Name. The shakuhachi is named after its length: In traditional Japanese units it is
1 shaku 8 (hachi) sun – 54.5 centimetres. These 1.8 flutes have a Western pitch of D, but other lengths are used as well,
most commonly ranging from 1.6 to 3.4.
Material. Traditionally, shakuhachi are made from thick-walled madake bamboo but other kinds of bamboo as well as wood or plastic are used for beginners' instruments. Most contemporary shakuhachi have Japanese lacquer (urushi) applied to the inside of the bamboo (ji-ari) although there is a renewed interest in flutes with natural linings (ji-nashi), which produce a softer, ‘more natural’ timbre.
Meditation tool. During the Edo period the Japanese government decreed that only mendicant Zen monks (komuso) were allowed to play shakuhachi. The komuso use the shakuhachi as a meditation or religious tool (hokki) rather than as a musical instrument (gakki).
Repertoire. Because the komuso monks held the monopoly for playing shakuhachi for such a long time, they established the core repertoire, called honkyoku (‘true’ or ‘original’ pieces). However, despite the komuso monopoly, shakuhachi has always been used for other musical genres like min'yo (Japanese folk music) or sankyoku (in combination with koto, shamisen and voice). Since the end of the komuso monopoly in the mid-19th century the shakuhachi has been used in all musical genres, ranging from shinkyoku (new pieces) to Pop, Jazz and Classic.
Technique. Because it has only 5 finger holes, the shakuhachi has a pentatonic scale, but through the meri–kari system (partial hole closing, head movements and subtle changes in embouchure), any frequency, including a chromatic 12-tone scale up to 3 octaves, can be produced.
Learning. Many different techniques and nuances are needed to play shakuhachi. These essential elements are neither notated nor can they be learnt without one-to-one instruction from a qualified teacher. While learning without guidance is possible up to a point, it is slow and difficult, leading to most students giving up quickly.