"Taiko is a powerful cultural asset in Japan. It is an ancient form, yet a new invention."

The History of Taiko

The word Taiko literally means “big drum” or “broad drum.” Since ancient times, Taiko has been associated with many aspects of Japanese culture. Taiko has been used for religious ceremonies, Noh and Kabuki music accompaniments, farming, festivals, fishing and for signaling time. There was a time when people believed that their ancestors lived in Taiko drums and treated them as sacred objects. To these Japanese, Taiko is a sacred object - a unity of the spirits of man and nature.

Taiko probably came to Japan around the fifth century from China and Korea, with their theatrical arts and belief of Buddhism. The Japanese Court Music (Gagaku), which has maintained the traditional style since earlier times, uses drums. Many regional styles of Taiko were developed based on local religious festivals.

Taiko performances popular today are a very modern form. The contemporary style of group drumming is called Kumidaiko, and it is almost 60 years old. A jazz drummer, Oguchi Daihachi, who was the leader of the Osuwa Daiko in Nagano Prefecture in central Japan, invented this performance style. He thought traditional drumming music rather monotonous. To make Taiko music more musical, he created “Multiple Rhythmic Patterns.” Contemporary Taiko is a post WW II phenomenon. Japan had a US Occupation Period after WW II. During the late 40’s Gen. MacArthur began to turn over more decision making power to Japan. The Korean War in 1950 to 1953 made the U.S. View Japan not as an enemy, but as an ally. The American policy to keep Japan politically and economically weak changed to make Japan strong to hold up against communism. The United States started giving Japan economic aid. In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party re-gained their political power and world wide economic expansion during the 50’s motivated Japan to expand economically. In 1962, the American Congress passed “The Trade Expansion Bill” and this allowed Japan room for further economic growth.

Economic growth and westernization brought to Japan a cultural Renaissance in the late 60’s; people scrutinized their own culture to re-discover the essence of what is to be Japanese. New Taiko became one of the art forms people identified as a traditional art. In 1969, Ondekoza was formed by Den Tagayasu to create an art community on Sado Island. Later this group split into two groups -- Ondekoza and Kodo. Ondekoza and Kodo toured in Japan and took Taiko to the international stage, and they have helped to create an awareness of Taiko both inside and outside of Japan.

Japanese economic growth brought with it the marginalization of rural communities. Many communities (especially Northern part of Japan) suffered with young migrating to the cities, leaving the elders to tend to the seasonal agricultural needs of these isolated villages. As these culturally rich, but economically poor areas started to fail, the national government stepped in to help revitalize the economies of these regions with grants to support the development of local unique festivals to foster overall tourism.

The national government was concerned about these very traditional communities that were beginning to disappear. In 1975, the government passed the Amendment of the Cultural Artifacts Preservation Law, which allowed local government a means to obtain financial support from the central government to put on local festivals. In the 80’s the central government started to provide aid to local governments to promote community development, and these local governments generated financial support for creating festivals.

Taiko ensembles became ever popular for adding excitement in these festivals. The Japanese government was able to help local communities preserve local cultural traditions and this further encouraged the modern development and popularization of Taiko in Japan. The idea of bringing back traditional arts was reflected in the Japanese educational system in 2002. The Ministry of the Education placed traditional Japanese instruments into primary and secondary education, and encouraged traditional music education in the school system. With this new music education for children in school throughout the country, a new industry - Taiko industry - has emerged. Taiko instructional materials, training for teachers, and the popularization of Taiko through public performances, has made Taiko an important part of Japanese culture today.

Taiko is a powerful cultural asset in Japan. It is an ancient form, yet a new invention. The new style – Taiko Ensemble—created by Oguchi Daihachi provides a means for a large number of people to participate in Taiko performances.

Taiko in the United States

There are over 300 Taiko groups in North America, and the number of Taiko groups is increasing each year.

Taiko was brought to North America by Japanese immigrants in early 1900. It was used for religious services. Taiko is an important instrument for religious rituals, especially during the Obon period. Obon is an annual Buddhist festival in summer to honor and commemorate deceased family members and ancestors. The climax of this festival is the Obon dancing. Yagura, a sacred zone, is built and Taiko is placed in the Yagura. People circle around the Yagura and dancing is done around this sacred zone. This gathering was very important for immigrants to establish communities in their new land.

Japanese Americans in the United States had a difficult time during and after World War II. The interment during the war created economic difficulties and psychological scars in Japanese Americans and their communities. Japanese cultural heritage such as marital arts, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Bonsai was taught to train individuals to realize a stronger sense of self and community. When people were in a situation of oppression, the approach to train their inner skills by practicing traditional Japanese arts was very important for the Japanese American.

After World War II the world was changing rapidly. People struggled to change the old colonial order and chaffed against the established notions of racism and exploitation. The invisible people both home and abroad became visible. The civil rights struggles gave impetus to a new consciousness with a much broader view of the world. From this view came the public awareness of segregation and discrimination based on race and sex. In the midst of the racial and the gender equality movements were emergence of the Beat Generation of poet and novelists, evangelical movements, and interest in Asian religions. Buddhist idea of non-materialistic life style and human well being seeped into the Counter Culture population, and Zen Buddhism became ever more popular. The number of non-Asian conversion to Buddhism came to a peak during the 60’s and 70’s. Changing the immigration law in 1965 allowed a large flow of Asian population into the States.

In 1968, Master Seiichi Tanaka opened SF Taiko Dojo. In 1969 Kinnara Taiko was established at Senshin Buddhist Temple in LA, and San Jose Taiko was established in 1973. Many Buddhist Taiko groups were established in the early 80’s with the help of Kinnara Taiko, and non-religious Taiko groups became visible in the late 80’s. Since then, the number of Taiko groups has been increasing. This Taiko fever brought several successful North American Taiko Conferences. Through these conferences groups had opportunities to exchange information about many subjects, from creating music to drum making techniques.

One very important element in the history of the establishment of Taiko groups in North America is the process of drum making. In North America, a Taiko group starts with the making of Taiko drums. The price of Taiko in Japan is rather high, and it is very hard to purchase drums for a newly established group. Therefore, people who want to have a Taiko group need to start with drum making. Since Sensei Masao Kodani from Kinnara Taiko introduced the drum making techniques using wine barrels, the number of Taiko group in the United States and Canada jumped in a short time. Creating new Taiko drums requires many new ideas. Taiko groups in the States and Canada are constantly searching for new ideas for better Taiko and Taiko equipment making.

Taiko is a powerful instrument. It moves the energy around us. Many young people in the States are drawn to this exciting fundamental powerful sound and a new generation of Taiko is growing. This energy has created many collegiate groups across the States to form Taiko groups in their colleges and universities. Stanford University (Stanford Taiko), UCLA (Kyodo Taiko), UC Irvine (Dodaiko), UC Davis (Bakuhatsu Taiko Dan), UC Riverside (Senryu Taiko) have their own Taiko groups. With their enthusiasm, colleges and universities have created an Intercollegiate Taiko Council. Taiko is moving to a new generation maintaining traditional Japanese values and adding more skills in stage performances.

History of Taiko © Ikuyo Conant, 1997 & 2009


“The Thundering World of Taiko” by Takeshi Takata (Taikology 1997)
“The Study of Osuwa Taiko “ by Akitoshi Asano (Taikology1995)