New Horizons

Women and the Shakuhachi

Martha Fabrique, Associate Professor of Music, Our Lady of the Lake University [About | Email]

Volume 12, Issue 2 (Article 9 in 2012). First published in ejcjs on 26 October 2012.


In this paper I examine the social construct of gender as manifested in traditional Japanese music, through the lens of contemporary shakuhachi (bamboo flute) performance, teaching and creative work done by Japanese women. Historical concepts of gender, in which representative male or female characteristics are extended to musical performance, are investigated to uncover processes of change in performance contexts. The six Japanese women informants in this study live and work primarily in Japan. Data gathered via questionnaire from American, European and Australian women shakuhachi players is employed for the purpose of comparison with the experience of Japanese women players. The assertion of my paper is that Japanese women shakuhachi players are negotiating a new musical identity which reinforces their more independent role in Japanese society. As part of this process, a new aesthetic is emerging in both their musical approach to playing the shakuhachi as well as in their performance style on stage that shows innovation by women in a male-dominated sphere of Japanese traditional music.

Keywords: shakuhachi, gender, komusō, ryū, hōgaku, ryosai kenbo.


In this paper I examine the social construct of gender as manifested in traditional Japanese music, through the lens of contemporary shakuhachi (bamboo flute) performance, teaching and creative work done by Japanese women. Historical concepts of gender, in which representative masculine or feminine characteristics are extended to musical performance, are investigated to uncover processes of change in these contexts. The six Japanese women informants in this study live and work primarily in Japan. Data gathered via questionnaire from American, European and Australian women shakuhachi players is employed for the purpose of comparison with the experience of Japanese women players.

The assertion of my paper is that Japanese women shakuhachi players are negotiating a new musical identity, which reinforces their more independent role in Japanese society. As part of this process, a new aesthetic is emerging in both their musical approach to playing the shakuhachi as well as in their performance style on stage, that shows innovation by women in a male-dominated sphere of Japanese traditional music. A similar process is described by Waxer concerning all-women salsa bands in Colombia, who have negotiated and changed cultural standards about women as public musicians and entertainers in a positive sense (2001). More specifically, the formation of all-female bands emerged in the wake of larger societal changes in which women received greater educational opportunities and, as a result, asserted more economic independence in Colombia (2001: 223-4). Musically, the only significantly identifiable difference in the all-female bands from traditional male bands is that of vocal range, yet, many aspects of women’s performance style (repertoire, performance and public image) are unique. As a socio-musical phenomenon, the all-women bands have contributed to a new notion of “woman” in Colombian society more than they have created a “Colombian women’s music” and have commercially entered a male domain without threatening the established male social order (2001: 232-3, 253). This study will help to illustrate the struggle that Japanese women experience while operating in a traditionally male musical domain, identify new musical aesthetics that they are bringing to the tradition, and show that societal and musical roles inform and reinforce each other to create greater freedom and involvement in musical pursuits previously unavailable to women.

For the purposes of placing myself within the continuum of a shakuhachi insider or outsider, the following suggested definition from Lee proves useful:

An ‘insider’ is one who meets three criteria: 1) actively participates in the tradition and has a significant role in shaping the way the tradition is transmitted, and; 2) has gained some kind of recognition of doing so within the tradition, and finally; 3) identifies him or herself with the tradition as an ‘insider’. (1993)

In a footnote, Lee states that though his thesis is written in as non-sexist language as possible, the shakuhachi tradition in Japan is almost totally a male domain, due to historical and social determinants. These determinants do not necessarily operate outside of Japan, however. Taking the above into consideration, I place myself as an ‘insider’ to the shakuhachi tradition, though I am twice removed from it by culture and gender.

My role as a performer and scholar of the shakuhachi started in the university setting some 25 years ago, wherein it was possible to explore the instrument independently from its traditional context. This stands in stark contrast to the historical precedent during which only male priests of Zen Buddhism (komusō) were officially allowed to play the instrument. In the early Edo period (1615 – 1868), mendicant Zen monks (komoso) who played a flute called the hityogiri were gradually supplanted by the ‘Priests of Emptiness and Nothingness’ (komusō) consisting largely of master-less samurai or rōnin, survivors of the fierce clan struggles of the late sixteenth century who had been divested of their rank and privileges. They played the shakuhachi exclusively and were responsible for changes to it including a larger root end (Malm 1959; Weisgarber 1968; Blasdel 1988).

With the advent of new schools of playing in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and through dispersion of the instrument and its music to various parts of the world in the last fifty years, non-Japanese men and women have become shakuhachi players and artists. I began playing in the early 1980s. Being a cultural outsider and female, yet versed in the honkyoku (Buddhist contemplative) and sankyoku (chamber music) repertoires of the instrument, I spent many years negotiating my relationship to the instrument. As I attained higher levels of maturity and understanding as a performer, my sense of authenticity grew. I became more at ease in being bi-musical, both as a Western classical flutist as well as a performer and scholar of shakuhachi. At the 2004 World shakuhachi Festival in New York City which featured women master players in a festival context, I met other women players who had established their own performance styles, compositions and philosophies of playing. My curiosity about the musical lives of Japanese women shakuhachi players was thus sparked, and this research commenced.

