Dan Ryudo Ribble

The Other Side of the Pacific:
A Few Statistics and Observations on Shakuhachi Playing in Japan and in Kochi Prefecture

In this article, I’d like to look at some fairly recent statistics on the number of shakuhachi players in Japan and also provide a few details about shakuhachi playing in Kochi prefecture, one of the four prefectures on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. There was some interesting demographic information on the Japanese bamboo flute provided in an article entitled “Shakuhachi No Ima” (The Shakuhachi Now), in volume184 (May 2002) of Hogaku Journal, a Japanese language journal dedicated to Japanese traditional music. In this article, by Ohashi Taizan, the owner of Hoseido, a traditional Japanese music shop in Tokyo, the total number of shakuhachi players in Japan was estimated as being about 40,000; the number listed as playing Japanese traditional classical music (koten) was given as 28,000, and the number of Minyo (folk music) shakuhachi players was estimated as 16,000. In the breakdown of shakuhachi players registered as koten players, the number of Tozan players in Japan was estimated to be about 14,000, the number of Kinko players as about 6,000, and the number of players from other shakuhachi guilds (for example, Chikuho, Ueda, or Meian) at about 2000. These numbers were contrasted with the estimates of the numbers of shakuhachi players from ten years earlier, in 1992, when the total number of players registered with the various guilds was estimated at 60,000, with a breakdown of 28,000 koten players (17,000 Tozan and 8,000 Kinko) and 32.000
Minyo players.

Shakuhachi Players in Japan in 1992
Tozan: 17,000
Kinko: 8,000
Minyo: 32,000

Shakuhachi Players in Japan in 2002
Tozan: 14,000
Kinko: 6,000
Minyo: 16,000
Other: 2,000

The article also included statistics concerning the number of players who had taken shoden, or the beginning rank, in shakuhachi in the year 2002 (a level which could perhaps be compared with the shodan, or first degree black belt rank in the martial arts, which one usually tests for in Japan after a year or two of consistent training);the shoden rank in some branches of Kinko may be awarded after the student demonstrates the ability to play a certain repertoire of gaikyoku pieces. The number of those listed as having taken shoden rank in the Tozan ryu in 2002 was 227. This was contrasted to the 2500 Tozan players who were given shoden in 1935, cited as the year when the Tozan guild was at its peak.. About seventy percent of shoden takers were said to go on to at least the jun shihan rank, the first license permitting one to teach shakuhachi (and which may take up to about six years to achieve).

Tozan Players in Japan in 2002 who took shoden: 227
Shoden takers in 1935: 2500

Shakuhachi Players in Japan in 2002 with a shihan (master’s) license: 5700

In 2002, 5700 shakuhachi players in Japan were listed as holding the shihan or master’s rank. This list included players in the main Tozan group and in smaller organizations such as Tozan Gakkai, and Shin Tozan, as well as players from the Kinko and other shakuhachi guilds. According to the author, under the Kinko banner there are maybe seventy, eighty, or even a hundred separate groups, some of which may have less than ten members . Many foreign players of shakuhachi may know of the guild Chikuyusha, headed by Kawase Junsuke, or Chikumeisha, which was formerly headed by National Living Treasure Yamaguchi Goro, or perhaps have even heard of Domon Kai, but how many are familiar with branches of Kinko such as Seiyusha, Muraji, Kozan, Yozan, Bifukai, Ikoma, Kimpu, Seizan, Kikusui, Shofu, or Shikishima?
Ten years ago there were about 60,000 shakuhachi players registered with various ryuha; today the number is only about 40,000, down by a third in just a decade. According to the author, the last ten years were lean years for fulltime shakuhachi teachers in Japan, as it was difficult for them to recruit enough students to be able to support themselves financially, and he predicts the next decade will be even harder for those people trying to make a living teaching shakuhachi in Japan as teachers are getting older, learners of shakuhachi are fewer, and one area of music, that of minyo, or Japanese folk music, has suffered a radical drop in the number of players, down by almost half in the last decade. But even as the writer notes that some people in the shakuhachi world tend to have a pessimistic outlook in regard to the instrument’s future in Japan, he states that there are a number of reasons for optimism, noting that from the year 2002, students in Japanese elementary and junior high schools have been required to have at least a minimal exposure to Japanese traditional music, and that students in most public schools are now participating in at least a few classes of Japanese hogaku before graduation. Also, according to Ohashi, there are many more proficient teachers of shakuhachi than there were just a generation ago, and many of them teach at community centers and other venues throughout Japan (sometimes without charging fees, he states). He says that Japanese people in general have more free time to pursue a hobby or interest than in the past, and this will hopefully lead to an increase in the number of people taking up traditional music. Another important reason for optimism in regard to the future of shakuhachi is that in what was formerly considered as a man’s activity, the number of woman players has increased tenfold. As an example, he notes that now more than ten percent of shoden ranked players in the Tozan ryu are women. And lastly, he mentions the significant increase in the number of foreign players of the instrument over the last few decades.

