The KSK and its Founders:

Watazumi Dōso (1911 - 1992)

For us, the life and teaching of Watazumi are important if for no other reason than he was one of the two principal teachers of Yokoyama Sensei.

The meager history that’s available regarding their years together as teacher and student is recounted on this web site in Yokoyama’s biography. Very little is available in terms of solid detail regarding their relationship.

What we do know is that Yokoyama found Watazumi to be a powerful player with strong opinions and a strong, if quirky, personality; and that Watazumi greatly shaped the aesthetic and playing style that Yokoyama Sensei later became famous for.

It appears that Watazumi wanted to be well-known as a performer, and yet preferred to remain largely unknown and unknowable as a person. Some have said that it was his intention to maintain an aura of inscrutability and mystery regarding his history and who he really was interpersonally. Others have said that being known was simply not important to him. In any case, as a practical matter, we are left with very little hard information about the facts of his life and everything written here should be read as being somewhat tentative and subject to revision if more solid information becomes available.

Watazumi was born in 1911 on the island of Kyushu. His given name was Tanaka Masaru and virtually nothing is known of his childhood. Many sources report that he began formal study of shakuhachi when he was 20 years old with Nakamura Kikifu, a student of Sakurai Muteki. Apparently he also had a strong interest in physical fitness which may have included an early emphasis on the breath as the source of physical and personal power. In an interview included in the documentary “Sukiyaki and Chips: The Japanese Sounds of Music” produced in 1994, Watazumi recounts that he had been a fitness or martial arts instructor in Japan’s Imperial Army during the war years, which would have put him in his early 30’s. When the war ended, he left military service and joined a Rinzai Zen monastery, for reasons that are not clear.

Details regarding the course of Tanaka-san’s Zen training are also unclear. He was apparently ordained as a Rinzai priest, and it may have been during these years that he took on some of the other names he was known by — Tanaka Fumon, Itcho Fumon, Watazumi Fumon – since ordination and promotion through Zen ranks often includes the conferring of new names and titles. One tradition holds that he eventually attained the status of Roshi, which would imply that he had been promoted to the rank of Osho by his teacher, indicating that he had completed his formal training as a student.

By another account however, he left the Zen establishment in 1949, which would have been after only a few years of practice if he had indeed joined the monastery after the war. And it’s unlikely that this would have been enough time to attain the status of Osho or Roshi. He is also credited with having become the Kanjo (principal leader) of the Fuke Sect of Zen, which is separate from the Rinzai Sect and was not formally well established in post-war Japan. Finally, Watazumi has been described as being the founder of the Ichoken Fukko-ha (also called the Myoan Masho-ha), an organization about which virtually nothing is known though both Ichoken and Myoan-ji are names associated with Honkyoku Shakuhachi.

Referring back to the “Sukiyaki and Chips” interview, Watazumi noted that he ultimately gave up Zen practice in any case, to go his own way. Ostensibly, one of the main motivations for doing so was his experience that Zen was too limited or too rigid about the contribution of breathing to personal practice, and that traditional Zen training did not include sufficient physical exercise, which he regarded as unhealthy. More important than a consideration about physical health however was his assessment that the rigid formality of Zen was neither necessary, nor in fact conducive, to the process of really learning to become oneself.

So at some point, Tanaka-san left Rinzai Zen and developed his own approach to practice, the Way of Watazumi. Famously, his routine began every day at 3:30am with 6 hours of very rigorous practice using a long hardwood staff called a Bo, with a strong emphasis on various kinds of breathing practice and especially the lengthening of the out breath. Of note, this daily conditioning was in addition to spending many hours playing music.

So what do we know about Watazumi as a student, teacher, player and promoter of shakuhachi? Again, not as much as we would like, though a number of things can be inferred. In addition to possibly studying with Nakamura Sensei, he may also have trained with Uramoto Setcho, Onishi Baisen, and Higuchi Taizan, who was 35th Kansu of the Meian Line. To our knowledge, very little information is available about any of these instructors. One source reports that he had initially learned Honkyoku from Komuso living in Kyushu, which was possibly after the war though the dates are unknown. According to the same source, he became a student in the Taizan Ryu (Myoan ha) which was popular in Kyushu, and ultimately went on to resurrect the Honkyoku tradition at Ichoken temple thus attaining the title Icho Fumon, the “head of Icho” .

In any event, it seems evident that his skill as a player was recognized when he was quite young. When it came time for him to leave Kyushu, he apparently traveled throughout Japan, learning the styles of a number of Honkyoku masters before ultimately settling in Tokyo and opening a school. His own unique style of playing then began to take shape, formed as much by his adherence to physical conditioning and breath training as by his study of a variety of Honkyoku traditions.

