Art and Tradition: JETs Practicing Japanese Culture: Taiko Drumming

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Emma performing on a chuu-daiko.

One of the coolest Japanese instruments has got to be the taiko drum. Just watching a group of taiko players leaping around hitting drums in unison is an amazing experience in and of itself, but some of our local Fukushima JETs have joined taiko groups and have performed it themselves!

The term “taiko” in Japanese refers to all types of drum, and the term “wadaiko” specifies the traditional Japanese style of drum. They can range in size from the shimedaiko (about the diameter of a large dinner plate) to the huge festival o-daiko whose face alone can be almost as tall as the players themselves! Accompanying the drums are a variety of other instruments, such as small gongs called “atarigane,” and bamboo flues called “shinobue” or “takebue.” The performers’ voices themselves can be part of the song, chanting or yelling to add to the rhythm, or signalling a change in the song.

Diana performing taiko at a local lake festival.

Diana Truong, a fourth-year JET in Showa-mura, Aizu, has been playing taiko for almost four years. “During my first year, I heard about a local taiko group in one of the towns that I teach at. I was invited to join the group by one of the local families.” The taiko group members include some of her elementary and junior high school teachers and students. “I really enjoyed spending time with my students and some of their parents outside of class! It is also a good stress reliever,” she jokes.

Fifth-year Shirakawa JET Emma Gibson joined her taiko group in a different way. “I told my BOE kachou when I first arrived in Japan that I wanted to learn something traditional while I was here.  I was thinking ikebana.  He suggested taiko because his friend was the kaichou of a local team.  I had no idea what it was… so I said yes.” She has been playing with this group for almost five years now! “I love my team members.  After such a long time you get very close.  I also love that I’ve been able to travel and perform.  I’ve performed in Okinawa, Ishikawa, Saitama, Kanagawa, Yamagata… and all over Fukushima.”

Emma and her taiko group. They will be back playing in Minamisoma for the first time since the Great Earthquake at the Soma Nomaoi festival.
Emma and her taiko group. They will be back playing in Minami Soma for the first time since the Great Earthquake at the Soma Nomaoi festival.

Playing taiko involves a lot of time and commitment, to both practices and performances. It is impossible to play taiko casually without giving it your full effort. “Once I’d proven that I was serious, the senpai accepted me and taught me.  It took a long time to get that acceptance, but now my senpai are like my Japanese family,” Emma says.

Of course, in the beginning you will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Emma explains, “I’ve learnt a lot about status.  When you start you are at the end of the line.  You play in the back corner and clean the floors after practice.  But slowly over time you move towards the centre of the stage and someone else has to wipe the sweat off the floors.  And eventually (for me, after four years) you finally get to play the solos and really become an essential part of the team. It’s a good feeling when you get to that stage.”

And of course the taiko songs themselves can be a challenge. Diana says, “It can be difficult playing your part simultaneously with completely different rhythms being played by the others. It’s easy to get lost! Also remembering  so many different pieces!”

Playing a single drum together!
Playing a single drum together!

Despite these challenges, Diana believes that taiko is a great representation of Japanese culture. “The beating of the drums represent the sounds of the Japanese in its own unique way. Often times, the pieces are reflective of the nature and culture of Japan. When you hear the songs, you can picture a story from the mixtures of melodies produced by the drums, flutes, cymbals, and the shouts of the performers.”

Emma agrees, “Our main performance piece is called Natsu and is about the samurai horse races.  You can hear the thundering of hooves and the rising tension as we play.” You can hear this piece at this year’s Soma Nomaoi Festival in Minami Souma City on July 26th, Saturday night, 9pm with the fireworks.  “We are/were the local team from that area and it’s the first time we’ll be back at the festival since the Great Earthquake.  I’d love to see everyone there!” For more information about this festival, see the link here:

Diana has this advice for JETs: “If you’re interested in experiencing new things, I definitely recommend trying out taiko. You will easily fall in love with the rhythmic beats. If you are not sure where you can find a taiko group, ask your predecessors, talk to the locals and teachers (especially at enkai), go to festivals and keep an eye out for local groups and ask them about it. Once you become a member, just keep beating and enjoy the sounds of the drums.”