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This article is served with kind permission of the author. First published in the January 1998 issue of Look Japan. Names in the body of the article are given Japanese style: family name, then given name.

The Thundering World of the Taiko

Takeshi Takata
Editor in Chief, Taikology Magazine

You may have heard of a percussion ensemble called "Kodo".

The core stage members of the groups number about 20 and perform on taiko (traditional Japanese drum with a wooden body and heads made of stretched cow or horse skin, struck with sticks) of all sizes, musical intervals, and volumes. They scour the world for ethnic rhythms that lend their performances at times a strong, swift intensity, and at times, a soft, sweet elegance.

Kodo spends about a third of each year on the island of Sado (Niigata Prefecture), where it has its headquarters, practice studios, and housing. Another third is spent touring Japan, and the remaining third on foreign tours. The group is renowned for its artistic merit, not to mention its commercial success. Its performance schedule is booked solid for the next three years. Kodo has also attracted music lovers from around the world to Sado, where since 1988 it has sponsored an international music festival called "Earth Celebration." The normally distant and lonely island is transformed during the festival into a cosmopolitan community bursting with energy.

Kodo's music is often labeled as "ethnic" because, like the percussion music of Africa or Southeast Asia, it has no melody or harmony to speak of, relying instead on rhythm alone to communicate subtle nuances and deep emotions. Others see the music as a performing art because of its strong visual element. Dancers will often appear on stage with the group, and the drumming itself is a form of dance. Ultimately, however, it is just taiko, albeit with a modern flair.

Estimates put the number of taiko groups in Japan at around 5,000. Most of them were formed within the last 25 years or so. They tend towards ensembles of about 20, much like Kodo. That indicates that Japan has about 100,000 drummers, and when children are included the numbers soar much higher. What makes these numbers even more incredible is the fact that an average taiko ensemble will spend nearly 10 million yen ($82,200) on the instruments it needs. The "All Japan Taiko League" formed in 1979 has 700 groups on its rolls. The traditional taiko is, in short, far more popular now than at any time in history.

And it is a long history indeed. Instruments similar to ceramic drums, which are scattered around the world, have been found from as far back as about 2500 B.C. in Japan, but the direct ancestor of the modern taiko crossed the Eurasian continent in about the seventh century of the Christian era. The Japanese court, which was under the sway of Chinese culture, was an avid importer of Buddhist doctrines and courtly ceremonies from the continent. The taiko was brought in as part of this, and while it developed more or less independently in Japan thereafter, there has always been a bit of Chinese influence involved, if only indirectly.

There are extremely precise categories and variations of drums depending on the purpose and context of the performance: stately gagaku, religious ceremony, Noh and kabuki accompaniment, signaling drums that mark the hours. At the level of mass culture, the most popular taiko have been those used in farming and fishing villages to pray for good harvests and catches, or to appease the spirits of ancestors. This tradition continues to this day. Current taiko performance practice with its array of drums chosen for their timbre and pitch is a relatively recent invention, and the taiko ensembles that are so popular today are a most unhistorical innovation.

The Birth of the Taiko Ensemble

The taiko performances that you are most likely to encounter today were invented by a jazz drummer, Oguchi Daihachi. Oguchi is the leader of the influential "Osuwa-Daiko" ensemble and chairman of the All Japan Taiko League.

Oguchi was a "mod" student during the war and was in love with jazz before being drafted and sent to China, where he was taken prisoner. In 1947, two years after Japan surrendered, he finally made his way back to Japan and his home in Nagano Prefecture. There he formed a band and spent several years playing at the local dance halls. One day a relative living nearby found a very old document in the family's storehouse. It appeared to be a music score for taiko. The relative dropped in on Oguchi hoping that he would be able to confirm the find. With the help of the town elders, the music was gradually deciphered. Eventually, Oguchi decided to try to recreate it in performance.

But not quite. His was not an "authentic" recreation in the strict sense of the term. Oguchi found the old music rather monotonous and humdrum, and over the course of several performances at festivals and gatherings, he used his experience and technique as a drummer to increase the number of drums used and add new rhythms that gave the piece more musical appeal. Many of those who performed with him had only limited drumming technique, so Oguchi hit on the idea of dividing multiple rhythmic patterns among them. And so, half a century ago, the Osuwa-Daiko group and the modern taiko ensemble were born.

That is not to say that Osuwa-Daiko was the only new taiko group around at the time. All across the country groups were forming among the musicians who performed at local festivals. One example is Sukeroku-Daiko, a Tokyo-based group that eventually won fame for itself. It began as a group of local drum aficionados who were content to play at festivals and events for a small gratuity. By and large, however, these other groups were exclusive clubs formed around the local "taiko master." Oguchi's taiko music was something completely different and fresh. Those who were there at the beginning describe it as having "something we had never experienced before." The ensemble style enabled Oguchi to increase the musical complexity of his pieces exponentially. At the same time, it provided a means for large numbers of people to participate with relative ease.

The Taiko and Ethnic Identity

To understand how the taiko developed in Japan it may be best to consider how the taiko has spread in North America.

North American taiko performance dates back to the late 1960s, where it was started by Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. The dates are significant. Ever since the war, Japanese-Americans had been forced to keep a low profile. Things that were too obviously Japanese were bad, and so the first generation of immigrants were unable to express the traditional customs and arts that they had brought with them in any visible way. The civil rights movement of the sixties changed that. The Japanese began to reexamine their culture, and the taiko became a symbol of their new-found pride. In the eighties, Buddhist groups formed the basis for a rapid spread of taiko music among Japanese-Americans all over the continent. Today, there are about 150 performing groups.