Scholarship on Japanese Gender Roles

Some historical and theoretical background on the study of gender in Japan is given here to provide context and support for the discussion of gender issues specific to traditional music studied in this paper. As of 2005, Frühstück stated that a vast number and variety of Japanese women’s studies exist ranging from those that focus on a life cycle approach or analyses of the lives of housewives and employed women, to studies of those with more unusual lives, such as geisha. She highlights Karen Kelsky’s book, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, in which a new sense of internationalism is used by some Japanese women to shift their loyalties from a Japan perceived as backward and oppressive, to a more liberating foreign realm (2005: 173). According to Frühstück,

… anthropologists of Japan during the past 20 years or so have established the notion that sexual and gender identities are interconnected in rather complicated ways, are constantly negotiated, and are much more malleable than their predecessors had dared to think. (174)

She goes on to state that the study of women has been spurred by the 1996 government-sponsored Council for Gender Equality which announced that in the 21st century equality between men and women has become accepted as a universal value (174). Authors such as Osawa Mari, Ueno Chizuko, and Ehara Yumiko have laid the groundwork for publications that focus on gender inequality in multiple spheres of daily life. In her review of anthropological writing on Japanese women, Tamanoi supports research that suggests that Japanese women’s role in the workplace was originally forged in the 19th century state sponsored ideology of “good wife, wise mother” (ryosai kenbo) and continues to operate today, in which the ideal of womanhood centers around the bearing and raising of children and domestic activities. The variety of labor laws that have been enacted since have in effect served to protect the status of women as wives and mothers in the workplace, thus ensuring that their obligations at home would continue to be carried out (1990: 26-28). Tamanoi states that,

An increasing number of scholars, however, focus on women's resistance to this dominant ideology of ryosai kenbo. Such resistance should be understood not as a stimulant to profound social change but as significant social action capable of communicating rejection of the dominant gender ideology. (1990: 26-7)

Among the several cited methods of resistance that Japanese women use in everyday to subvert the pervasive gender ideology, Tamanoi relates that Japanese women are more likely to resort to legal actions to resist discrimination in the workplace because they have inferior status, have no “go-between” in the workplace to negotiate for them, and possibly also because they are outside the seniority system and lifetime employment status of male workers (27). Middle aged and older women who have “finished” their roles as child-bearers and mothers, resist the discourse that they are no longer useful by seeking outside jobs and hobbies, as well as asserting their continuing importance as wives and mothers in the household (28). These studies show the prolonged conflict that Japanese women have in negotiating their everyday lives between the home and workplace and how they both conform to and subvert the dominant gender ideology described above.

Scholarship on Traditional Japanese Music and Gender

As might be expected, gender has played a significant role in the performance of music that is hundreds of years old. Within the larger societal context described above, specific inequalities within the performance world of traditional Japanese music have existed historically that are changing somewhat today. According to Oshio there is wide participation by Japanese women in Western musical instruments and styles that is counter-balanced by their very limited participation in the traditional music and arts. For example, in regard to nagauta (‘long song’), a type of shamisen (3-stringed lute) music that accompanies the kabuki theater (Malm 1959), Oshio states that,

… when theatrical music such as nagauta is played outside the theater as ‘absolute’ music, female musicians can be seen onstage though generally in segregated ensembles. (2002: 765).

Additionally, Oshio asserts that women shamisen players follow male aesthetic standards when performing certain types of nagauta repertoire, are restricted to playing certain types of repertoire only, as well as being restricted from expressing their femininity through the music. The latter is due to the fact that male performance aesthetics are expected for all performances regardless of gender, and no female interpretation has been allowed or developed in this musical style. I will discuss a similar set of expectations found in Japanese female shakuhachi playing and repertoire. In terms of transmission, female teachers can have an important role in regard to the shamisen. One traditional instrument in which women predominate as teachers and players is the koto (a 13-stringed zither), due to the emphasis on the player’s instrumental ability rather than vocal range (Oshio 2002). However, women who aspire to be amateur players of shakuhachi in Japan today have a difficult time in even finding a professional teacher to take them on (Ashgate 2007).

This study will illustrate a process through which new musical identities and roles are being formed as a product of both reinforcement and resistance to traditional gender roles imposed by society at large, as well as by gender roles specific to the shakuhachi tradition.

Research Methods

This study is based on personal interviews and questionnaire responses from representative Japanese, American, European and Australian performers, teachers, and composers (female and male). The interviews with Japanese women players were conducted via translator (ITO Miho) in Tokyo, and IWAMOTO Michiko’s interview was conducted in English. All subsequent questionnaire responses were conducted in English. In all cases, areas addressed included musical training and education, women’s perspective on honkyoku (solo, Buddhist contemplative repertoire) playing, public performance, stage presentation, performance styles and goals, teaching, composition and creative contributions.

