Deconstructing Tradition in Japanese Music : A Study of Shakuhachi, Historical Authenticity and Transmission of Tradition

Abstract: In the present study I examine the vertical bamboo flute shakuhachi, as an example of how a tradition can be constructed. There are two main issues: the historical authenticity of the believed origins and development of the shakuhachi tradition, and how the transmission of this tradition is conducted.The first main issue is concerned with how a legendary origin, probably constructed in the late seventeenth century, was disproved in early twentieth-century studies. According to this legendary origin, the shakuhachi was connected to Chan (Zen) Buddhism in ninth-century China. It was replaced by a nowadays commonly accepted theory of an indigenous origin, found in both Japanese and English language contemporary writings. I discuss the legend, constructed by the so-called komusō monks of the Edo period (1603–1867), and suggest an alternative explanation of how they became connected to other kinds of medieval monks, so-called boro and komosō. The primary sources relating to the boro and the komosō are discussed. My analyses indicate that the twentieth-century studies created a connection to the boro and komosō as assumed devout Buddhist monks, probably for socio-political reasons.The second main issue concerns how the tradition is transmitted, and the constitutive elements of this transmission. Some Japanese studies discuss the notion of kata – fixed forms implicitly containing essential elements of the ‘tradition’ – as a special feature of Japanese arts. I investigate how transmission is conducted, and argue against the notion that the elements transmitted from teacher to student contain the essence of the tradition. I assert that the concept of fixed forms as a defining characteristic of Japanese traditional arts, should be modified to a more modest ‘character of the music’ on the level of individual transmitters. I discuss the elements that are transmitted, and investigate what it is that constitutes the ‘traditional’ aspects, if any, of this transmission.