The Historical Background of the Shakuhachi & Honkyoku
The following excerpt, from Riley’s M.A. Thesis (“Blowing Zen: Aspects of Performance Practices of the Chikuho Ryu Honkyoku”, University of Hawai’i 1986), describes the history of the Chikuho lineage.

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The Chikuho Ryû
Chikuho Ryû was founded in Taishô 6 (1917). In order to understand the events leading to the founding of this ryû, Kamisangô provides in his article the following discussion of the circumstances of the gaikyoku from the Meiji to the Taishô era. The shakuhachi music parts of pieces originally for shamisen and/or koto were not newly composed, but rather created by transcribing the existing pieces. The majority of the shakuhachi transcriptions of gaikyoku followed the string parts , almost exactly. It was acceptable for the shakuhachi player to memorize the melody of the jiuta or sôkyoku and then play the same part. The important thing was to memorize the pieces. As there was no standardized notation such as western staff notation, the shakuhachi player had to learn the pieces from the performances of a koto or sangen player. After a number of pieces had been transcribed, one could then teach the pieces to other shakuhachi players.

According to Kamisangô, these transcriptions appear simple by today’s standards. However, as the general level of musical technique then was relatively low, the transcriptions were considered difficult at the time. It was enough just to be able to perform the gaikyoku with the koto or sangen. Kondô Sôetsu (近藤宗悦 see previous section) made the koto player Furukawa Ryûsai (古川滝斎) his successor, probably because of his familiarity with the gaikyoku pieces rather than his shakuhachi p1aying abilities. The koto player Miyagi Michio also is reported to have supported himself when he was young by teaching the shakuhachi. If one was able to transcribe the gaikyoku by oneself, one was not only able to become an independent teacher, but could organize one’s ryû as well. Nakao Tozan did just that, without having studied with any particular ryû. Such was also the case with Fujita Matsuchô (藤田松調), who founded his own Matsuchô Ryû. The creation of Chikuho Ryû was also possible because of these circumstances.

On the other hand, having begun a new ryû, it was possible that the ryû would cease after only one generation unless one had the capacity to attract and keep students. In order to insure that his ryû outlasted himself, the ryûso (流祖) or soke (祖家; head of the ryû) needed first of all, to create something which could not be surpassed by his students, and/or secondly, to be technically better than any of his students. Though Kinko Ryû was not founded in this era, it faced the same problem. Its thirty-six honkyoku acted as the “unsurpassable something”, keeping the ryû from failing. Nakao Tozan’s own compositions, which he called “honkyoku,” had a similar function for Tozan Ryû. Nakao Tozan was also active in the shinkyoku movement (新曲, “new music”). In other words, the founder of Tozan Ryû took the lead in producing and performing new pieces and had the resulting organizational success. How Chikuho Ryû managed is the topic of the following discussion, based upon Kamisango’s article, the official Chikuho Ryû history found in the Chikuho Ryû Shakuhachi no Tebiki (竹保流尺八手引; Chikuho Ryû Beginner’s Manual), an article by Tukitani (1977:23-28), and personal communications with Chikuho I, his two sons, and other members of Chikuho Ryû between 1971 and 1985.

The founder of the Ryû, Sakai Chikuho I was born in Osaka on October 15, 1892 (Meiji 25). Given the name Seibi (政美) at birth, he was the eldest son of Sakai Seijiro (酒井政次郎), who worked in the textile business. He grew up in the Tenjinbashi area, where the present Osaka Postal Bureau is located. As was the case of Nakao Tozan, he was greatly influenced from an early age by his mother, who frequently played the koto and the shamisen. He began playing the shakuhachi at age thirteen, participating in jiuta ensembles in the neighborhood.

Chikuho Ryû founder Chikuho Sakai I (1892-1984), with Riley Lee in 1980.

Chikuho I - daishihan reduced







In Meiji 43 (1910), he became a student of Fujita Matsuchô. Matsuchô was a Sôetsu Ryû player. He was a koto player and also taught the violin. He founded the Matsuchô Ryû, teaching gaikyoku. Chikuho received his shihan license in only one year, due to either the limited number of pieces Matsuchô knew or Chikuho’s skill as a shakuhachi player, or both. He was given the name Shôdô (松道) and began teaching shakuhachi under Matsuchô Ryû. He began shakuhachi lessons with Uemura Setsuo (上村雪翁, the highest ranking member of the Sôetsu Ryû), and Zenpo Kofu (善法香風) in Taishô 5 (1916). He learned approximately ten honkyoku of the Sôetsu Ryû, including such pieces as “Tsuru no Sugomori (鶴の巣籠, “The Nesting of the Crane”).