Education and Training

The six Japanese women informants in this study began playing the shakuhachi from as young as elementary school age (i.e., as the daughter of a shakuhachi iemoto (house or ‘school head’), to adult age university hōgaku (traditional music) clubs. They are members of various ryū (schools), mainly Kinko and Tozan lineages with varying degrees of licensure, as well as university graduates. All are actively involved performers, teachers and/or composers in their areas of residence in Japan, and some tour internationally. An iemoto is a ‘house’ or ‘school head’ system used for maintaining strict musical training in the traditional performing arts of Japan. At the top of the pyramid is the master or accomplished individual performer, below him are students who have their own students, who support the upper levels by paying tuition (Fujita 2002). The Kinko ryū shakuhachi school was founded by Kinko Kurosawa (1710-1770) who collected and organized widely dispersed Fuke pieces, notated and arranged them. The Tozan ryū shakuhachi school was founded by Tozan Nakao (1876-1956), a progressive teacher for his time who viewed honkyoku (Buddhist meditative pieces) as musical literature, wrote his own honkyoku, was knowledgeable about Western music and wrote chamber music for shakuhachi with various other instruments (Blasdel 1988).

The following informant profiles are intended to familiarize the reader with the personal lives and careers of the individuals in the study through their level of education, current professional work, personal goals, and most memorable events.

Informant Profiles

Figure 1. KANEKO Tomoe. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

KANEKO Tomoe holds a master’s degree from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts (Geidai) where she studied with YAMAGUCHI Goro and his student TOKUMARU June. She is currently involved in collaborating with a guitarist and recording with the three women players who make up the group Amane (‘Heavenly Sound’) (herself, SAIJYO Kaoroku and MATSUSHITA Shunzan). She has arranged the honkyoku Shika no Tone (The Distant Cry of Deer) for shakuhachi and piano as well as for solo shakuhachi, and has concertized internationally. Kaneko wants to play shakuhachi in more foreign countries and in those places where there are instruments like shakuhachi, but with different historical roots. She would like to introduce it to people in other parts of the world. Her most memorable performance was at Wittenburg University in the United States (available on YouTube) (personal communication, November 2007).

Figure 2. MATSUSHITA Shunzan. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

MATSUSHITA Shunzan holds a dai shihan (grand master) title from the Ren Me Tozan ryū where she studied with her father MATSUSHITA Shuzan. She also holds a master’s degree from the University of Fine Arts in Tokyo (Geidai). She recently joined Orchestra Asia, which consists of three separate traditional orchestras: Japanese, Chinese and Korean. These groups can play separate repertoire or perform as a combined group. She is also a member of Amane. Her performing experience includes playing with an Indonesian gamelan as well as performing with gamelan and koto for a production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Her original goal was to establish a career in traditional music which she has accomplished. Over time, through meeting many different people and gaining performing experience, she has changed her focus to more diverse types of music in order to communicate through shakuhachi to a greater degree and appeal to a broader audience. Matsushita reports that her most memorable performance was the first one after she had given birth to her daughter (personal communication November 2007).

Figure 3. SAIJYO Kaoroku. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

SAIJYO Kaoroku holds a master’s degree from Geidai University in Tokyo where she studied with YAMAGUCHI Goro, and earned a shōden license from the ryū of TAKAHASHI Hosei. In addition to being a member of Amane and Orchestra Asia, Saijyo also works with a nagauta group that performs compositions by Morishige (a guitarist, jazz player and teacher). Nagauta, or ‘long song’, is a shamisen-based music that accompanies the kabuki theater (Malm 1959). This group plays an innovative style of jazzy nagauta music on cruise ships for guests’ entertainment, without the shakuhachi or pianist. However, they do play together with the singer and thus, traditional instruments are used to play a new style of music. Her most memorable performances were with Orchestra Asia with acrobatics and flamenco dance on stage and Japanese music in the background. Another memorable moment was improvising sound effects for a play production and working with different timings by actors every day (personal communication November 2007).

Figure 4. SAKURAI Shōzan. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

SAKURAI Shōzan holds a shihan license from the Ka Kai Tozan ryū in Tokyo where she studied with ISHIGAKI Sezan and currently studies with YAMAMOTO Hozan. She organized an innovative concert in the Yokohama area in an old house with a calligrapher; the latter created artwork on paper while Sakurai and Takasu played an accompanying piece on shakuhachi. Sakurai prefers to focus on day-to-day goals in her shakuhachi practice. Her most memorable performance was in Germany where she performed with a group organized by NHK Traditional Japanese Music Group of thirteen to sixteen women performers, including opera singers, a Min’yō singer and traditional shakuhachi, biwa, and shamisen players (personal communication November 2007).

Figure 5. TAKASU Rie. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

TAKASU Rie holds a master’s degree from the University of Fine Arts in Tokyo in shakuhachi where she studied with YAMAGUCHI Goro, and is also a performer on classical piano. She has given recitals featuring both instruments. Her goals have changed over time in that she started as a hobby at Kansai Gakuin Daigaku, then entered Geidai University and started to think about social and equality issues in her learning environment. For example, older teachers’ comments at Geidai University that “women players were playing well but the men should be playing better” motivated her to speak out for more equal treatment. TAKASU wants to play shakuhachi in foreign countries and introduce it to people in other parts of the world. Her recent performance at the Hokutopia International Music Festival on an all-female recital (with Sakurai on shakuhachi, two koto players and a shamisen player (all female), which she organized, was her most memorable performance (personal communication November 2007).

