I. Taiko in Japan

a. Origins — Taiko is a synthesis of rhythm, movement and spirit, and its origins lie deeply embedded in Japanese culture and history. Taiko appears in the Japanese myths of origin involving the sun goddess Ameterasu. Taiko circle the head of the god of thunder. In olden days, it is said that village boundaries were set by the distance you could hear the taiko from the central square. Whether dancing at a festival, praying in a temple, watching a Kabuki drama or fighting a battle, the sound of the taiko could be heard as part of everyday Japanese life for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

  • peasant festival music (matsuri, Edo-bayashi)
  • religious ceremonies (Shinto, Buddhist)
  • theater orchestras (Noh and Kabuki) and court music (Gagaku)

b. Modern — Taiko, like many traditional arts and customs, experienced a period of decline during the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the drive to modernize, industrialize and Westernize, many of the folk arts in particular suffered neglect. After World War II, a movement to return to traditional values and preserve national and regional identities arose, and interest in folk arts reawakened. This led to the birth of a modern taiko movement and development of taiko as a performing art in its own right.

  • Daihachi Oguchi, Osuwa Taiko – one of earliest masters seeking to modernize taiko
  • Oedo Sukeroku Taiko – most influential style on North American groups
  • Ondekoza – “demon drummers” – first internationally known taiko group; known for running 5-20 miles/day
  • Kodo – “heartbeat drummers” – probably most famous worldwide touring group; based on Sado Island
  • Eitetsu Hayashi – considered the most accomplished soloist/professional taiko player in Japan
  • regional/local groups – estimated 4,000 – 5,000 groups in Japan today

II. Taiko in North America

a. OriginsSeiichi Tanaka is known by many as the “father of Taiko” in North America. He has trained dozens of taiko players in the last 29 years, many of whom have gone on to start their own groups. The timing and the location was perfect for taiko to take off in the United States, as Tanaka Sensei started San Francisco Taiko Dojo during the late 1960’s, when the movements for Civil Rights, Black Power, Anti-Vietnam War and Ethnic Studies were sparking both a desire to explore Japanese cultural roots amongst young Sansei (third generation Japanese Americans) as well as an interest in (or at least an openness to) what we now call “World Music” among the general public. Some of the earliest and most influential groups:

  • Seiichi Tanaka, San Francisco Taiko Dojo founded 1968; traditional group with sensei (teacher/master)
  • Kinnara Taiko, Los Angeles; founded 1969; first Japanese American Buddhist Taiko group
  • San Jose Taiko, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi; founded 1973; community based professional performing group
  • Asian American Movement — community-based, identity and cultural awareness, artistic empowerment

b. Current — Today, there are over 100 taiko groups performing in North America. Many remain community based arts groups, mainly playing at local festivals and community events. Others have taken taiko in new directions and helped establish it as a new performing art form in the United States and Canada. Taiko groups today collaborate with dancers, poets, actors and musicians to produce new types of works that bring taiko to new settings and expose it to new audiences. Kodo, San Jose Taiko, Ondekoza and San Francisco Taiko Dojo have played Carnegie Hall in New York City. Individuals like Kenny Endo and Eitetsu Hayashi have formed small jazz ensembles using taiko, koto, shamisen, flute, sax and bass. Others, such as Tamakko-za, are exploring use of taiko in theater and dance. Cirque du Soleil even uses taiko in their Las Vegas show. Taiko is something both ancient and modern; old and new at the same time. It is alive and evolving both in Japan and here in North America.

  • Canada — Katari Taiko (Vancouver, BC) — first Canadian group, founded 1979 Uzume (Vancouver, BC) — premier professional taiko group in Canada
  • U.S. — SF Taiko Dojo, San Jose Taiko, Kinnara (LA), Soh Daiko (New York), Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble (Honolulu, Los Angeles, Tokyo)
  • WA — Seattle Kokon Taiko, Northwest Taiko, Seattle Matsuri Taiko, Tsunami Taiko, YushinDaiko, Kaze Daiko, One World Taiko.

