Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Taiko Facts

• In Japanese, the word taiko (太鼓) is used to talk about drums in general. In much the same way as what we call sake in the West is here called nihonshu, taiko is more accurately referred to as wadaiko (和太鼓) – literally, Japanese drum. The term for modern ensemble drumming is kumi-daiko (組太鼓), though this isn’t used as much as it once was.

• The earliest evidence of drumming in Japan is a clay figure (haniwa) of a man beating a drum, found in Gunma prefecture, that dates back to the 6th or 7th centuries. The Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), which was completed in 712AD, provides the earliest written record of drumming. Today’s taiko drums are likely the descendants of instruments imported from China and Korea during the Nara period (710-794), for use both in Buddhist ceremonies and gagaku court music.

• In medieval times, taiko found favor on the battlefield: the enormous drums were used to coordinate troop movements (and, quite possibly, to scare the pants off the opposition).

• Taiko as we know it today is a relatively recent invention, created by one Daihachi Oguchi. A jazz drummer by trade, Oguchi was asked to decipher an old taiko score that a relative had found. Feeling the music to be rather monotonous, he added a contemporary touch and rewrote it as an ensemble piece. In 1951, he founded Osuwa Daiko, the world’s first modern taiko ensemble. The group would go on to play at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

• Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko, another pioneering taiko group, formed in 1959. Their performances emphasized speed, choreography and dazzling solos – all of which have become hallmarks of many a modern taiko performance. They subsequently split into two groups, one of which, Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, is widely recognized as the first professional taiko outfit. The "Sukeroku" part of their name was actually taken from a noodle factory run by founder member Seiko Kobayashi.

• The first North American taiko school, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, was formed by ex-pat Seiichi Tanaka in 1968. The story goes that Tanaka was aghast that San Francisco’s cherry blossom festival didn’t have any taiko drumming, and took it upon himself to straighten things out. The rest, as they say, is history.

• In 1969, Tagayasu Den founded Za Ondekoza as part of a commune he had established on Sado Island. The group’s emphasis on total physical fitness reached its logical conclusion in the early 1990s, when they ran and performed their way across the length of the USA – playing a total of 355 concerts and covering 14,910 km over the space of 1071 days.

• In 1981, some members of Ondekoza broke away to form KODO (pictured above), arguably the most famous taiko group in the world. They’re certainly the most prolific, spending 8 or 9 months of the year on the road – and the remainder engaged in a rigorous practice regime on Sado Island. Former members include such revered figures as Eitetsu Hayashi, Leonard Eto and Shuichi Hidano.

• One of the most momentous events in taiko’s recent history came in 2001, when Namco launched their Taiko no Tatsujin (Taiko Master) arcade game series. Now any old chump can get in touch with their inner Kodo! This was also the year in which Art Lee became the first-ever person to get an unsponsored artist visa to teach and perform as a pro taiko artist in Japan.

For more information about taiko, check the Rolling Thunder website.