Figure 6. IWAMOTO Michiko. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

A graduate of the Doshisha University in Kyoto and a current student of ISHIKAWA Toshimitsu in the Kyoto area, IWAMOTO Michiko’s creative projects include accompanying stories from the Tale of Genji for which she plays improvised interludes interspersed with text readings. She also plays in a trio of shakuhachi, koto and biwa (pear shaped, 3-stringed lute) in which the biwa plays the koto or bass koto part. IWAMOTO wants to continue to play shakuhachi for people in Japan, especially small children who need to see and hear the shakuhachi. She explains that exposure is very important, especially in light of the fact that, commonly, most children will take up the violin or piano, and that hearing live shakuhachi music is still a rarity in Japan. IWAMOTO participated in the Okayama Shakuhachi Festival held in August of 2007 and reports that more than twenty women players participated out of approximately 150 people and eight women performed Kibisi by KINEYA Seiho (personal communication November 2007).

Figure 7. HIRAYAMA Rumi. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

HIRAYAMA Rumi is a student in the Ueda lineage of TANYI Sendon, and her main goal is to introduce shakuhachi to new audiences and show them that shakuhachi music is not only religious and serious, but can be entertaining and beautiful as well. She performs with her mother who plays the Chinese yangqin (hammered dulcimer). They play Japanese children’s music and popular music for school children. HIRAYAMA would like to make her performances as interesting and different in expression as possible and be more involved in organizing her own concerts where her vision and expression comes through clearly. Her most memorable performance was her last concert with the hōgaku club at university, as well as the summer festival in Kyoto in July 2007. In Kyoto, approximately 180 people gathered from all over Japan to play together (with approximately 20 women players) and a duet was performed by multiple women (Yamano aka). Women players attended from all over the Kansai area, and from further away (personal communication November 2007).

The interviews of Japanese women players in this study generally show a high level of training and professional capacity. However, the overall percentage of women studying shakuhachi is still very small in comparison to men according to information gathered from contemporary teachers of shakuhachi.

The Komusō Connection

Male shakuhachi informants relate that Japanese women were discouraged from playing the instrument in the past due to prejudice against them, however, now they are more free to play due to a general lack of historical knowledge concerning the association of the instrument with the lifestyle of the komusō (mendicant, shakuhachi-playing Buddhist priests). Because the instrument is more available in Japan than elsewhere, there are more opportunities for Japanese women to become involved with the instrument, but in reality, there is not more resultant serious study by Japanese women than non-Japanese women.

One major reason cited for the historical non-participation of Japanese women as shakuhachi players is an associated phallic connotation with the word itself, perhaps a holdover from the days of rogue komusō (personal communication, Blasdel, November 2006). In a survey done for her master’s thesis, KANEKO Tomoe determined that, in Japan, musicians understood the word shakuhachi to mean the instrument itself; however, non-musicians interpreted the term with an attached sexual connotation (personal communication November 2007). Though there has been social stigma associated with Japanese women playing the shakuhachi, the historical bias has lessened considerably in the recent past, presumably for the reasons mentioned above.

Use of Gender Definitions

For purposes of discussion, the use of the term ‘gender’ will here refer to socio-cultural and historical conventions of deportment, costume, voice, gesture, and so on, attributed and ascribed to females and males as found in Robertson (1998). These are cultural representations that express an outwardly masculine or feminine image, as separate from the sex or sexuality of an individual. The external image of the masculine in traditional Japanese shakuhachi performance is defined and expressed through the male model of dress (including black and grey colors, kimono [robe] and hakama [wide pants]) and deportment on stage. I argue here that musical style traits in traditional shakuhachi repertoire (such as muraiki, or forceful blowing technique) are firmly intertwined with the outward expressions of gender described above. Changes to these conventions (dress, deportment and musical style) are occurring through the nuanced ways in which women are establishing a new aesthetic in shakuhachi music (in contrast to what has been historically constructed), as well as moving towards individual (separate from gender association) expressions in shakuhachi music.

Aspects of Performance Style and Dress

The constructs of masculine and feminine, as they are produced aurally and visually in described performances, often serve to perpetuate the conventional idea of difference between the two. Women players are frequently expected to fit the masculine model of dress and performance in shakuhachi playing, however, they can choose a more feminine look (for example, wearing a pink kimono and foregoing the hakama [pants] worn over the kimono). A desire is expressed to be able to project an individual look and sound without conforming completely to the traditional male or female model. Women performers’ ‘feminine’ sound and stage look is seen as a positive development by audiences and by themselves, but not necessarily by critics or teachers. The distinction remains that their contribution is seen as part of their conventional Japanese female role and not as yet, as an individual, professional contribution to the repertoire or performance style.

Emerging Musical Aesthetic

In the interview process, the use of the term ‘feminine’ in describing aspects of the shakuhachi sound and musical style of Japanese women players, by others and the players themselves, was frequent. Specific characteristics of these feminine musical qualities are in stark contrast to the historically constructed male qualities, and include: 1) a musically refined and delicate tone, the sound being less based on the power of the breath (including muraiki, a forceful blowing technique) than men’s performance, and 2) an intimate and sensitive performance style. Informants also mentioned a lesser involvement of ego by women players than men players. Together, these can be interpreted as musical characteristics of the new aesthetic that is emerging, generated by women players. Generally, all of the above descriptors, both of performance style and musical characteristics, reinforce some conventional concepts of accepted female behavior in the larger society but are applied in a new performance area, one in which women are playing a traditionally male instrument. Thus, the concept of appropriate gender behavior in musical practice is both maintained and negotiated simultaneously.

