Courtesy Shin-ichiro Makihara

The Japanese have a phrase for living in the “new normal” of the pandemic – korona to tomo ni – together with the coronavirus. This period is particularly difficult for musicians, who must survive without many, or any, opportunities for live performance.

In Japan, one of those musicians is Shin-ichiro Makihara. On February 4, he wrote on his Facebook page: “I’m 73 years old now. Looking for a new life with the corona misfortune.”

Makihara is a komuso, which translates aspriest of nothingness,” a Japanese mendicant monk who plays the shakuhachi, a five-hole end-blown bamboo flute.

Komuso became prominent in the early Tokugawa period (the 17th century), when priests of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism played meditative compositions called honkyoku for alms. They chose “blowing Zen” over sitting zazen.

Komuso wear basket-shaped straw hats that hide their faces, watching the world through slits in front of the eyes that allow them to see out but are too narrow for others to see in.

Courtesy Shin-ichiro Makihara

In an era when the movement of people was severely restricted, the shogun’s central government allowed the komuso to make pilgrimages around the country. In addition to blowing Zen, they served as spies who observed and reported on conditions in the feudal domains.

Official recognition of the komuso was withdrawn in 1871, shortly after the modernizing Meiji government had replaced the Tokugawa shogunate and unified the country. But their music and mendicant tradition lived on.

Makihara says he first heard shakuhachi music when he was five or six years old. A komuso was playing in front of his house, making sounds he still remembers today. The appearance of the komuso also made quite an impression on him.

When he was eight years old, he found a shakuhachi in the storeroom while playing at his uncle’s house. The adults told him, “Shakuhachi is difficult. First of all, it’s almost impossible to make a sound.” But the young Shin-chiro produced a note the first time he blew into the instrument.

After that, he visited his uncle and tooted on the shakuhachi whenever he got the chance. Meanwhile, his mother, fearing he was tone deaf, forced him to study the piano. He hated it, but learned the basics of Western music.

During his first year at university, he walked around Tokyo looking for a shakuhachi teacher. He stumbled upon a sign reading “Myoan Shakuhachi,” became a student of Grand Master Tomimori Kyosan and began learning to play the music of the komuso.

There are several schools of shakuhachi, the most prominent being the Kinko, Tozan and Myoan schools. The Myoan school is affiliated with Meian-ji temple in Kyoto, headquarters of the komuso. Myoan and meian are alternate readings of the same Chinese characters.

Inside the gates of Meian-ji stands a stone slab with the characters for “blowing Zen” carved into it.

But putting enough food on the table with the shakuhachi was impossible, so after finishing university, Makihara joined the Meiji Life Insurance Company. For the next 27 years, he worked as a salaryman selling insurance. He got married and became the father of two daughters.

But he led a double life, continuing to study and play shakuhachi when he wasn’t working. He became proficient at the Myoan repertoire and learned the Kinko and Tozan styles as well, so he could perform with almost anyone. In the highly factionalized world of Japanese traditional music, this is unusual.

Makihara developed his own style of playing. And he himself became a teacher of shakuhachi.

Approaching the age of 50, he felt a tap on the shoulder and a little voice in his ear saying, “Hey, Makihara, you’re pretty good. You can probably make a living with the shakuhachi now.”

Couirtesy Shin-ichiro Makihara

Which was just as well because, after the collapse of Japan’s speculative bubble, Meiji Life’s business began to decline. In 1998, Makihara accepted an offer of early retirement. Soon after that, the company implemented a restructuring plan that would have cost him his job if he hadn’t left already.

Myoan is written with the characters for bright and dark. The dark side for Makihara was the loss of a regular income and divorce. The bright side was freedom and full-time dedication to being a komuso.

He quotes the Zen Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyu (1394 – 1481): “Having no destination, I am never lost.”

Ikkyu, who was also mendicant bamboo flute player, inspired the Fuke sect and the komuso. He is believed to have composed one of the honkyoku pieces still played today.

Makihara hit the road, playing shakuhachi as a komuso in front of railway stations, on the grounds of old castles and at other places around Japan. He walked the Kiso Kaido, an old post road between Nagano and Nagoya. He walked the pilgrimage route that links 88 temples around the island of Shikoku.

It wasn’t easy. Sometimes he received only enough money to pay for one meal a day, and he was often caught out in bad weather. Once a typhoon forced him to take shelter in a park by a river. He had almost nothing to eat for two days and worried that rising water might sweep him away, but “was able to practice a lot of shakuhachi.”

Over time, he met many people and built up a schedule full of komuso performance, regular concerts, and lectures on the shakuhachi and its history from the time of Ikkyu. He settled in Nagoya, which is cheaper than Tokyo and which has its own musical tradition.

He also traveled overseas, performing in China, Taiwan, Russia and several countries in central and western Europe. He performed on the streets of Moscow in winter. It was a warm 8 degrees below zero and many other street musicians were also out playing.

The coronavirus put an end to all this in 2020. Performance venues were closed. Nobody wanted to get close to a droplet-spewing wind instrument.

“What to do? What to do?” he asked himself. There was no answer. As his money ran out, he sold a few shakuhachi from his large collection and moved to a cheaper apartment.

After coming to the conclusion that he didn’t have much of a future as a komuso, he took up the biwa, a stringed instrument that looks like a lute but produces an intense percussive sound that most often accompanies the recitation of traditional narrative songs. From the stories of Ikkyu to his own experience, he has no shortage of material. 

While waiting for vaccines and the reopening of society as the virus subsides, Makihara is philosophical. He paraphrases Ryokan, a Zen Buddhist monk and poet of the Tokugawa period: “When it is time to die, it is fine to die.”

But he is drawing up plans in case he lives to the age of 108. In Japan, temple bells are rung 108 times to welcome the New Year.

You can listen to Makihara’s shakuhachi here.

Scott Foster is an analyst with LightStream Research, Tokyo. He also holds a teacher’s qualification from the Tozan school of shakuhachi music and has been a student of Shin-ichiro Makihara’s for many years.