History of Taiko

Ancient Taiko History

Taiko means “big drum”. Taiko is a tradition of Japanese drumming used in villages and temples as a means of communication in festivals, rituals, prayer and war. Japanese taiko as we know them today bear strong resemblance to Chinese and Korean instruments, which were probably introduced in the waves of Korean and Chinese cultural influence from 300-900 AD. It has been speculated that the predecessor of the tsuzumi style of taiko may come from as far as India, and came to Japan along with Buddhism. However, the waves of cultural influence stopped for the most part around the year 900, and development from that point can basically be attributed to native Japanese craftsmen. Taiko, although continuing to bear similarities to Chinese and Korean drums, have evolved into unique Japanese instruments.

Modern Taiko History

Taiko as it is performed today as an ensemble (kumi-daiko) is a phenomenon which was born in 1951 in Showa 26. Daihachi Oguchi, who created the kumi-daiko style, is given much of the credit for the current taiko boom. Oguchi was a jazz drummer who happened upon an old piece of taiko music. Deciding to perform the old music for the Osuwa shrine, Oguchi “jazzed it up” as he arranged it. Influenced by American jazz, he wondered why taiko were never played together and broke with tradition by assembling a taiko ensemble, Osuwa Daiko.

Another pioneering taiko ensemble in Japan was Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko, founded in 1959. After the group split, former member Seido Kobayashi went on to form Oedo Sukeroku Taiko, which is credited with being the first professional taiko group and it is their style that greatly influenced North American taiko.

Taiko in North America

As Japanese people immigrated to North America in the early part of the 1900s, they brought taiko over with them as well. Taiko drums in North America previous to 1968 were primarily used as miya-daiko (temple drums) and in various dojos (kendo, judo, karate). The traditional use of taiko drums was well established in Japanese-American/Canadian communities in North America until World War II. The war, and the subsequent incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans/Canadians as “enemy aliens” brought Japanese culture in North America to an abrupt halt. Once the war was over, many Japanese tried very hard to assimilate into the North American culture, and many of the following generation lost much of the language and culture.

In 1968, a Japanese immigrant with a martial arts background named Seiichi Tanaka formed the first North American taiko ensemble, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, after returning briefly to Japan to train with Oedo Sukeroku. Not far away, in Los Angeles, Kinnara Taiko was formed at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in 1969, creating a uniquely American hybrid – Japanese American Buddhist taiko. The third pioneering taiko group in North America was San Jose Taiko, founded in 1973 and closely linked with the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Although they initially received some training from Seiichi Tanaka, the group took off in their own direction shortly after. All three groups continue to exist today.

The Spread of North American Taiko

In Japan, taiko are normally made using hollowed out tree trunks by master craftsmen and women (but still mostly men), and cost thousands of dollars each. Kinnara Taiko started to make their own drums out of wine barrels instead. It was this relatively inexpensive innovation that helped lead to the grassroots spread and growth of taiko groups in North America as the word got out that you could fashion drums out of old wine barrels.

Alongside this, the awakening Asian American Movement was also pivotal in the spread of taiko groups across the continent. In the early 1970s, many sansei (third generation Japanese-Americans) were looking for a means to express their heritage and embraced taiko drumming. The Asian American Movement developed with a sense of solidarity between Asian people. North American taiko with its pan-Asian roots contributes to and reflects the development of an Asian American/Canadian identity.

Taiko in Canada

Katari Taiko formed in 1979 after witnessing a performance in Vancouver by San Jose Taiko and was the first taiko group in Canada. Their initial training came from a week-long workshop with Seiichi Tanaka. In the years that followed, more groups began to spring up around the country (as well as in the US); some were directly influenced by the Japanese taiko tradition of Osuwa Daiko, while others trace their lineage through North American taiko history with Seiichi Tanaka and Oedo Sukeroku, and still others trace their lineage to Kinnara Taiko through the network of Japanese American Buddhist temples.

Four members from Katari Taiko moved to Toronto from Vancouver and formed Wasabi Daiko in 1985. After the demise of Wasabi Daiko, an all-women group was initiated by three former members in 1998 and this group was named Raging Asian Women (RAW).

Parts were taken directly from the Rolling Thunder Taiko Resource website. For more on the history of taiko, please visit www.taiko.com/taiko_resource/history.html or www.taiko-center.co.jp/english/history_of_taiko.html