Taiko History

The Birth of Taiko

As percussion instruments are generally the most primitive instrument in any society, the taiko existed and was used in the ancient Japan over 2000 years ago. According to some archeological and anthropological researches, ancient people in the Jyomon era already used drums as a communication tool or an instrument for religious rituals. However, the percussion they used is guessed to be quite different from the one used today.

By the fact that taiko we use today resembles those in China and Korea, the ancienttaiko was probably introduced to Japan from the Asian Continent as far as India. The continental music came to Japan around 5 th – 6th century along with the waves of Chinese and Korean cultural influence based on Buddhism. When the Taiho Ritsuryo, the oldest constitution of Japan, was enacted in 702, a department of the imperial court music was established in the Imperial Palace. The department has been inherited directly till now, honored as the Important Intangible Cultural Asset. Various kinds of taikos such as San-no-tsuzumi, Furi- tsuzumi, Dadaiko, Tsuri-daiko, Ninai-daiko, Kakko, Kaiko, and ikko are used in the court music. The style is said to be one of the roots of taiko music we know today.

After the samurai class gained power since the Kamakura era started in 1192, a new cultural movement of ethnic Japanese started to appear. Many original art forms were born under the feudal Japan, unleashed from the Chinese and Korean cultural influence. For example, a Noh play was created in the Muromachi era (1336-1573). A famous Kabuki play emerged and quickly became popular in the Edo era (1603-1867) as well as Nagauta. Taiko had an important role in those art forms as an accompaniment, and were gradually diversified to various sizes and shapes. Moreover, the development of other instruments such as Shamisen, Koto and Shakuhachi also influenced the shaping of those art forms now categories as traditional. The methods of taiko playing have been inherited through generations under the iemoto system (the system of the teaching of a traditional Japanese art by a master), although western music has become predominant in modern Japan.

Meanwhile, taikos have always been used in religious ceremonies or local festivals as well. It is very common to find taikos at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. This shows that taiko has associated with a religion very closely. The ancient people might feel the power of deity in the rumbling sound of taiko and taiko had a role as a sanctifying instrument. Usually, men who were authorized by the priest played taiko at special occasions. Otherwise at the religious ceremonies, common people have enjoyed dancing along with taiko at local festivals. Such local festivals still remain and it is fun to watch their unique taiko performances.

Taiko in the U.S.

Taiko was brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants there in the early of the 20th century. The main usage of taiko in those days was to play in temples or in festivals as Miya-daiko (temple drum or sacred drum). The Japanese immigrants preserved their culture in the New World, probably, to maintain their identity and cooperative spirit as Japanese. For example, Bon-Odori, a dance in Bon festival reposing the ancestor’s souls in summer, is one of the cultural activities they loved to keep. According to resources, taiko drumming of Bon-Odori was already established in Hawaii as early as 1910. The Kanazawa Kenjinkai, an organization of Japanese immigrants from Kanazawa Prefecture in Japan, also brought it to San Francisco in 1930’s.

When the World War II broke out and Japan declared war against the United States, a tragedy stroke those Japanese immigrants. They were taken into internment camps as enemy aliens. After the war ended, the Japanese-American tried hard to assimilate into American culture, in order to remove the prejudice. The succeeding generation lost much of their Japanese culture and even the language. Taiko drumming was also forgotten for a long time till 1960’s.

In the storm of the Civil Rights Movement, some Japanese-American wanted to revive their identity as Japanese, and they found a way to express it in taiko drumming. At the end of 1960’s, two pioneer groups opened the door for taiko music in North America: the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and the Kinnara Taiko. Seiichi Tanaka, born in Tokyo, immigrated to San Francisco in 1967 and founded the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in the following year. He was a student of Daihachi Oguchi, the legendary founder of Osuwa Daiko. His style of taiko drumming was a synthesis of Osuwa Daiko, Oedo Sukeroku, and Gojinjyo-daiko. The San Francisco Taiko Dojo was the first taiko group introduced the Kumi-daiko style to the United States. The group inspired many following taiko groups and greatly devoted to spread taiko throughout North America for decades. The Reverend Masao Kodani of Senshin Buddhist Temple founded the Kinnara Taiko in 1969.

Differed from the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the Kinnara Daiko based on a Buddhist organization and basically performed for events of the temple. The group is one of the unique Japanese-American Buddhist taiko groups still going on. Following them, San Jose Taiko was founded in 1973. The group was also based on a Buddhist organization. One of the Buddhist priest of the organization was a friend of the Reverend Kodani of the Kinnara Daiko and was inspired by him to establish a taiko group in San Jose. Most of the members were Sansei at first. They are urged to revive the culture of their grandparents; meanwhile, they tried to express their identity as Japanese-American in taiko drumming. They made it become a symbolic art form of Japanese-American culture.

The History of Taiko: The Heartbeat of Japan [online] [Japan] Taiko Center Co., Ltd., [published 2004-2005],[cited 2005-10-21]. Available from Internet: