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Taiko Overview and History By Rolling Thunder.

Taiko is a drumming style of Japanese origin. While various taiko drums have been used in Japan for over 1400 years, and possibly much longer, the style of taiko best known today has a relatively short history, beginning in the 1950's. 


"Taiko" in general is often used to mean the art of Japanese drum ensembles (kumi-daiko), but the word actually refers to the taiko drums themselves. Literally, taiko means "fat drum," although there is a vast array of shapes and sizes of taiko. Within the last fifty years since kumi-daiko was created, it has seen phenomenal growth to the point where there are over 8,000 taiko groups in Japan by some counts.

People are sometimes confused by the frequent usage of the word "daiko", which is a suffix used to indicate a type of drum, a taiko group, or a style of taiko playing, in a compound word. When used in a compound word, the "T" sound in "taiko" changes to a "D" sound. Thus, a taiko group from Edo would be called "Edo-daiko", for example.

Taiko in Japanese History

The exact history of Japanese Taiko remains shrouded in speculation, although some educated guesses are possible. The oldest physical evidence of taiko in Japan is a haniwa clay figure of a drummer that dates from the sixth or seventh century. However, since the first instruments in any society tend to be percussion instruments, it would not be out of the question for taiko (as we know them today) to have been used in Japan for well over 2000 years.

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.

Reputedly, one of the first uses of taiko was as a battlefield instrument; used to intimidate and scare the enemy - a use to which drums have been put in many cultures. Taiko were definitely used in battle to issue commands and coordinate movements by the 1500's; the taiko being the only instrument that could be heard across the entire battlefield. According to picture scrolls and painted screens of the time, one soldier would carry the taiko lashed to a backpack-like frame, while two other soldiers would beat the taiko, on each side. Both nagado and okedo style taiko were used in this capacity. A war taiko used by Shingen Takeda, a famous warlord of that era, still exists and is preserved by Osuwa-daiko. It is remarkable for the three large holes cut in the side of the nagado style taiko. This served to increase the volume of the drum, useful in battle.

In addition to the martial aspect, taiko have always been used in the most refined cultural settings as well. Gagaku music was introduced to Japan in the Nara period (697-794) along with Buddhism, and was quickly adopted as the imperial court music. Gagaku is the oldest continually played court music in the world, and it is still being performed. The taiko used for Gagaku (kakko, san-no-tsuzumi, dadaiko, tsuri-daiko, ninai-daiko, ikko, furitsuzumi, kaiko) are some of the most elegant and beautifully decorated of all Japanese instruments.

The rumbling power of the taiko has also been long been associated with the gods, and has been appropriated by the religions of Japan. According to Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa-daiko, about four thousand years ago, in the Jomon period , taiko was used for to signal various activities in the village. Simple taiko beats would be used to signal that the hunters were setting out, or to signal that a storm was coming and that the women needed to bring in the meat and fruits they had drying. While there is no direct physical evidence to support this claim, Megumi Ochi, curator of the Taiko Kan Museum, believes this to be true since other cultures exhibit the same behavior. Because these signals were so important to the flow of daily life, the people were very thankful of the taiko, and began to believe that the taiko was inhabited by a god.

As this belief developed, only the holy men were allowed to beat the taiko, and as the Shinto and Buddhist religions developed in Japan, this custom remained. Thus the only instruments to be found in Shrines and Temples were taiko. One consequence of this association of taiko with religion was that taiko were played only on special occasions, and only by men who were granted special permission by the priests. All through this time, taiko were played singly, or in certain instances in pairs. Taiko ensembles were only developed much later.

Taiko has continued to find a place in religious ceremonies, both Buddhist and Shinto, and it is extremely common to find taiko in both temples and shrines. In fact, the Nichiren sect is credited with created the uchiwa style taiko, who used it as an aid in chanting. Some Buddhist sects use taiko to represent the voice of Buddha, and Bon dancing in summer is centered around Buddhist rites. It was used in village Shinto rites to offer up prayers to the Gods. In addition, the village festivals were celebrated with the sound of drumming. These festivals developed a rich body of traditional taiko rhythms which are a now a never ending source of inspiration to modern players.

Modern Taiko History

Taiko as it is performed today, as an ensemble (kumi-daiko), is a post war phenomenon which was born in Showa 26 (1951). 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 a old piece of taiko music. Deciding to perform the old music for the Osuwa shrine, Oguchi "jazzed it up" as he arranged it. Coming from a jazz background, he wondered why taiko were never played together, and broke with tradition by assembling a taiko drum ensemble.

By taking taiko of various sizes, Oguchi assembled a variety of musical voices which he quickly assigned roles in his arrangements. The high pitched shime-daiko carried the ji (backing rhythm). The Odaiko played a simple rhythm that firmly grounded the pulse. A variety of nagado-daiko each had propulsive riffs that pushed the music along. Topping this off was the metallic sound of the tetsu-zutsu (often called a canon in English), a bell like instrument consisting of three pieces of pipe of differing diameters welded together. Since many of his performers were not professional musicians, he also divided the rhythms into easier to play parts. In addition, each performer played on several taiko, set up in the fashion of a jazz drumset. Oguchi went on to lead the influential Osuwa Daiko, and spread his exciting taiko style throughout Japan, and then throughout the world.

