EOL book review

The Single Tone:
A Personal Journey
into Shakuhachi Music

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel


The Single Tone: A Personal Journey into Shakuhachi Music. Christopher Yohmei Blasdel. Tokyo, 2005: Printed Matter Press. Available from Tai Hei Shakuhachi.

For the disadvantaged, non-Japanese-reading members of the international shakuhachi community, the five years between the publication of Chris Blasdel’s original Shakuhachi Odessei in Japanese (Shakuhachi Odyssey) and that of the English version, The Single Tone, seemed like a very long time. It was worth the wait.

Shakuhachi Odessei was first published in 2000. The original book won the 6th Japanese literature Ren’nyo Award for non-fiction in that year. The Ren’nyo Award was established in 1994 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Ren’nyo (1415-99), an important Jôdo Shinshû (New Pure Land) priest who reinvigorated the sect in the 15th Century.

First prize for the Ren’nyo Award is ¥2,000,000 or approximately US$20,000.

A literary award of this magnitude in itself tends to attract considerable media attention in Japan. When the winner is a gaijin, a non-Japanese, the award becomes an even greater media event than usual. This is good news for shakuhachi players both in Japan and elsewhere; the shakuhachi needs the positive publicity.

In this sense, Blasdel has contributed to the health of the shakuhachi community in three ways, firstly by writing about the shakuhachi in a manner that appeals to more than just other Japanese literate shakuhachi players, then by winning a major Japanese literary prize, thus insuring a much wider readership in Japan than it would have otherwise, and finally, by translating the book into English.

In the preface, the author explains that the original book, Shakuhachi Odessei is both an autobiography and a ‘guidebook’ of the world of Japanese music (Blasdel 2005:viii). Tanaka Takafumi, the editor of the popular Japanese monthly magazine Hôgaku Journal once told me that the world of traditional Japanese music (hôgaku no sekai) was as foreign to most Japanese as foreign countries would be, with its own social rules, customs, and even language (personal communication 1986).

Though Mr. Tanaka might have been exaggerating, his statement still makes the point that the need for a guidebook about Japanese music, written in Japanese for Japanese is not as far-fetched an idea as it might sound. That it took a non-Japanese to write such a guidebook on the shakuhachi is both ironic and indicative of the need for one.

To his credit, Blasdel saw the need for this sort of ‘guidebook’ and, more importantly, he has acquired both the intimate knowledge of hôgaku no sekai and the Japanese language skills to be able to write it. Though much of the book is autobiographical and may be only indirectly about the shakuhachi or traditional Japanese music, Blasel’s experiences make noteworthy reading for anyone interested in the workings of modern Japanese society.

The title, The Single Tone, will remind most shakuhachi players of the saying, Ichi on jôbutsu (One sound, becoming Buddha), an acknowledgment of the claim that enlightenment can be attained through one sound, including a single note on the shakuhachi. Blasdel’s title is, in fact, taken from a poem called Gratitude: by noted American poet, Sam Hamill (Blasdel 2005:v)

Play a single tone,
And reveal the truth therein.
The heart is a gate
Only the breath passes through—
Emptiness to emptiness

The Single Tone is a collection of personal and historical stories told in a way that guides the reader through many different ‘worlds’ within Japanese society. In addition to hôgaku no sekai, mentioned above, there is the bureaucratic world of the Tokyo government, the worlds of Japanese secondary and tertiary education and the contradictory world of the non-Japanese who is a long term resident with schoolchildren in Georgia SSRof Japan, very much an insider but forever the outsider.

Blasdel’s journey is not however, confined to Japan. He takes his shakuhachi and the reader to isolated villages in the mountains of Guatemala, banquets in China and Central Europe, jungles in Argentina, concert halls in Hamburg, a school in Georgia SSR, and a pueblo in New Mexico.with Noguchi

Blasdel sets the personal tone of the book in chapter one, by relating the story of how he first met, through his shakuhachi performance, and eventually became friends with the famous sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. The choice of beginning the book with his meeting with Noguchi, rather than any number of other famous people with whom he has met, is deliberate. Noguchi, we are told, empathizes with Blasdel’s growing disquiet of belonging neither to his adopted culture (Japan) nor the culture in which he grew up (the panhandle of Texas). Noguchi's advice to Blasdel was that this state of not belonging is a difficult one, but that it can also be a source of strength.

