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Interview: Japanese Flute Creates Harmony


An international team of scientists predict life expectancy will soon exceed 90 years (The Lancet, April 1, 2017). So how are we to spend our bonus years?

A new study finds that music fosters a sense of purpose among older adults. According to musician and cultural ethnographer Koji Matsunobu, music instills the feeling that people are still able to develop musically and spiritually.

The study was published in Ageing & Society (Feb. 27, 2017).

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Matsunobu at the Education University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong.

Ruth Dempsey: So what is the shakuhachi?

Koji Matsunobu: The shakuhachi is an end-blown Japanese bamboo flute. It is believed to be a Zen instrument as it was once used by komuso monks in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen for their meditation practice and when begging for alms.

Today, the shakuhachi has become a secular instrument. It is widely practiced for a variety of reasons outside Japan. Many people play it for fun. Shakuhachi music ranges from classical solo repertoire to ensemble and popular music.

I've met many shakuhachi lovers and practitioners in North America, Europe, Australia and Chinese-speaking countries.

RD: Why did you want to study shakuhachi practitioners?

KM: From a music education perspective, the shakuhachi opens up opportunities for learning music in late life and engaging in self-development.

People begin shakuhachi lessons at different stages of life: they rarely begin at school age. Some begin in college or after getting married. Many begin to play the shakuhachi in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. Shakuhachi communities have traditionally welcomed elderly players.

At this time of life, the purpose of learning is not primarily to develop musical skills but to explore the meaning of life. For this, the shakuhachi is a perfect medium.

RD: How so?

KM: Shakuhachi music fosters awareness, attention to detail and the player's breath. The music tends to be simple.

For instance, the very first piece we learn in our school contains about 30 notes. We play them in 19 breaths. The entire piece takes about three minutes to play. Every day, we play this same piece, much like repeating a circle drawing in Zen practice. By engaging in the same act everyday, we face ourselves and become aware of how we are, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The goal is to craft or perfect one tone (or one breath). We have this notion, ichion-jobutsu, or the attainment of enlightenment through perfecting a single tone.

Using a piece of music to accommodate one's mental, physical, spiritual and musical condition – often with other players – is unique to shakuhachi training.

RD: Your study focuses on Takeo, a 70-year-old carpenter. What drew you to him?

KM: I met with hundreds of practitioners, both professional and amateur, over a two-year period. I interviewed about 40 practitioners. Takeo stood out.

When I heard him play, I was struck by his deep tones. I was also struck by the depth of his life stories. His wife died 20 years ago. He has three grown children and seven grandchildren.

In his community, Takeo is respected and idealized as someone who leads his life through the shakuhachi.

I honestly feel that he is my role model.

RD: Takeo made many pilgrimages in his wife's honour. What did they entail?

KM: The most notable one was the ohenro pilgrimage. This is a 1400-kilometre route of 88 temples in the spiritual island of Shikoku. The route is believed to follow the footsteps of the eighth-century Buddhist monk Kukai.

The route can be harsh, if like Takeo, you use no public transportation. It takes about 50 days to complete the entire route.

Some temples are located on tops of high mountains. Many places lack accommodation. He often slept outdoors. One night, to avoid the wind, he slept in a public phone box with his legs folded. He believes it needs to be tough because his wife's suffering was even greater. He explained that she had stomach cancer, and it eventually spread to other parts of her body.

Takeo completed this pilgrimage four times. At each of the temples, he played the shakuhachi for the salvation of his wife.

RD: He took strength from the people he met along the way . . .

KM: This is true. Pilgrims cross each other's paths during the course of their long journey. Like Takeo, many pilgrims have spiritual reasons for taking the journey. They share hardships and forge strong bonds.

Local people offered him food. Some invited him to stay overnight or offered him a place to rest. He played the shakuhachi to convey his sincere appreciation. They could hear his spiritual being through the shakuhachi.

For many, his playing brought back memories of lost loved ones.

Takeo speaks of the importance of ichigo-ichie. This concept means "one time, one meeting." Each encounter with a person, a moment, a life is special and precious, as it never occurs again. It suggests that we must appreciate every encounter as if it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

He deeply regrets that the time with his wife was not always ichigo-ichie.Now he plays the shakuhachi in the spirit of ichigo-ichie as an offering for his wife.

RD: I was struck by how his teacher noticed a change in his shakuhachi sound when he returned from a pilgrimage . . .

KM: For Takeo, each pilgrimage presented a series of predicaments and significant moments.

His teacher noted his pilgrimage experiences seasoned his musical expression, allowing his spiritual being to shine through.

As Takeo put it, "I add a 'growth ring' to my playing and that manifests itself as I play."

RD: Takeo loved to make his own flutes. Why several flutes? Are they difficult to make?

KM: Modern shakuhachi players tend to have multiples flutes of varying sizes in order to play in different keys. Most purchase instruments from professional makers.

People like Takeo make their own shakuhachi using a minimalist approach. This allows them to explore the different sounds of each piece of bamboo. Some even harvest their own bamboo.

This is a special experience as each piece of bamboo is different, producing unique tones.
Some flutes may exhibit very strong characteristics (e.g., very bright sound in the upper range, and a flat and weak voice in the low notes). Players don't necessarily aim for perfection but for the unique sound of each flute.

I find making this type of shakuhachi great fun. It's not very difficult.

RD: You say music became Takeo's life support, or "ikigai." Can you explain?

KM: The Japanese talk about ikigai or "purpose of living." It refers to the Japanese sense of spiritual well-being.

Takeo leads his life through the shakuhachi. From it, he derives sustenance and a deep sense of fulfillment. The shakuhachi is what makes his life worthwhile.

RD: So perhaps, it's not just the healthy diet of the Japanese that account for their long lives, but also their ikigai or life purposes?

KM: I tend to agree. Many believe that having an ikigai is crucial to positive aging.

Music provides people with opportunities to engage in social and artistic activities with family and friends. It also creates a space for personal challenges. Such activities allow individuals to embrace the richness of experience and feel fulfilled as they grow older.