In Japanese society, male and female gender roles have largely conformed to the traditional. Though recent governmental laws promote the equal treatment of women, the nineteenth century role model of wife and mother for Japanese women continues to influence societal expectations. According to Goldstein-Gidoni (2005 cited Brinton 1993; Molony 1995; Kelsky 2001), the proper role of women, which has been defined since the Meiji period by the slogan ‘good wife, wise mother’ is clearly opposed by the role of men, who are regarded as models for action and rational enlightenment. In more recent times, Goldstein-Gidoni states that,

this is in no way to argue that women in contemporary Japan are restricted only to traditional roles. Their involvement in wage labor is high and steadily increasing and their intimacy with the West has been growing.” (2005: 154)

The changing societal role of women in twenty-first century Japan has likewise influenced their ability to pursue study and professional careers involving the traditional shakuhachi.

Though Japanese women are increasingly active in the world of professional Japanese music, conventional gender association with instruments persists. For example, the conventional gender/instrument pairing of the female koto (zither) player with a male shakuhachi player in sankyoku (chamber music) performance remains a standard (Oshio 2002). Informants corroborate the predominance of these gender-pairings in hōgaku educational institutions and organizations today, as related by the following comments from TAKASU Rie:

here, (at a Japanese university) the male students in shakuhachi are very prejudiced against women because of the traditional and conservative background they have. This is a very different atmosphere from a university club. At a regular university, students are more “updated” and live in the modern world. Guys are okay on equality issues. But, the guys who come to school to learn shakuhachi come from very traditional families (maybe their mothers are koto players). For my six years at this institution I have had to constantly fight this attitude. (personal communication November 2007)

SAIJYO Kaoroku comments that her university shakuhachi class was comprised of 19 men and two women and states that women are still quite rare as shakuhachi students, though they predominate as koto players (personal communication Fall 2007). Generally, informants estimate that some 80% of koto players are women. KURAHASHI II Yodo (head of the Mujuan ryū in Kyoto) believes that that a better balance in the ratio of men performers to koto, and women performers to shakuhachi would be beneficial for hōgaku in general (personal communication September 12 2006).

The use of social criticism and a double standard is employed in some circumstances to maintain these traditional arrangements as exemplified by disparagement from critics and teachers based upon gender. For example, TAKASU Rie relates that when critics came to her recitals, if she played with force, they said that she wasn’t able to play with enough ‘femininity.’ Their comments thus assumed her gender role (that of the conventional Japanese woman) to be standard which excluded the possibility of the perception of her playing in a traditionally ‘masculine’ performance style, in a positive way. Conversely, if her playing was self-described as ‘more delicate,’ critics said there was a ‘lack of power,’ leaving her feeling that she couldn’t win, either way (personal communication November 2007). The alignment of gender with traditional instruments is reinforced by the fact that, for example, in koto performance, playing with power is acceptable for women because the instrument is more strongly associated with female players, but in shakuhachi playing, the female gender role trumps a player’s ability to use forceful techniques such as muraiki, and still be viewed in a positive manner. Social criticism is thus used to discourage women players from assuming the most powerful aspects of a traditionally male role.

Because contemporary Japanese women are studying the shakuhachi and becoming professional players, they are reversing the typical role expectation and competing primarily with men instead of women. By disrupting the traditional environment and creating new models of performance, these musicians are innovating change within the traditional music world in Japan.

Gender and Musical Training

In Japan, the traditional iemoto (house or school head) system requires that students are loyal to the guild, abide by the methods of training and performance, and pay necessary fees (Kano 2002). Women are members of various shakuhachi ryū in Japan today. Optionally, women students may pursue a university degree in traditional music, becoming freer to perform and teach outside the restrictions of the iemoto. Some informants negotiate both worlds simultaneously. The university setting, with its more modern, egalitarian culture in comparison to that of an iemoto would seem to have afforded women players in Japan an alternate path to legitimacy in the shakuhachi world. Women’s participation in a musical role historically held only by men continues to be treated, in some cases, with a negative bias both within the university system and the iemoto system of training, but is accepted in others.

Male Attitudes Towards the Participation of Women

Generally, male shakuhachi teacher informants hold positive attitudes regarding the participation of women players within particular frameworks. To give some context to this discussion, in a personal interview, grand master KURAHASHI II Yodo commented that,

In the beginning it was hard for women to play because men played very forcefully (the ‘real’ way). Today, things have changed, and more variation in expression is possible. (personal communication September 12, 2006)