In the same year, misunderstandings developed between Sakai and his teacher, Matsuchô. According to Chikuho’s biography in the Chikuho Ryû Shakuhachi Tebiki, the initial factor for the misunderstanding was Chikuho having transcribed a newly composed sokyoku piece, Mizuho no Sakae (瑞穂の栄)after hearing it on the radio, Without, his teacher’s permission. Matsuchô apparently did not react favorably when presented with Chikuho’s handiwork. “After which, a deep chasm developed between them, as a result of a variety of miscrossed paths” (Chikuho Ryû:1971:5).

A prominent figure in the sokyoku world, Nakahira Fuku no To Daikengyô (中平福の都大検校), acted as mediator between teacher and student, but to no avail. Chikuho finally left Matsuchô Ryû, and became independent with the help of his younger brother, Seiho (正保). On February 20, in the year Taishô 6, (1917) he took the name Chikuho and founded Chikuho Ryû.

In order to avoid complaints of copyright infringement by his former teacher, it was imperative that Chikuho re-notate his music with a new system. The new notation system he devised was an attempt to synthesize the notation of the Meian lineages with the notation of more modern schools such as Tozan Ryû. The rhythmical markings became more precise than those of the Meian school, in part because of Chikuho’s interest in playing the shakuhachi with the violin and other western instruments.

At this point, however, Chikuho Ryû was in many respects a sub-sect or derivative of Sôetsu Ryû. Soon afterwards, he began studying with Minamoto Unkai (源雲界), a student of Katsuura Seizan (勝浦正山; 1856-1942). Chikuho learned over ten Meian Shinpô honkyoku from Unkai. However, with Unkai’s introduction, he began studying directly with Katsuura. Between Taishô 8 to Taishô 10 (1920-1922), he learned fifty to sixty honkyoku of the Meian lineage from Seizan including the hikyoku (秘曲, secret pieces) known as “Sankyorei” (三虚鈴). Chikuho incorporated these pieces into the repertoire of his own ryû. Consequently, Chikuho Ryû became part of the lineage of Katsuura’s Shinpô Ryû with its typically Meian style.

During this period, Chikuho also composed new pieces. Early in his career, he became connected with the shinkyoku movement of the Kansai area. Beginning with Miyagi Michio’s pieces, Chikuho quickly included shinkyoku into his repertoire, expanding the domain of his ryû. One of Chikuho’s most memorable experiences involved the first experimental radio broadcast in Osaka. His description of the event gives an interesting glimpse of the music that was popular at the time, as well as the excitement in the community caused by the advent of radio broadcasting.

“‘Radio’ broadcasting in Osaka began on January 26, in the 13th year of the Taishô era (1924). At that time, there was a week-long celebration of the marriage of the prince, the present Emperor. All of the people were excited by this event. Radio was not called radio at that time, but rather ‘musen denwa’ (wireless telephone). The first experimental broadcasting in Osaka was sponsored by the Asahi Newspaper Agency and lasted one week, from January 26 to February 4. It was a brilliant success. I performed on that first broadcast with my younger brother, Seiho. We performed at the Osaka Koto Kogyo Gakko (Osaka Engineering High School), the present-day Osaka University, Department of Engineering, in Sakuranomiya. The same performance was given at the hall of the Main Building of the Asahi Newspaper, before a specially invited audience. The performers in the program, besides myself and my younger brother Seiho, were Miyagawa Shôansho, a performer of rôkyoku, also called naniwa bushi; Takamine Taeko, a Takarazuka singer, accompanied by a chorus from the Takarazuka Girls’ Musical Troupe; Gondô Enryû, a tenor who sang min’yô (Japanese folksongs); and Yamagata Juichi, who played the harmonica.