The situation was in some senses similar in Japan. Defeated and occupied, Japan was engulfed in a conflict between a longing for the prewar traditions and a deep regret and denial of what had happened during the war. The peace treaty of 1952 restored independence and spurred the Japanese state to search for a new self-identity. The Korean War (1950-1953) brought an economic boom. In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party that would go on to dominate Japanese politics for the next four decades was formed. Reconstruction and growth proceeded at a rapid clip, culminating in the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964, the first major national event since the war. By hosting the Olympics, Japan had put its international reputation and authority on the line, and the games generated a degree of fervor beyond anything previously experienced. As an auxiliary to the games a "festival of the arts" was held to celebrate Japan's traditional performing arts: kabuki, Noh, traditional songs, and of course, the new taiko groups, among which was Osuwa-Daiko. It is not hard to understand the honor that was involved in an invitation to perform at the Olympics. After the event Oguchi was swamped with requests to lead ensembles around the country, and he spent the next several years travelling around and spreading the "Osuwa method." Sukeroku-Daiko quickly learned Osuwa techniques too and developed its own unique rhythm and dance performances.


All the way up to the seventies the Japanese economy grew at amazing rates. But this growth was not without its sacrifices. The cities were prosperous, but the countryside, where primary industries concentrated, was simultaneously damaged and marginalized. This in turn produced calls for a new emphasis on outlying regions. In 1975 the Diet amended the Cultural Artifacts Preservation Law to include local festivals, arts, and even customs among cultural artifacts. Financial support from the central government resulted in a plethora of "expos" and "cultural festivals" put on by local governments. Ethnocentricity, supported by the confidence that comes with "economic superpower" status, began to combine with the intense guilt felt for all that had been lost and abandoned during the growth process.

Then in the eighties the central government began providing local communities with large sums of money for "community promotion." Among the chief vehicles for this were festivals, and taiko ensembles were seen as a way to generate more excitement. Local governments moved to form their own ensembles and bring the thunder of the drum to recreations of "local" rites. The taiko became a symbol of the good old days. And it was also an appealing activity that everyone could participate in. Yet a further impetus was the need to find something distinctive for the community to show off at regional expos and cultural festivals, preferably a performing art that was fun to watch. The taiko seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Ensembles could accommodate even rank beginners and still bring off fairly polished performances. And that is why over the last quarter century Japan has been blessed with several thousand taiko groups. Today, local governments are sponsoring large taiko festivals around the country.

Standards for Modern Taiko

Kodo took a different path.

In 1970 a group called Ondeko-za was formed on Sado. Its original aims were to establish a "Craftsman's University" where traditional crafts and folk arts could be taught. The prime mover behind the group was a man named Den Tagayasu (whose name means "plow your field"), and activist from the rancorous labor movements of the fifties who had traveled around the country learning traditional mass culture. A dozen or so young men and women who had been active in the student uprisings heeded his call to quit school and begin living a communal life. They were funded by a large group of sympathetic supporters.

They invited top taiko, flute, and dance performers to teach them, and in the process of searching for their own style, Ondeko-za evolved into a taiko group. In 1975 they successfully debuted in Paris. The next year they went on a U.S. tour produced by Pierre Cardin. Before long, they were international stars, their solos, exhausting tours de force on huge drums more than a meter in diameter, and their ability to utilize the full dynamic range of the taiko brought them into the limelight as a leading contemporary music ensemble. Their shows seemed to epitomize the stoic philosophy. But the internal dynamics were somewhat less harmonious. Den and the other members had a rift about how the group was to be managed that led to its eventual disbanding. Den left Sado entirely, and the remaining members reorganized under the name "Kodo". In spite of Den's departure, Kodo went on to achieve even greater worldwide acclaim in the late eighties. Den has not been resting on his laurels either. He formed a "New Ondeko-za" that has achieved a measure of prominence in the nineties.

I trace Ondeko-za and Kodo back to left-wing nativism. In this sense these groups too were products of their age, however different their methods and inspirations might have been. But regardless of their starting point, they too developed the inherent appeal of the taiko as a means of creative expression. That is why their disciplined, refined performances have continued to set the standard for taiko ensembles around Japan. Kodo in particular has an influence and appeal that extends far beyond Japan's borders and is turning the taiko into a more universal art.

Universal Taiko

We have already examined some common points in the history of taiko performance in Japan and North America. Obviously, there are also large differences. In July 1997, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center held its first-ever "Taiko Conference," a three-day event that attracted about 500 participants to discuss the history and current state of affairs of the taiko in North America. As I understand it, these people are performing drums on their own. Perhaps that is because most of North America's taiko are cheap homemade versions, converted from old wine barrels. There is much that Japan's overly-coddled taiko groups, in most (but not all) cases the products of government fiat, could learn from their North American counterparts.

Another important point is that North American taiko groups contain large numbers of non-Asians. As Johnny Mori, the percussionist for the jazz-fusion band "Hiroshima" and one of the pioneering taiko performers in North America stated at the conference, the phrase "universal taiko" is coming closer to reality.

The taiko can, in short, be viewed as part of the music of this century. Indeed, it should be viewed that way. That, of course, will lead to a completely different story than the one we have been telling and raise a series of difficult and profound musicological questions. Let's leave it as homework for another day.

The author is editor in chief of the taiko magazine Taikology. He graduated from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo in 1984.

copyright 1997 by Takeshi Takata. Used by permission.

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