III. Selected Taiko Glossary

  • atarigane – hand held brass gong; comes in various sizes
  • bachi – drumstick; various sizes, a common one being 15″ to 16″ long and 7/8″ to 1″ diameter; lighter bachi made of bass wood, heavier ones of keyaki (Zelkova wood — related to elms)
  • chappa – hand cymbals; comes in various sizes
  • do – the body of the drum
  • dojo – practice hall
  • fuchi – the head and rim or face of the drum
  • fue – flute; played to the side; usually made of bamboo (take-bue)
  • goginjo – particular style of taiko from the Noto Peninsula; uses a single upright drum with many drummers who wear strange masks and/or exhibiti strange behaviors; legend has it that an army was advancing on the Noto Peninsula which had no defense, so the people stuck seaweed in their hair, acted as if possessed and played furiously on a drum. This so frightened the invaders that they fled rather than face these mad demons from the sea.
  • hachimaki – headband; strip of cloth tied around the head
  • happi – a short work coat; our uniform “tops”
  • hayashi – drum and flute ensemble; at festivals, generally consists of five members: 2 shime, odaiko, fue and atarigane
  • horagai – trumpet shell; made from a conch
  • hyoshigi – wooden clappers; often used to start theater performances
  • hyottokko – a comical fellow, usually a bit clumsy or slow; one of the classic Japanese festival masks
  • ji – a basic line or pattern in a song
  • jozuke – AKA “chu-daiko” or mid-sized drums; most often used for playing main parts and solos on songs; like the odaiko, the heads of these drums are stretched over the body and nailed down, so cannot be tuned; often played on slant stands (called Sukeroku-dai in Japan)
  • kakegoe – a shout or call (see kiai) used to mark time, thus an integral part of the song
  • kata – form; basic body alignment and movement when striking the drum
  • kiai – release of energy; a shout/yell/vocalization emanating from the body’s center; used to release own energy or to encourage others
  • kiyari – a type of festival chanting or song
  • mimi – “ears”; the flaps over the side of the odaiko or jozuke used when pulling on the skin to tighten the head prior to nailing
  • mokugyo – “fish head” bell or hollowed wood block; aka “temple blocks” from use in religion
  • obi – a belt, sash, girdle; used to hold happi or kimono closed
  • odaiko – big drum; the largest drum in any ensemble is called the odaiko, but people often think of the very large drums (4-5 feet in diameter) played by San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Kodo or Ondekoza; usually played on a tower stand
  • okame – a moon face; a classic mask of a smiling/laughing lady used in festivals and theater
  • okedo – “barrel drum”; made of staves with straight sides; heads are constructed similar to the shime, but larger; heads also roped like a shime; heads can be 15″ to over 3 feet in diameter; often played with flattened bamboo slats which give a “slapping” sound
  • oni – demon; another classic mask character
  • sasara – serpentine rattle; made of small blocks of wood held together with twine, and when rocked back and forth, sounds somewhat like falling dominoes; Buddhist percussion instrument
  • seiza – to sit still, legs folded underneath and hands resting on thighs; used in meditation, waiting
  • shime – “tightened” drum; from verb “shimeru” = to close tightly or tie tightly; smaller, flat drums whose heads are pulled together by rope or metal bolts; highest toned drum, often used to maintain the base rhythm on songs; also used on solos
  • shimoku – beater for atarigane; the shaft is made of bamboo, the head of deer antler
  • shi shi – lion; shi shi mai is the lion dance, used in olden times to scare pests away from crops or to ward off evil spirits; regional variations use one, two or multi-person lions; tradition states that if the shi shi bites you, you will have good luck the rest of the year
  • tanuki – Japanese animal of the forest looking somewhat like a raccoon or badger; actually a member of the canine family; according to legend, tanuki can transform themselves into other objects
  • tabi – socks with a slit between the first and second toes to allow wearing of zori (sandals)
  • taiko – drum; general term for any drum, as well as the music played on them
  • tsuzumi – hour-glass shaped drum with two heads roped together; tone can be changed by tightening then loosening grip on ropes; only Japanese drum played with hand rather than bachi
  • uchiwa daiko – “fan drum”; single head stretched over an iron frame and stitched down, attached to a handle; also called “sumo daiko” because used to start sumo wrestling matches

IV. Playing Taiko

Taiko, like many traditional music traditions, uses an oral nomenclature to teach and preserve songs. Each hit has a particular sound (phonic or syllable) to represent it. Memorizing these sounds and learning to “sing” the song is the first step in learning to play the patterns. An ancient taiko proverb, loosely translated, states “If you can say it, you can play it.”


DON hard hit on drumhead; multiple hits written as dogo, doro or doko
tsu soft hit on drumhead; multiple hits written as tsuku
ka sharp rap on the rim; wood sound; multiple hits written as kara or kaka
su rest or space; “empty hit”

Tanaka Sensei wrote a short piece called Renshu (literally means practice or training) which incorporates these basic hits and is used to teach beginners. You might give it a try at home.

composed by Seiichi Tanaka, SF Taiko Dojo

ichi (one) ni (two) san (three) shi (four)
1b. don – don don – don don – don don – don
2. DORO – tsuku DORO – tsuku DORO – tsuku DON – DON
3. DON – kara DON – kara DON – kara kara – kara
4. DON – tsuku DON – tsuku DON – tsuku DON – DON
5. su – DON su – DON su – DON DON – su

Play each line twice. Note that the first line (1a-b) is eight counts long. Generally, hands alternate Right-Left. Exceptions are lines 3 and 4 where the DON—ka-ra and the DON—tsu-ku are played R—R-L. Different instruments also have their own vocabulary, so you might hear:

shime TE -‘n – TE-RA – tsu-ku – tsu-ku – TE-‘n – tsu-TA – TE-‘n – i – ya
atarigane chi – chan – cha-cha – chi-ki – chi-cha – chan – cha-cha – chi-ki
odaiko su-do – don – don – su-do – don – don – do-don – su

Counting in Japanese:

1 ichi 6 roku
2 ni 7 shichi
3 san 8 hachi
4 shi 9 ku
5 go 10 ju