He suggested the metaphor of elderly women shamisen players who play quietly, but with great power and presence (not in a physically forceful way) as one example of how women shakuhachi players can likewise achieve a great musical result. Though positive in nature, an implication of either less physical capacity or, the need for an appropriate musical style for women is present. KAKIZAKAI Kaoru (grand master, member of the Kenshukan based in Tokyo), commented that the sound of the shakuhachi does not always suit women, perhaps intimating that women should not play shakuhachi with the physical strength that men do. He gave the analogy that, for example, hearing a woman playing the honkyoku, Yamagoe, can be like “seeing a woman boxing” (personal communication November 2006). One of his female colleagues has created her own performance style which reinforces the concept that while the more forceful honkyoku are not ‘suitable’ for women players, they could develop their own repertoire as an alternative. A direct parallel to this phenomenon is found in a particular performance style of nagauta (theatrical kabuki music performed in a concert context) by women shamisen players called zyoryū (or, ‘in the women’s style’). In this case as well, some epic pieces are considered to be too powerful for women to perform effectively and lyrical pieces are considered to be more suitable for them (Oshio 2002). Christopher Yohmei Blasdel (master shakuhachi player, author, and educator based in Tokyo) would like to see a Japanese woman shakuhachi player rise to the level of the famous female shō (mouth organ) player, MIYATA Mayumi, and thereby create a new level of professionalism and more contemporary literature for women players of the instrument (personal communication November 2006). Australian shakuhachi grand master, Riley Lee, believes that women players are important because they comprise 50% of the population, and, the more approaches towards shakuhachi playing that there are will improve the situation for everyone. Lee does not believe that there are inherent differences in the ways women play the instrument as compared to men (personal communication November 2006).

Though male informants were generally positive about women playing the shakuhachi, there was an implication by some that women are inherently unable to play in the same manner that a man does, mostly in physical terms. To balance this perception, it appears women are imagined in a new context in which their inherently ‘female’ qualities will create a new and different musical style which (assumedly) will not compete with the traditional male one. These ideas, in essence, reinforce conventional concepts of accepted female behavior in the larger society within the new performance area, one in which women are playing a traditionally male instrument. Thus, the concept of appropriate gender behavior in musical practice is, again, both maintained and negotiated simultaneously.

Japanese Women Informants’ Personal Musical Goals

The personal musical goals that Japanese women informants have set themselves focus particularly on their honkyoku playing (as opposed to ensemble playing), as well as performing for Japanese school children and other audiences (both national and international) to broaden exposure to the shakuhachi. All informants perform honkyoku and sankyoku (chamber music) and most also perform modern chamber compositions (yōgaku), popular music, jazz, and improvise. Their attitudes towards the idea that ‘women cannot play honkyoku as a man can’ were overwhelmingly negative. Responses showed both an awareness of this conventional attitude and an accompanying will to prevail above it by engaging in serious practice and taking an individual approach to musicianship (personal communication, MATSUSHITA, SAKURAI 2007). Some informants commented that due to the longer flutes used in some honkyoku, women may be physically compromised in playing particular pieces (though, in biological reality, this is based on the individual body type). In a statement that sums up the need for equality on the playing field, one informant commented,

For every (Western) instrument whether piano, cello or flute, you would have male and female players. I believe that shakuhachi should not discriminate against women, but the men don’t think so. In honkyoku, the tradition from the seventeenth century on has been ‘protected’ from women and women are only now starting to play. They (men) would say that women can’t play because they haven’t done it before. My breath capacity has been tested and is no different than a man’s, so that is not a (verifiable) limitation.” (TAKASU, personal communication, November 2007)

Because SAKURAI Shōzan is a member of a newer Tozan ryū, she does not encounter this attitude/belief regarding honkyoku so much, and believes that though men tend to play with a lot of force to show how powerful they are, women can produce sounds men cannot, which is a strength in itself. In her own playing, she does not pay attention to, or accept, other people’s prejudice, and is currently focused on honkyoku repertoire (personal communication November 2007).

For the informants in general, musical expression by Japanese women shakuhachi players is seen to be different from, and independent of, men’s expression. This aspect is supported by Waxer, who relates that the women in her study talk about gender in terms of expanded opportunities for women, rather than denying their gender identity or adopting male behaviors (2001).

Rise of a New Aesthetic in shakuhachi Playing

In describing their own playing and how others perceive their playing, most Japanese informants showed a positive attitude towards an emerging musical aesthetic incorporating less forceful breath techniques, intimate and sensitive approaches to playing, and less ego attached to playing, as well as bringing a more traditionally female gendered model of dress and performance style to the stage. These concepts are perceived by both men and women, teachers and players, and heard both in historical musical styles and in newer compositions.

A second aesthetic concept was voiced by the women in their search for a new musical identity in which the desired musical product is thought to lie somewhere between traditional male and female musical expression. Moving towards an individual musical expression, this concept is linked to both an underlying expectation of conformity to the traditional gender role (through positive expression of the feminine), and, expansion of that role to a more modern one (positive expression of the masculine by women players). A probable eventual outcome of this process is a music and performance style that is free from traditional gender associations within Japanese culture.

Parallel to the above stated concept of an individual music is one that expresses hope for the possibility of a ‘women’s style’ of shakuhachi music, encompassing the new aesthetic outlined above, amongst Japanese women players, that will be developed in the future (KURAHASHI, BLASDEL, KAKIZAKAI, personal communication September and November 2006). This concept is based on the conventional gender-identified instrumental music, but in a reverse pairing from the traditional ones previously described. In such a musical world, women would develop their own genres and styles of playing traditional music on the shakuhachi.

