Shakuhachi derived from Chinese bamboo-flute. Bamboo-flute first came to Japan from China during the 7th century. Shakuhachi looks like the Chinese instrument Xiao, but it is quite distinct from it.
During the medieval period, shakuhachi were most notable for their role in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komuso (“priests of nothingness,” or “emptiness monks” 虚無僧), who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs (called “honkyoku” were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation (suizen) as much as music.
Travel around Japan was restricted by the shogunate at this time, but the Fuke sect managed to wrangle an exemption from the Shōgun, since their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms (one famous song reflects this mendicant tradition, “Hi fu mi, hachi gaeshi”, “One two three, pass the alms bowl”, 一二三鉢返の調). They persuaded the Shōgun to give them “exclusive rights” to play the instrument. In return, some were required to spy for the shogunate, and the Shōgun sent several of his own spies out in the guise of Fuke monks as well. This was made easier by the wicker basket (tengai 天蓋) that the Fuke wore over their heads, a symbol of their detachment from the world.
In response to these developments, several particularly difficult honkyoku pieces, e.g., Distant Call of the Deer (Shika no tone 鹿の遠音), became well known as “tests”: if you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed if you were in unfriendly territory.
With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the shogunate was abolished and so was the Fuke sect, in order to help identify and eliminate the shōgun’s holdouts. The very playing of the shakuhachi was officially forbidden for a few years. Non-Fuke folk traditions did not suffer greatly from this, since the tunes could be played just as easily on another pentatonic instrument. However, the honkyoku repertoire was known exclusively to the Fuke sect and transmitted by repetition and practice, and much of it was lost, along with many important documents.
When the Meiji government did permit the playing of shakuhachi again, it was only as an accompanying instrument to the koko, shamisen, etc. It was not until later that honkyoku were allowed to be played publicly again as solo pieces.
Shakuhachi has traditionally been played almost exclusively by men in Japan, although this situation is rapidly changing. Many teachers of traditional shakuhachi music indicate that a majority of their students are women. The 2004 Big Apple Shakuhachi Festival in New York City hosted the first-ever concert of international women shakuhachi masters. This Festival was organized and produced by Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, who was the first full-time Shakuhachi master to teach in the Western Hemisphere. Nyogetsu also holds 2 Dai Shihan (Grand Master) Licenses, and has run KiSuiAn, the largest and most active Shakuhachi Dojo outside Japan, since 1975.
The first non-Japanese person to become a shakuhachi master is the American-Australian Riley Lee. Lee was responsible for the World Shakuhachi Festival being held in Sydney, Australia over 5–8 July 2008, based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Riley Lee played the shakuhachi in Dawn Mantras which was composed by Ross Edwards especially for the Dawn Performance which took place on the sails of the Sydney Opera House at sunrise on 1 January 2000 and televised internationally.