This dynamic and propulsive kumi-daiko style was an instant hit, and many groups were formed in the Hokuriku region of Japan. Groups would often play at hot springs for the entertainment of the guests. By 1957 the Hokuriku Odaiko Enthusiasts Association was formed, and the Hokuriku Taiko Association was founded the following year. The advent of Japanese television brought exposure and more popularity to the style.

Another taiko pioneer was Sukeroku Daiko, whose playing style was based on Edo-bayshi rhythms. In 1959, a group called Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko was founded under the auspices of the Yushima Tenjin shrine. The four founding members were Yoshihisa Ishikura , Yutaka Ishizuka (who received the stage name Saburo Mochizuki), Seido Kobayashi, and Motoei Onozato (who received the stage name Kiyonari Tosha). Sukeroku Daiko created a dynamic performing style emphasizing speed, fluidity and power that is highly emulated. They also brought a strong sense of choreography and flashy solos to the growing taiko movement. A scism eventually sent the founder their separate ways. At some point, a schism split the group up. Imaizumi-sensei maintained the Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko group and is still active. Seido Kobayashi went on to found Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, which is credited with being the first professional taiko group.

Taiko got a boost in the 1970's when the Japanese Government authorized funds to help preserve the intangible cultural assets that were slowly vanishing in the post-war era. Many local communities used some of the monies they received to start community taiko groups. Some of these groups used the local taiko rhythms used in festivals, others went to well known groups and had music written for them. The end result is that it is estimated that there are over 4,000 taiko groups in Japan. Some are local hozonkai (preservation societies) that just drum for the local festivals, but a hand full of others have gone on to international acclaim.

In 1969 Tagayasu Den founded Za Ondekoza on Sado Island in Japan. Collecting a group of dedicated youths disaffected with modern big city life, he created a new kind of taiko group totally dedicated to taiko drumming as a way of life. Rigorous training, including daily marathon running, and communal living forged powerful taiko performances that have awed the world. Za Ondekoza is credited with bringing taiko to audiences worldwide. The original members of Za Ondekoza went on to form Kodo in 1981 after splitting with Den, who started a new Za Ondekoza. Kodo has gone on to international fame, becoming perhaps the best know taiko group outside of Japan.

With the success of internationally touring taiko groups like Kodo and Ondekoza, Taiko groups have been started in many other countries as well, notably the U.S. and Canada, although groups exists throughout Europe, Australia, and South America as well. Currently taiko is enjoying a boom in popularity worldwide, but especially in North America, where there are around 150 taiko groups. Given that most groups do not receive any support, and that most must make their own drums out of wine barrels, the growth of North American Taiko has been phenomenal.

Taiko in North America

As Japanese immigrated to North America in the early part of the 1900's, they brought taiko over with them as well. Taiko in North America previous to 1968 were primarily used as Miya-daiko (temple drums) and in various dojo (kendo, judo, karate). Also Japanese immigration brought variations of minyo-daiko (folk taiko) - specifically Fukushima Ondo (Som-a Bon Uta) groups - to accompany other art forms. Taiko drumming for Bon Odori was established in Hawaii as early as 1910, and the Kanazawa Kenjinkai brought taiko to San Francisco as early as the 1930's. So the tradition use of taiko drums was well established in Japanese-American communities in North America until World War II. The war, and the subsequent incarceration of hundreds of thousand so Japanese and Japanese-Americans as "enemy aliens" brought Japanese culture in the US to a abrupt halt. Once the war was over, many Japanese tried very hard to assimilate into US culture, and many of the following generation lost much of the language and culture. but the it wasn't until 1968 that Seiichi Tanaka brought the exciting kumi-daiko style to the States.

In 1968, Seiichi Tanaka formed the first North American taiko group, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka eventually went on to form the "Tanaka style" which is a synthesis of Oedo Sukeroku, Osuwa Daiko and Gojinjyo-daiko styles. He and his group went on to inspire many, if not most, of the taiko groups throughout American and Canada. The vast majority of taiko groups in North America owe a huge stylistic debt to Oedo Sukeroku as interpreted by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Kinnara Taiko of Los Angeles was founded the following year, in 1969, creating a uniquely American hybrid - Japanese American Buddhist taiko. San Jose Taiko followed in 1973, focusing on making taiko a Japanese American art form. San Francisco Taiko Dojo and San Jose Taiko have gone on to turn professional, and both groups have returned the favor by touring Japan.

Taiko, although utilizing ancient instruments, has been infused with a thoroughly modern spirit, and has continued to grow in popularity in both Japan and throughout the world. With a incredibly deep traditional base to draw on, and with groups such as Kodo pushing taiko music to ever greater musical heights, taiko stands poised to become a part of the universal musical language drawing our world closer together.


History And Research


Anything but Quiet

By Samuel Fromartz

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Natural History magazine, and traces the history of the North American Taiko movement. Mr. Fromartz often writes about music and Asian American culture.

The Thundering World of the Taiko

By Takeshi Takata.

This article gives a good overview of the development of modern taiko in Japan, including the formation of Osuwa Daiko, Kodo and Ondekoza. The development of North American taiko is also touched on. Originally published in the January 1998 edition of Look Japan.

What The Haniwa Have To Say About Taiko's Roots: The History Of Taiko

By Megumi Ochi.

This transcript touches on the earliest evidence of taiko in Japan and its historical development. Originally presented at the 1997 Taiko Conference in Los Angeles.

Historical Overview of Taiko in Japan.

By Rolling Thunder.

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