Comparison with non-Japanese Women Shakuhachi Players

Data gathered from primarily non-Japanese women players based outside of Japan shows sharply contrasting expectations and attitudes in regard to shakuhachi mastery compared to that of the Japanese women players (Day, Kirkpatrick, Beckman, Beilharz, Schlagel, Brown, Piron, Hahn, personal communication Winter and Spring 2008). To illustrate, in contemporary Western music it is common for professional musicians to audition ‘behind a screen.’ When a person auditions behind a screen for a committee, they are ostensibly not recognized to be of a particular gender or background, and are therefore judged and ranked solely on their musical performance at the time. Consequently, the winning performance is based, presumably, on the individual’s respective level of preparation and talent. Their gender identity is not part of the criteria for winning the audition.

This type of process is one to which most Japanese women shakuhachi informants aspire, and from which most American, European and Australian informants base themselves. The following anecdote is an example of the need for a more egalitarian approach towards those pursuing a traditional music career in Japan. While talking with an editor of a prominent magazine on traditional Japanese music in 2006, one informant was surprised to hear the statement that “there are no professional female shakuhachi players” (TAKASU personal communication November 2007). Shocked by this, she began to think about what it would take to change this mentality and the overt denial of the professional work of women shakuhachi players in Japan. This experience is countered by the general expression of non-Japanese players as to feeling no bias from their teachers or by their job opportunities as women shakuhachi players. Overall, it is safe to say that teachers and audiences in Japan are gradually becoming more accepting of women shakuhachi players, and that the performers contribute new energy and vitality to the shakuhachi world despite societal limitations.


Japanese women shakuhachi players are metamorphosing into a 21st century identity that brings a new aesthetic into shakuhachi performance style and repertoire and that, it can be hoped, will eventually give them equal professional status with men. It is clear that women players based in America, Europe and Australia assume their right to unbiased treatment as students, performers, teachers, and composers of shakuhachi. In Japan, they can pursue shakuhachi mastery, however, a double standard exists for Japanese women who operate within a set of traditional gender expectations, both in their everyday lives, and in their decision to compete outside of the female arena with male shakuhachi players. In some cases, social disparagement is used to downplay the efforts of such women and hinder their status as professional performers, while in others, their contributions are supported and appreciated.

In looking forward to expansion of their role, many Japanese women players express a need to blend the masculine and feminine aesthetic, both in sound and look, which would serve to balance and integrate the musical product in Japan in a new and somewhat radical way, and even to move beyond gender parameters. Acceptance and recognition of Japanese women shakuhachi players as professionals in their own right would serve to legitimize their capacity as teachers and creative contributors and facilitate their potential to expand the audiences, performers and musical styles of shakuhachi significantly. Very recently, the paradigm has started shifting towards the equal standing of women players in Japan with their male counterparts and women will continue to lead the way towards new horizons for the shakuhachi.


Blasdel, C.Y and Kamisango, Y., 1988. The shakuhachi, A Manual for Learning. Tokyo: Ongaku No Tomo Sha.

Frühstück, Sabine, 2005. Genders and Sexualities. In Robertson, J., ed. A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan. Malden, MA, Oxford, OX, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 167-181.

Fujita, T., 2002. Continuity and Authenticity in Traditional Japanese Music. In: Provine, Tokumaru and Witzleben, ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol 7: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York, London: Routledge Press, 767-772.

Goldstein-Gidoni, O., 2005. Fashioning Cultural Identity: Body and Dress. In Robertson, J., ed. A Companion to the Anthropology of Japan. Malden, MA, Oxford, OX, Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 153-166.

Kano, M., 2002. Social Groups and Institutions in Japan. In Provine, Tokumaru and Witzleben, ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol 7: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York, London: Routledge Press, 755-762.

Kato, T., 2002. Transmission of Traditional Japanese Music. In Provine, Tokumaru and Witzleben, ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol 7: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York, London: Routledge Press, 773-776.

Lee, R., 1993. Yearning for the Bell: A Study of Transmission in the Shakuhachi Honkyoku Tradition. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Dissertation Services. Available from: [accessed October 16, 2011]

Malm, W.P., 1959. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Vermont; Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

Oshio, S., 2002. Gender Roles in the Performing Arts in Japan. In Provine, Tokumaru and Witzleben, ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol 7: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York, London: Routledge Press, 763-766.

Robertson, J. 1998. Takarazuka, Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Tamanoi, M. A., 1990. Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan. In Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 19. Palo Alto, California, 17-37.

Tokita, A. and Hughes, D., 2008. Context and Change in Japanese Music. In Tokita and Hughes, ed. Ashgate Research Companion to Japanese Music. London: Ashgate Publications, 1 – 34.

Waxer, L., 2001. Las Calenas Son Como Las Flores: The Rise of All-Women Salsa Bands in Cali, Colombia. Ethnomusicology 45 (2), 228-259.

Weisgarber, Elliott, 1968. The H of the Kinko Ryu: Some Principles of its Organization. Ethnomusicology 12, 313-44.

Appendix 1

Biographical Information for shakuhachi Teacher Informants

Kurahashi II, Yodo, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, Kakizakai Kaoru, Riley Lee

Kurahashi II, Yodo

*The author has studied with Kurahashi-sensei for over ten years.