It’s absolutely clear that Watazumi strongly emphasized philosophical and spiritual aspects of playing shakuhachi (see below). He considered himself to be something other than a musician and the shakuhachi to be a tool for self-development rather than simply a flute for playing enjoyable songs. He was knowledgeable of Honkyoku and re-worked a number of pieces to conform better to his style of playing, many of which are now included in the KSK repertoire (though with later re-working by Yokoyama Sensei as well). Yokoyama Sensei thought of Watazumi as a genius, and at one point in his own training, despaired at ever being able to come close to playing with Watazumi’s power and overall command of the instrument. While he was not necessarily enamored of Watazumi’s eccentric character and emphasis on such rigorous physical conditioning, he nonetheless valued Watazumi’s power as well as the subtle expressivity and transcendent quality of his interpretation of Honkyoku.

As students of Yokoyama (or students of his students), we are now the beneficiaries of Watazumi’s extraordinary and complex legacy. It’s fair to say for example that we play meri notes in the style of Watazumi, make judicious use of breath sound (muraiki) as an ornamentation, and struggle to be accurate with pitch, all because these were components of his style that he passed on to and demanded of Yokoyama. And of course, many of us now honor the habit of blowing RoBuki for 10 minutes each day because that is the key to becoming a master that Watazumi had imparted to his most famous student.

Watazumi died on December 14, 1992 after being struck by a motorcycle while practicing with his Bo in the woods. He was 81 years old and was still quite active.

Watazumi’s Philosophy

Watazumi did not think of his Way as being exclusively Japanese, noting that if he had been born into a different culture, he was sure he would have developed the same philosophy and approach to teaching within the framework of that culture. This perspective may well have fed a similar value later espoused by Yokoyama Sensei: the ardent desire to make shakuhachi training available to students internationally and cross-culturally. In fact, this very web site is a testament to that endeavor. To this end, in 1981, Watazumi was invited to give a lecture and demonstration at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, during which he expounded on his unique philosophy of music, breath and personal development in the context of playing shakuhachi. Material has been gleaned from that presentation and combined with some of his comments and teachings from other sources to make up the following synopsis of his philosophy: 

The overarching purpose or goal of learning to play shakuhachi (and Honkyoku in particular) is to develop greater and greater knowledge of one’s own life. Honkyoku is not just music, we are not just musicians, and the shakuhachi itself is actually a powerful tool for self-exploration rather than simply being a flute. Similarly, music is not a fixed idea or just a scale of notes. It is all around us in water and wind sounds for example, or the sounds of children, birds, or food being cooked. These things all make vibrations in the air, and as such are music and are examples of the One Sound: the vibration that is constantly around us, what Watazumi referred to as the Life Force perhaps. 

One’s own way of living then is the deep source of one’s music and we tap into that source by strengthening the Life Force. This is a central tenet: we explore and strengthen the Life Force – and thereby become more healthy, in addition to learning more about ourselves – by engaging in daily practices. These include: 

  • Haku: This is the lengthening the outbreath with no concern for the inbreath; it is held to be the most important practice. Watazumi taught that four different kinds of breathing can be mindfully employed in actual playing: rough, strong, soft and weak, and that these are in contrast to normal unconscious breathing that we typically engage in throughout the day. Unconscious breathing does not promote health and power and is not adequate for playing good music. Rather, conscious breathing is the key to developing one’s own unique and powerful music. 
  • Tsukami: This is the ability to grasp with the fingers and toes, but with an emphasis on strength and the free movement of one’s digits. This ability is crucial to the performance of good music, to the point that Watazumi claimed to be able to evaluate the quality of any player’s ability just by observing for a few moments the movement of their fingers.
  • Nobasu:This is the lengthening of the large muscles of the body through vigorous exercise, which in turn lengthens and stretches all the smaller muscle groups. This movement and action of the entire body is also crucial to good playing.

Watazumi also emphasized developing rhythm and a deep understanding of rhythm, not in the traditional musical sense, but rather as the life pulse of every cell in the body. This cellular rhythm is what produces movement in the entire body, and is once again developed and promoted by vigorous exercise and in turn facilitates good playing. 

According to Watazumi’s Way, the traditional approach to playing music of simply repeating the notes of a written score is not adequate. You need to recognize that you yourself are the music and that in playing the music you are moving yourself, training and strengthening yourself, developing your own power. This is the way of music and sound that provides the deeper aspect of tapping into human life. In this context, the flute then becomes a Sui Jo Dogu, a tool (Dogu) for concentrated breathing. Beginning with the practice of rough breathing, he urged his students to give up on the idea of becoming a good musician in favor of training the Life Force. The flute is the tool that facilitates this process, though the process takes years and even decades to accomplish. 

As a final note, there are many images of Watazumi playing enormous pieces of bamboo called Hotchiku. It was his contention that the large pieces of natural bamboo made the best Dogu because playing them enabled an understanding of the entire natural world. Also, the physical requirement of playing Hotchiku forces the player to work harder at developing their own sound.