The performance was repeated for three days before the invitation only audience in the Asahi Newspaper Hall. For the rest of the four days of the celebration, a [radio] receiver was set on a car, which was driven to intersections throughout the city of Osaka. The sound [of our performances] was amplified so that the common people could listen to it. On March 22, Taishô 14 (1925), the Tôkyô Hôsô Kyoku [Tokyo Broadcasting Company] was founded and was later renamed the Nippon Hôsô Kyôkai [NHK]. On November 30, Taishô 15 (1926), Osaka Hôsô Kyoku started its broadcasting from the roof of the Mitsukoshi Department in Koraibashi, Osaka. After that, broadcasting stations were established in Hiroshima, Okayarna, and other places. At the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast, I was presented with a letter of appreciation and a gift from the head office of the NHK in Tokyo.

I have performed 154 times for radio broadcast. After the first time on the ‘musen denwa’, I often performed three or four times a month. When Hiroshima and Okayama stations were opened, I was invited to perform live for the opening ceremonies. Of course, at that time, everything was performed live.”  [Sakai Chikuho I 1980]

Chikuho I composed at least twenty-nine works, ranging from solo shakuhachi pieces, to piano and shakuhachi duets, to shakuhachi quartets with Japanese and western instrument accompaniment. On February 21, 1929, he published the first edition of Chikuho Ryû Shakuhachi Gaku (竹保流尺八楽; Chikuho Ryû Shakuhachi Music), a biannual newsletter. Newsletters in the 1970s and 1980s averaged fifteen to twenty pages in length. They report news about people and events concerning the ryû and information on pieces in the repertoire. Issue number 103 was published in 1985.

Chikuho I retired in Showa 42 (1967) and took the name Chikuô (竹翁). His elder son, Chikudô (竹道; b. 1933) became Chikuho II. Chikuho II actively disseminated the repertoire handed down by his father, leaning primarily in the direction of the Fuke Shû koten honkyoku. He also incorporated honkyoku playing techniques of other ryûha, a practice common among the performers of the Meiji era. Like his father, he has been active in performing modern compositions. His talent was acknowledged by shakuhachi players throughout Japan after his performances of Chikurai Go Sho (竹籟五章; Five Pieces for Shakuhachi), between 1964 and 1969. This piece, composed by Moroi Makoto (諸井誠) in close collaboration with Chikuho II in 1964, is considered by many to be one of the greatest modern compositions for solo shakuhachi. In October, 1967, Chikuho II received the Music Critics Club Award and the Osaka Cultural Award for his performance of Chikurai Go Sho.

Photo of Chikuho Sakai II (1933-1992) ca. 1988










Throughout the 1970s, Chikuho II continued his father’s work with recitals, radio and television appearances, and LP recordings. In a fashion similar to the relationship between his father and his uncle, Chikuho II relied on the help of his younger brother, Shôdô (松道), in managing the ryû. The two brothers frequently performed together, also recording a number of LP recordings together. However, Shôdô inevitably played the lesser part in any undertaking with his brother.

Despite the efforts of Chikuho I and his son, Chikuho II, the ryû remained relatively small, especially compared to Tozan Ryû. A recital celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the sect was held on September 15, 1981. The program listed under the finale of the evening, all active members holding any rank, even those who would obviously not be attending. The names of one hundred and fifty-six shakuhachi players were listed, who were accompanied by seventy-five koto players. This is a small number for an entire sect, if not for a single stage.

During Chikuho II’s most active period, between 1964 and 1977, it seemed that the Ryû was possibly on its way to becoming a truly national organization. In 1973, a high ranking teacher of Tozan Ryû in Shikoku defected to Chikuho Ryû, bringing with him over twenty of his own students, and eventually forming new Chikuho Ryû branch in Shikoku. Other less spectacular defections by experienced shakuhachi players occurred regularly. Players came to Chikuho II primarily from Tozan Ryû in order to learn the honkyoku of the komusô, which their former sect did not have in its repertoire.

However, the growth of the sect faltered after 1981, due in part to a recurring illness of Chikuho II. He gradually stopped performing and teaching. His father, Chikuo once again took over the administrative duties of the sect, with the help of a board of regents. many of the ryû related activities ceased and the expansion of the ryû experienced during the 197Os halted.

