Japanese American History

Taiko in the United States

With its thunderous drumming and powerful rhythms, taiko is one of Japan’s most crowd-pleasing art forms—and one that has inspired a wildly enthusiastic following in the United States.

In Japanese, the word taiko translates as “big drum.” Taiko groups commonly use three different types of taiko: Nagado have a long body and a tacked head; Okedo have a lightweight slatted body with rope-tensioned heads; and shime are small and higher-pitched with rope or bolt-tensioned heads.

In Japan, taiko are made from solid blocks of wood. Many American taiko groups make their drums from wine oak barrels, although some may use other types of barrels.

While drumming has long been a part of Japanese and Japanese American culture—whether as part of court music, martial arts, religious rites, or seasonal festivals—it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that taiko evolved into the ensemble form popularly practiced and performed today.

Seiichi Tanaka founded San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968, the first group of its kind in the United States. (Tanaka Sensei was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award for his central role in developing taiko in the United States.) The following year, Reverend Masao Kodani and George Abe organized Kinnara Taiko at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. At Senshin, taiko is considered an extension of temple activities and the practice of Buddhism.

San Jose Taiko was organized in 1973 by Reverend Hiroshi Abiko, Dean Miyakusu, and Roy Hirabayashi. The first taiko group to form in the state of Hawaii was Hawaii Matsuri Taiko, organized by Faye Komagata in Wahiawa, Hawaii, in 1984, forming the first Hawaiian taiko group.

Taiko has continued to gain popularity in the United States, with new groups forming every year. American taiko groups and artists have even become well known in Japan. Since the 1980s, San Francisco Taiko Dojo has performed in Japan numerous times. In 1987, San Jose Taiko, became the first American taiko group to tour Japan and use all American-made barrel taiko. That same year, American taiko artist Kenny Endo became the first non-Japanese national to receive a natori (stage name and master’s degree) in hogaku hayashi (classical Japanese drumming).

Over the years, taiko has evolved as a distinctly American art form that is practiced by people of surprisingly diverse backgrounds, transforming into an exciting example of cultural fusion. Its multicultural musical inspirations are seemingly endless. The Japanese innovators of the art form were inspired not only by traditional Japanese drumming, but western jazz and other Asian percussion. American taiko players have developed styles and repertoires that draw upon Japanese American Buddhist ideas and practices as well as Afro-Caribbean, and other contemporary/popular musical forms.

The art form’s influence continues to grow, and audiences for taiko performances have increased and diversified. Taiko is now readily accessible through such mainstream cultural entities as Cirque du Soleil and Epcot Center. In addition, American taiko groups have been featured on the soundtracks of films such as The Return of the Jedi, The Right Stuff, Karate Kid II, and Charlie’s Angels.

Surprisingly pervasive and continually evolving, taiko symbolizes community and cultural identity. Taiko artists and communities have advanced the art form and created a new American tradition.

June 2005

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