, and hassun means eight sun. Kan is from a Chinese ideogram meaning “pipe” or “reed”; the character or ideogram has a bamboo radical at the top, with the implicit meaning being that we are talking about a bamboo pipe or reed. And so, the full designation of Isshaku Hassun Kan has been shortened or abbreviated into the common name for the instrument, which is Shakuhachi.


Haru no Umi, or the Ocean in Spring, with a Roku Sun Kan Shakuhachi in E.

In popular parlance among Shakuhachi players are abbreviated designations of other sizes of Shakuhachi, for example, Roku Sun Kan, which is slightly shorter than the standard size, at one shaku and six, or roku sun, giving a fundamental note of the “E” above middle “C”, in contrast to the standard size’s fundamental note of the “D” above middle “C”. This is the size of Shakuhachi used to play the famous shinkyoku or “new piece” entitled Haru no Umi, or “The Ocean in Spring”, written by the incomparable Michio Miyagi. Sometimes the length of the Shakuhachi being played is abbreviated numerically; if this is the case, then the Roku Sun Kan would be 1.6, and this decimal rendering is entirely appropriate, since there are only ten sun in a traditional Japanese shaku, instead of the twelve inches that there are in the English foot. By the same token, the standard length Shakuhachi would be abbreviated as 1.8. The Kyu Sun Kan, which is only one sun longer than the standard size, and a popular size for playing Zen-inspired honkyoku pieces, is 1.9 shaku in length, for example. Its fundamental is the C-sharp above middle “C”. 

If you go above two shaku, on the other hand, then the super-abbreviated designations that I used as examples of common Shakuhachi sizes above would not be applicable. A two shaku long Shakuhachi would be called a Ni Shaku Kan; its metric length would be roughly 60 cm., and its fundamental would be middle “C”. Instruments that are longer than two shaku are called, for example, a Ni Shaku Issun Kan, for a total length of one sun longer than two shaku, or 2.1; its fundamental would be the “B” below middle “C”. And so it goes, with 2.2 being Ni Shaku Ni Sun Kan, 2.3 being Ni Shaku San Sun Kan, and so on. The sizes of Shakuhachi that I have enumerated above are the most common and popular sizes used by Shakuhachi players, but there are also others.


The Koten Honkyoku Honshirabe, or "The Root Melody" played on a Kyu Sun Kan in C-sharp.

The Standard Size and the Musical Golden Mean
Classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle had their moral and ethical concept of the Golden Mean, meaning that the path of harmony and balance in all things lay in adhering to the central balance point that lies in between the two extremes. It’s easy to see how the principles of moderation and balance apply in the field of philosophy and ethical behavior, but so universal is this phenomenon that it even finds its manifestation in music. With flutes, as well as with other instruments, there is the phenomenon of the standard size or pitch of an instrument as the central balance point between high and low. With the Japanese Shakuhachi, this standard or Golden Mean is the 1.8 shaku length Isshaku Hassun Kan, which produces a fundamental note of the “D” above middle “C”; this is also called the Hyojun Kan, or the “Standard Size Pipe”. The standard size Shakuhachi sounds neither high nor low, but is a perfect balance between the two. Shakuhachis that are shorter than the standard size are called Tan Kan, or “short pipes”, and the shorter they are, the higher they sound. Conversely, Shakuhachis that are longer than the standard size are called Choh Kan, or “long pipes”, and the longer they are, the lower they sound.

To give you a better idea of how universal this phenomenon of the Golden Mean is within the world of flutes, it just so happens that many other world flutes have their standard size producing a fundamental note of the “D” above middle “C”. In addition to the Shakuhachi, we also have the Irish Flute and the Pennywhistle. With other world flutes, sometimes ergonomic considerations of fingering and the like also seem to play a key role in deciding the standard size or pitch of the instrument, but this is only a secondary consideration; the key or primary consideration is that the standard size should sound neither high nor low, but occupy the Golden Mean between the two. And so, with the Love Flute, or Native American Style Flute, the standard size is F-sharp; not only does its sound exhibit the Golden Mean between high and low, but its fingering is also the most comfortable – not too cramped, as it is with the shorter flutes, and not too stretched, as it is with the larger flutes. Ergonomically, the standard size Love Flute is shorter because the lower hand fingers holes all the way up to the fifth above the bottom note or fundamental, whereas the standard size Shakuhachi is lower in pitch because the lower hand only needs to finger up to the fourth above the fundamental.


American Shakuhachi master Riley Lee plays the Koten Honkyoku Takiochi, or "Cascading Waterfall" on a super long and low Choh Kan.

Ergonomic Considerations and Flute Tailoring
The Hyojun Kan, or standard size Shakuhachi, has its four lower holes all lined up in a straight line, running down the dead canter of the front of the flute because all are comfortable in fingering it, with its moderate size; the only possible exception would be young children learning how to play the Shakuhachi. But the longer and lower you go below the standard size Shakuhachi, the longer the spacing between the individual finger holes, and the more that the player will be called upon to stretch his or her fingers, especially if their hands are small and their fingers are short. In order to make the stretch easier, Shakuhachi makers and their clients, or players, have come up with an ingenious solution: staggering the finger holes. If you are playing a very long Shakuhachi and your right hand is the bottom hand, for example, the bottom hole would be staggered to the right of center, whereas the second hole up from the bottom would be staggered to the left of center. And the reverse would apply to the two holes above these bottom two, which would be fingered by the left hand; the lower of the two would be staggered to the left of center, and the upper one of the two would be staggered to the right of center.