In 1985, repeating a pattern seen throughout the history of traditional Japanese music, Chikuho Ryû split into two factions following the death of its founder. One faction retained the original name and legal rights of the ryû under the new leadership of Shôdô, the younger brother of Chikuho II. The second faction consisted of some of Chikuho I and Chikuho II’s most active members, including almost everyone who lived in the Osaka area, traditionally the center of Chikuho Ryû activity. This group took the name “Meian Shakuhachi Do Yu Kai (明暗尺八道有会; The Friends of the Way of the Meian Shakuhachi), and immediately began legitimizing their status as an independent shakuhachi sect.

The small sect could ill afford this internal fragmentation. As with any dispute, there are conflicting explanations of the events leading to the split. Because it was not possible to question Sakai Shôdô, the new iemoto or organizational head of Chikuho Ryû, about the dispute directly, the following description is not completely without bias. It represents the facts available to the dissenting members of the original Chikuho Ryû and their opinions.

In October, 1984 Chikuho I died at the age of ninety-one years and eleven months. In the spring of 1985, all licensed teachers of Chikuho Ryû received a mailed packet from Chikuho II’s younger brother, Shôdô. The packet contained three items. The first was a formal letter from Shôdô expressing the Sakai family’s gratitude to all of the members of the ryû for the attention given to the elder Chikuho during his last days in this world, and the sympathy extended to the family during the days following his departure. It also claimed that one of the last wishes of his father was for Shôdô to become the third iemoto of Chikuho Ryû. It went on to describe that this wish was expressed by Chikuho I from his deathbed and witnessed by his elder son, Chikuho II. The letter concluded that Shôdô hoped that the members of Chikuho Ryû would continue to work together in making the sect a strong one.

The second item of the packet was a printed card from Chikuho II with a terse statement stating that he concurred with the information in Shôdô’s letter and that the members of the sect should acquiesce to Shôdô’s authority. The third item was a form to be filled out by all licensed teachers of Chikuho Ryû with detailed instructions. Information required included the name, address, dates of certification, etc., of the teacher, as updating the records of the sect. The instructions concluded by stating that those who did not return a completed form to Shôdô by April 15, 1985 would no longer be considered accredited by Chikuho Ryû; their names and the names of their students publicly expelled (反流; hanryû) from the membership roles of the sect.

Approximately fifty members of Chikuho Ryû, including most of the living original students of Chikuho I, refused to comply with this directive. Doing so would have meant public acquiescence to Shôdô’s claim to authority as Chikuho Ryû’s new iemoto. In the autumn of 1985, official notice was given that those having not yet returned the completed forms were no longer members of Chikuho Ryû. At the same time, the expelled members created a new sect, the “Meian Shakuhachi Do Yu Kai.”

The senior ranking teachers of Chikuho Ryû did not choose to affiliate themselves with Shôdô because they felt that he had not adhered to the proper protocol in assuming the role of iemoto. He apparently did not advise or seek the advice of the board of regents in the matter. The question of propriety was further complicated by Shôdô’s having renounced Chikuho Ryû over five years earlier, voluntarily isolating himself and his students from the sect, until after his father’s death in 1984. The defecting members admit that Shôdô does have a claim to the iemoto title as the younger brother to Chikuho II, assuming that Chikuho II has agreed to relinquishing his authority. It is therefore not the legitimacy of Shôdô’s claim that is questioned by the senior members of Chikuho Ryû, but rather actions of his prior to his father’s death, and the manner in which he asserted his claim.

Chikuho Ryû, with its varied repertoire, including honkyoku, has always remained small and is facing a serious decline today. This fact is all the more ironic to those who appreciate the Zen-inspired “main pieces” of the komusô, that Tozan Ryû, with a repertoire containing not one classical honkyoku of the Fuke Shu era, is the largest shakuhachi sect in Japan today. However, Tozan Ryû has also experienced factionalization in recent years, due to questions of succession after the death of the iemoto. Today, there are in fact three ryû derived from the original Tozan Ryû. However, even the smallest of these enjoys a membership approaching 2000 licensed teachers (Kono OC1985). The size and quality of the repertoire of a ryû is not necessarily related to the size and health of the organization itself.


In the new century, Chikuho Ryû has experienced somewhat of a revival through the continuing efforts of the lineage’s third iemoto, Shôdô Sakai. Shôdô has re-issued much of the lineage’s repertoire, and added pieces that had not been included previously. He has attended all of the World Shakuhachi Festivals since 1998 as an invited performer, and has also taught at shakuhachi intensive retreats in Europe.

Photo of Shôdô Sakai ca. 1988