Shakuhachi Players in Shikoku

Here in Shikoku, the majority of Kinko players are members of Junsuke Kawase’s Chikuyusha, but we have several players from the above listed Bifukai here in Kochi City, and people who have studied with other branches such as the Araki lineage. The Kinko group I belong to, Chikudosha, is a fairly large group in Japan, with perhaps about 300 active members in the country. It is based mostly in the Kanto (Tokyo) area but has one branch here in Shikoku in Kochi Prefecture, with a local membership of about ten players, ranging in age from 22 to 78. Chikudosha is a branch of the Notomi Judo lineage and the two leading players in the guild are professional shakuhachi players living in Tokyo and Yokohama. Fuji Jidou, the head of the guild, is a maker of shakuhachi as well as being a teacher and performer.

In Kochi prefecture, the main body of shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto players are members of the Kochi Sankyoku Kyokai (the prefectural organization of koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi players) which has a little over a hundred members, perhaps a little more than a third of whom are shakuhachi players. Just a decade ago there were about three hundred members in Kochi prefecture’s Sankyoku Kyokai so the number of players appears to have dropped by a third and even though some elderly members may have passed on or stopped playing, the drop does not show necessarily show a large decline in players as a number of members have split off from the official group and continue to play and hold concerts separate from the prefectural group.

To be a member of the prefectural organization one must already have at minimum a junshihan license granted by a recognized guild so there are some players who are members of a shakuhachi guild but who have not achieved the junshihan rank, or those who have gone through the ranks but are not interested in taking the license or cannot afford to pay the exorbitant license fees, as well as those who would rather learn the instrument outside the guild system (college students, for example), which like organizations for other traditional art forms in Japan such as ikebana and sado (flower arrangement and tea ceremony), is expensive, with license fees and other costs -- such as fees required to play in formal concerts at rented halls (which can vary depending on the number of pieces played and the number of players performing a piece), in addition to the monthly lesson fees. Officially there are 52 licensed Tozan players in Kochi prefecture and probably less than half that number of licensed Kinko players. There are several koto players in Kochi who have large numbers of students and make a living through teaching koto and shamisen, but there are no professional shakuhachi players currently residing in the prefecture.

Looking in more detail at our local shakuhachi group, Kochi’s branch of Chikudosha, the shakuhachi master, Ikezoe Kyodo, teaches lessons two evenings a week – students can attend both evenings if they wish; the sensei is available for lessons from about 6:00 in the evening to about 11:00 p.m. Students who arrive first generally take their lessons first. Some students play their one piece with the sensei and then leave while others sit quietly and drink tea while watching the other students practice, talking with the sensei and other students during the breaks between pieces. Shihan Ikezoe Kyodo has been playing the shakuhachi for about thirty years, since his early twenties, and only teaches the koten pieces, both gaikyoku and honkyoku. During their lessons, students sit in seiza (kneeling position) facing the sensei across a small table, where the music notation for the piece the student is learning is placed; the sensei reads the student’s music notation upside down (no small feat!). Ikezoe Kyodo studied the shakuhachi several years in Hokkaido, and then some years in the Kanto area with Fuji Judo and Suzuki Shodo, both of whom had been students of National Living Treasure, Notomi Judo before receiving his master’s license and starting up a branch of the Chikudosha guild in Kochi. Students pay minimal fees for the shakuhachi lessons, just paying for the tea, as the sensei works full time as a komuin, or government employee.

The membership in our local shakuhachi group has fluctuated between about six and ten players over the last seventeen years. We’ve had a total of seven foreign players over those years, from the U.S.A, Canada, and Romania. Currently there are two of us here from the United States. Our local group has one yearly recital in December with koto and shamisen players --this past year was our 16th-- and at times members from our local Chikudosha branch join other shakuhachi, shamisen, and koto players for events, especially in the spring and fall, including the bi-annual prefectural Japanese traditional music concerts.

We recently had our yearly spring concert of the Sankyoku Kyokai on May 15th of this year, in the smaller of the two prefectural halls, which seats 500, which was packed to full capacity this year and featured special shakuhachi guest Christopher Yohmei Blasdel along with professional koto players Erina Matsumura and Curtis Patterson, all down from the Tokyo area. Various local groups joined this concert and the local players got to showcase their talents in pieces they had been working on since the beginning of the year In recent years past, other well known Japanese shakuhachi players such as Fujiwara Dozan, Kawamura Taizan, and Nakamura Akikazu have guested in the spring concerts here.

There seems to be a slight upswing in the number of young players of college age over the last couple of years here in this prefecture. Three colleges in the prefecture have Japanese traditional music clubs, and several students at my university have also expressed an interest in trying to get a club going. At one of the college clubs, that of Kochi University, women students predominate, though the number of student players of shakuhachi in the prefecture is probably less than twenty. Despite the increase of woman players in general, the Kochi Sankyoku Kyokai, or official prefectural organization for traditional Japanese music as yet has no female shakuhachi players (there are a few male players of koto in the prefecture, predominantly children). Tozan and Kinko players often play separately at the prefectural events, but sometimes play on stage together when accompanying shamisen and koto at traditional music concerts and Tozan players, performers from several Kinko branches, and many shamisen and koto players all joined with shakuhachi soloist Christopher Yohmei Blasdel and the two special koto guests from Tokyo for a rousing rendition of the local minyo piece Yosakoi Bushi at the end of the prefectural traditional Japanese music organization’s annual spring concert in May of this year.

Taizan, Ohashi, 2002, Shakuhachi No Ima,” Hogaku Journal, Volume 184, 2002, pp. 35-37.

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