Kurahashi II Yodo started studying the shakuhachi as a child, with his father, the first director of Muju-An shakuhachi school in Kyoto. Later he studied with Homei Matsumura, the renowned Kinko-style shakuhachi player in Nara, Japan. He gave his first recital in 1976 for which he received the Osaka Cultural Award. In 1980 he became the second director of the Muju-An school. He has toured extensively since 1981 giving performances in the US, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Israel. Kurahashi is director of the Kyoto Hogaku group and the Kyoto sankyoku Association. Beginning in 1995 he has been teaching intensive annual classes in shakuhachi in Boston, New York and Boulder.


Available from [Accessed 24 September 2011].

From Kurahashi II, Master of the Japanese shakuhachi Bamboo Flute.

Available from [Accessed 24 September 2011].

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, born in Texas, began the shakuhachi and studies of Japanese music in 1972 with shakuhachi master, Living National Treasure Goro Yamaguchi. He received a teaching license and the professional name "Yohmei" from Yamaguchi in 1984. At the same time, he completed graduate work in ethnomusicology at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. A permanent resident of Japan, he has performed, taught and lectured throughout China, Thailand, Europe, North America, Mexico, India, Malaysia and the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. His book, "A shakuhachi Odyssey," written in Japanese, is published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha and was awarded the prestigious Rennyo Award for non fiction. In his musical activities, Blasdel maintains a balance between traditional shakuhachi music, modern compositions and cross-genre work with a great variety of well-known musicians, dancers, poets, and painters, both Western and Eastern. Blasdel presently performs, teaches, and records in Japan and around the world. He works as Advisor to the Arts Program at the International House of Japan, is part-time lecturer at International Christian University and Temple University in Tokyo, teaches privately at the Asahi Culture Center in Shinjuku.

From Available from [Accessed 24 September 2011].

From Christopher Yohmei Blasdel shakuhachi. Available at [Accessed 24 September 2011].

Kakizakai Kaoru

Internationally known as a shakuhachi soloist and teacher, grand master Kaoru Kakizakai currently teaches at the Tokyo College of Music, is a full time Instructor at the International Shakuhachi Kenshu-Kan, Instructor, NHK Culture Centre and President of the International shakuhachi Kenshukan Chichibu School and Higashi Yamato School. Most recently he performed in Maria João Pires's concert in Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, gave a solo concert at California Institute of the Arts in California in the US and a lecture concert at UCLA in California. Kakizakai was born in Chichibu, Saitama, Japan in 1959 and was a student of Katsuya Yokoyama.

From Kaoru Kakizakai’s Webpage. Available from [Accessed 24 September 25, 2011].

Riley Lee

Riley Lee was born in Texas in 1951 of a Chinese father and Caucasian mother. He lived in Japan for over eight years, beginning his shakuhachi studies there in 1971. From 1973 through 1977, he toured internationally as a fulltime performer of taiko (festival drums) and shakuhachi with Ondekoza (now called Kodo), a group of traditional Japanese musicians.

In 1980 he became the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan (grand master) in the shakuhachi tradition. Riley Lee is a recipient of two of the most revered lineages of shakuhachi playing, descending from the original Zen Buddhist 'priests of nothingness' of Edo Japan. His first teachers were Hoshida Ichizan II and Chikuho Sakai II. His present teacher is Katsuya Yokoyama.

Riley completed his BA and MA degrees at the University of Hawai'i, and his PhD degree in ethnomusicology (on the transmission of the Zen Buddhist repertoire of the shakuhachi) at the University of Sydney.

He has recorded nearly forty recordings internationally, many featuring his own compositions. He is fortunate to make his living solely as a full-time professional shakuhachi player, teacher, and scholar. He and his family live on the eastern coast of the continent of Australia and in the islands of Hawai'i.

From Available at [Accessed September 24, 2011].

From Riley Lee Sound of Bamboo. Available at [Accessed September 24, 2011].


I would like to thank all of the women shakuhachi players in Japan who offered their personal experiences for the purposes of my research. Without their incredible generosity, hospitality, and pioneering spirit, this paper would not be possible. My heartfelt thanks go to KANEKO Tomoe, MATSUSHITA Shunzan, SAIJYO Kaoroku, TAKASU Rie, SAKURAI Shozan, IWAMOTO Michiko and HIRAYAMA Rumi. I want to express my deep gratitude to Mrs. ITO Miho for the time and effort she volunteered in translating the interviews from Japanese to English. Finally, my continual appreciation goes to the master teachers who offered their knowledge and expertise for the purposes of research: sensei KURAHASHI II Yodo, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, KAKIZAKAI Kaoru, and Riley Lee.

Interviews translated by Mrs. ITO Miho

Figure 8. ITO Miho. (Author November 2007). Used by permission.

Fabrique, Figure 1

About the Author

Martha H. Fabrique holds a Doctorate of Musical Art from the University of Colorada at Boulder, and is both Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Department of Performing Arts at Our Lady of the Lake University. She plays the flute professionally for several orchestras and ensembles in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Fabrique is also a performer and scholar of the shakuhachii>, with over twenty years of experience with this Japanese instrument.

Email the author

Back to top