Because ergonomic considerations involving fingering reach are so important with the longer and lower sizes of Shakuhachis, the Shakuhachi maker will sometimes schedule a kind of tailoring session in which the client, or player, comes over to fit his or her fingers to the prospective instrument before the finger holes are put in, with the maker drilling the holes exactly where the player’s fingers fall. Above all, the player should feel as comfortable as possible with their new flute. If you are indeed comfortable with a long, lower flute, your fingers should be able to fly effortlessly over the finger holes.

An Overview of Common Shakuhachi Sizes
What follows is a brief overview of the most common Shakuhachi sizes, as well as their musical qualities and virtues, and the kind of music played on them. It must be borne in mind, however, that these are only the most common or popular Shakuhachi sizes, and that it is very possible to find instruments that fall in between these sizes. From the shortest to the longest, they are as follows:
1.6: Roku Sun Kan – The Roku Sun Kan, being in the key of E and producing as its fundamental note the “E” above middle “C”, has a bright and brilliant tone but still dense and weighty enough to have the characteristic Shakuhachi sound. It is mainly used to play Minyo, or Japanese folk songs, as well as Shinkyoku, or “new pieces” – pieces that were composed in the modern era. Above the Roku Sun Kan, with the possible exception of the Go Sun Kan (1.5, producing an “F” above middle “C” as the fundamental), the sound is too high, bright and light, and the characteristic meaty Shakuhachi sound tends to get lost.
1.8: Hassun Kan – This is the standard size of Shakuhachi, having a metric length of 54.5 cm., and producing a fundamental note of the “D” above middle “C”. Also called the Hyojun Kan, or standard size instrument, the Hassun Kan gives us the perfect balance between dark and weighty lows as well as piercing and brilliant highs, never favoring one over the other. Because of this broad and balanced musical expression, the Hyojun Kan is at home playing a wide variety of musical styles and genres, from Zen-inspired Honkyoku to traditional Japanese chamber music, or Sankyoku, and even pop, jazz or modern music. Being the standard size Shakuhachi, the Hassun Kan is also the most popular and widely played.
1.9: Kyu Sun Kan – Being only a half step lower in pitch than the standard Hassun Kan and producing a fundamental note of a C-sharp above middle “C”, the Kyu Sun Kan provides a great testament to the power of the musical Golden Mean, because its tone quality is distinctively lower, darker and more somber than the standard instrument. Being more grave and somber, the Kyu Sun Kan is much loved for playing the Zen-inspired Honkyoku, no matter which school’s Honkyoku you are playing. The overall tone and character of the Kyu Sun Kan is definitely more grave and somber, but still, it is able to put out brilliant and piercing high notes almost as well as the standard instrument can. What a difference a mere half step makes!
2.0: Ni Shaku Kan – The Ni Shaku Kan is about two feet long, and produces a fundamental note of middle “C”. Since its length is longer, it is even more of a stretch for the fingers than the Kyu Sun Kan; it could be said that with the Ni Shaku Kan, the player first begins to notice the stretch of the fingers when playing it. In contrast to the Kyu Sun Kan, the overall tone quality of the Ni Shaku Kan tends to be more hollow and mellow, in addition to being low, dark and somber. The Ni Shaku Kan is mainly used to play the Zen inspired Honkyoku pieces, including the older Koten Honkyoku.
2.1 – 2.15: Ni Shaku Issun Kan – This is a very popular size of Shakuhachi, especially for playing the older Koten Honkyoku. In addition to getting more mellow and hollow sounding, the tone of the Ni Shaku Issun Kan can also get more rough and breathy. In terms of ergonomics, the 2.1 size is generally the lowest / longest size that many, if not most, players can play without having to use the middle joints of their fingers or have the holes staggered to fit their hands and fingers. A magnificent instrument indeed, full of power and gravitas. The fundamental note is the “B” below middle “C”.
Below the Ni Shaku Issun Kan, the overall tone tends to get much rougher and breathier, and there may also be rougher craftsmanship to match, as many of the super low pitched Shakuhachis can be ji nashi, or without putty or clay to finely sculpt the bore and refine the tone and texture of the sound. There was a well-known Buddhist monk and Shakuhachi player named Watazumi who used to go out into the bamboo grove and cut down fresh stalks of bamboo, to make them into Shakuhachi-style flutes that he called Hohchiku, or “Dharma Bamboo”, with absolutely no lacquer, sculpting or anything on the inside, save the roughly hollowed out nodes. And these Dharma Bamboo flutes were extremely long and low in pitch.


Flutist James Galway stars in this imaginative orchestral rendering of Haru no Umi.

Conclusion: A Cross-Cultural Flute Paradox
Take two different world flutes – the Japanese Shakuhachi and the Native American Style Love Flute. The basic morphological similarities between the two flutes are quite obvious and pronounced – they are both vertically blown, or end-blown, flutes, with the main difference between the two being that the Love Flute has an elaborate antechamber and sound production mechanism incorporated into it, whereas the Shakuhachi is simply an open pipe with an open blowing edge. The air column specifications between the two flutes are somewhat different as well: the Shakuhachi has a narrower bore that is tapered towards its bottom end, whereas the Love Flute has a wider bore in relation to its length, which is not tapered, but rather, cylindrical. Take the Love Flute in E, producing the “E” above middle “C” as its fundamental note, and playing an E Minor Pentatonic scale. Take the Shakuhachi in E, producing the exact same note as its fundamental, and playing the exact same E Minor Pentatonic scale as its basic scale.

Play the Love Flute in E – it will sound quite low and mellow. Now, play the Shakuhachi in E – it will sound distinctively high and bright. But yet, both flutes are playing the same exact pitches when they go up and down the scale in the bottom octave. What accounts for the mysterious difference between the two flutes? If you would like to venture an answer, I would be willing to hear what you have to say. Please write me at: davido@fourwindsflutes.com