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Shakuhachi

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A shakuhachi (right), compared with a hitoyogiri (left), on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Japanese: 尺八 (shakuhachi)

The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute, likely the most common traditional wind instrument seen in Japan today. Its name derives from the flute being typically one shaku and eight sun in length (see Japanese measurements).

It developed out of the hitoyogiri, an older form of flute which disappeared in the 19th century, superceded by the shakuhachi. Like the shakuhachi, the hitoyogiri was held vertically, and had four finger holes plus a thumb hole, with a mouth hole formed by a simple outward cut at the rim.

The shakuhachi began to take form during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (c. 1573-1600), and solidified into its current form over the course of the Edo period (1600-1868). During that period, it came to be closely associated with komusô, monks in basket-like straw hats, many of whom served as spies for the samurai authorities. They altered the instrument somewhat, making it thicker, longer, and slightly curved at one end, so it might be used as a weapon.

The shakuhachi can be both a solo instrument or an accompanying instrument, and by the 20th century replaced the fiddle-like kokyû in the traditional sankyoku trio, accompanying koto and shamisen.

References

  • Gallery labels, Musical Instruments gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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