Blasdel returns to the insider/outsider discussion periodically throughout the book. The emphasis given to this dichotomy is not merely an expression of the author’s personal problem. An entire chapter of my PhD dissertation (Lee 1992), was devoted to this issue, because,

… the concept of the ‘insider’ versus the ‘outsider’ plays a pervasive role within the shakuhachi tradition. It is likely that the primary motivation many shakuhachi players in Japan have in learning to play the instrument…is the desire to identify with and be loyal to other members of the traditions as insiders (see Nakane 1970; Dore 1958:387, Vogel 1968:147-158). (Lee 1992:15-16)

In my experience, how successfully one is able to define one’s own status within the ‘insider/outsider’ dichotomy, and also how one deals with, emotionally, psychologically and tangibly, the ever-changing and arbitrary status imposed upon one by ‘insiders’, will determine to a large degree one’s success as a shakuhachi player, or any other practitioner of traditional Japanese musical instruments.

The importance of this classification is further reflected in my decision to classify my dissertation’s required survey of the literature into four categories (Lee 1992:25):

1) literature written by insiders to the tradition for other insiders to the tradition

2) literature written by insiders to the tradition, but addressed to people who do not belong to the tradition

3) literature written by outsiders to the tradition aimed primarily at insiders to the tradition

4) literature written by outsiders to the tradition for other outsiders.

Blasdel’s book is successful in part because of the difficulty of pigeonholing it within a single category in the list above.

Isamu Noguchi is the first of many people that Blasdel portrays in the stories of his odyssey.with Yamaguchi The most influential person to figure in these stories is Blasdel’s shakuhachi teacher, Living National Treasure Yamaguchi Gorô (1933-1999). It is through Yamaguchi and his associates that Blasdel learns his art of shakuhachi playing, much of his understanding and appreciation of his adopted home, and ultimately about himself.

Blasdel describes his first and subsequent lessons with Yamaguchi at his home as if they were yesterday, even though many of them occurred decades ago. Yamaguchi conveyed an exceptionally calm ambience, which pervaded his lessons and his music.

Yamaguchi: “Sokaku Reibo” beginning

Ironically, Blasdel is not unique in the initial frustration that he experienced with Yamaguchi’s largely non-verbal and frequently form-oriented, mode of teaching. Blasdel’s descriptions of his close relationship with Yamaguchi, spanning over three decades, was for this reader one of the most rewarding parts of the book.

This relationship is evident in Blasdel’s shakuhachi performance as well as in his book. It is not surprising to hear Yamaguchi’s influence from the very first phrases of any of Blasdel’s recordings of traditional Kinko honkyoku.

Blasdel: “Sokaku Reibo” beginning

The spirit of Yamaguchi's playing is also apparent however, in Blasdel's frequent performances of the many modern pieces for which he is known, even though it is assumed that most if not all were self-taught.

Blasdel: “Byoh”

Chapterkomuso print two is a brief account of the fictional and factual origins of the shakuhachi. This chapter is particularly significant for both its Japanese and non-Japanese readers, as both are, generally speaking, equally ignorant of the genesis, fictional and factual, of the shakuhachi. The historical context of the shakuhachi is especially important in understanding its repertoire and its culture, in part because of its widely publicised and frequently misunderstood and/or misrepresented association with Zen Buddhism.

Parts of The Single Tone reflect its having been written initially for a Japanese readership. The woefully inadequate teaching of traditional Japanese music in Japan’s public school system is mildly interesting to the non-Japanese reader, but other stories related to the shakuhachi might have been more captivating, for example, visits to shakuhachi makers, or how shakuhachi players make a living in today’s Japan.

Blasdel has been immersed in the shakuhachi tradition in Japan at its deepest and most traditional level for over thirty years, performing, recording and teaching.

The Single Tone is not a journal of mainly first impressions of a newcomer to the scene, or an informative travel book with a focus on the shakuhachi. However entertaining, well researched and perceptive these kinds of books may be, they are written by outsiders for a readership who are for the most part also outsiders.

In contrast, Blasdel tells a series of stories, both personal and historical, from an insider’s perspective, but in a way that can be appreciated by both insiders and outsiders, and on a number of different levels. The tension and the perceptions experienced and eloquently expressed by Blasdel, from being both ‘insider’ to the world of the shakuhachi and forever ‘outsider’ to Japanese society is, as Noguchi predicted, the strength of this book.

review by Riley Lee

References Cited