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  • Why Taiko Feels Like Home: Japanese American Diaspora in Nen Daiko

    Four people beating wooden taiko drums with wooden sticks, each with their mouths wide open as if mid-yell.

    Photo by Ronald Villasante, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    On the seventh day of the seventh month of the year, taiko drums beat throughout Japan. Centered upon an ancient Japanese folktale, the Tanabata festival celebrates the story of the annual union of the sky deities Orihime, the Sky Princess, and Hikoboshi, her lover, who lives on the other side of the Milky Way.

    While not exclusive to the Tanabata festival, taiko performances serve important roles in ceremonial and religious practice. The drums embody a sense of spirituality that continues to resonate with people across generations, connecting ancient history into the present. As the art of taiko became more mainstream, it started to become integrated into traditional performing arts, festivals, theater productions, and folk rituals.  

    The drums are also popular in the diaspora. Every year, Japanese Americans in California—which has the largest Japanese American population in the United States—joyously celebrate the very same folktale, just as their ancestors did. In the Washington, D.C., area, there are far fewer taiko players, but they still carry on these festival traditions.

    Based at the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Fairfax, Virginia, just south of D.C., taiko group Nen Daiko practices kumi-daiko, an ensemble style developed in the 1950s by jazz drummer Daihachi Oguchi. At the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the group attracted crowds of visitors to the Crossroads Stage to watch their performance and learn their dance moves.

    Camera: Pruitt Allen, Charlie Weber
    Editing: Mykal Bailey, Onyx Joseph

    Watch a short interview with Maya Horio by Montgomery College TV

    Maya Nakamura Horio, one of the group’s founding members, experienced the sounds of taiko throughout her childhood. Although she grew up at Ekoji Buddhist Temple, her earliest taiko memories stem from family visits to temples in New York and New Jersey for the August Obonfestival, honoring the spirits of the ancestors. Hearing taiko motivated her to create Nen Daiko in 1994.

    Emily Ihara encountered taiko much later in life and joined Nen Daiko when she moved to D.C. in 2001. She witnessed her first performance while a student at UC Berkeley, and she fell in love with the art.

    “I was mesmerized by the spirit of the drummers, the energy, and the sound of the taiko,” she said. “It was only natural that I joined Nen Daiko.”

    Many Japanese Americans hold the same cultural reverence for the drum as those in Japan. As Ihara explained, taiko brought the community a sense of pride when Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. For Ihara, taiko represents power and strength.

    “I love that women do it and that people of all ages do it,” she continued. “I love the community feeling and that you feel connected to other drummers, no matter their background. We’re a very diverse community. Not everyone is Japanese American, but there is a connection to my culture and heritage that I love about this art. Sharing the taiko is a demonstration of the vibrancy and diversity that exists in the D.C. area.”

    Ekoji Temple became a safe space for Horio, growing up as Japanese American. “Taiko is a part of me, and I am a part of taiko,” she said. Within the temple community, she had friends who were Japanese American Buddhists, and she felt like she could be herself. Forming a taiko group felt like a natural outgrowth, and soon the community she fostered became her family.

    Three people in row play wooden drums, wearing matching purple and white tops.
    Maya Horio (front) is a founding member of Nen Daiko.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Mid-air, a woman jumps while playing a wooden barrel drum, both sticks raised above her head.
    Emily Ihara joined Nen Daiko in 2001.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “Having the cultural thread throughout the various Japanese art forms that I’ve participated in growing up explains why taiko feels so familiar to me, like a home,” she said.

    Ihara chimed in. “You know, people say this all the time to me, that I must have no stress because I just bang on a drum. But it’s more than just banging. I don’t want people to watch some video and try to copy it because the historical and cultural context is lost.”

    “There is a strong taiko community across the nation, and when you meet another taiko player, there is an instant bond because of the shared appreciation,” Horio revealed.

    Taiko also has the unique ability to transcend cultures, bringing together traditions that are seemingly different. The 2016 Folklife Festival’s Sounds of California program featured FandangObon, a collaboration between Mexican American and Japanese American artists, demonstrating the interconnectedness of song and spirituality around the globe.

    “We often get comments after our performances saying that they can hear different cultures in the taiko pieces and suggest that we should collaborate with groups that are completely different from ours,” Ihara said. She’s grateful for the ways that taiko has allowed her to see how different cultures can come together.

    “Taiko is a fun art form to watch even when people don’t know what they’re watching,” Horio concluded. “Performing within the taiko community is stressful and nerve-wracking because they know when you mess up. But it’s equally as rewarding because of the amount of love and support you are given throughout and after your performance. The support that the taiko community gives is simply unmatched.”

    As I closed the interview with Nen Daiko, I told Ihara and Horio that I too grew up hearing taiko drums during my summers in Japan when visiting family. While I’ve never been to the Tanabata festival, I remembered the drums at Obon. I recalled the warm air, the bright but gentle lanterns, and the powerful pounding of the drums. I walked away hoping that one day I too will be able to hear the drums on the seventh day of the seventh month.

    Eleven people in matching purple and white tops and black pants, each holding a pair of wooden drum beaters, line up to take a bow under a white tent.
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Mioko Ueshima is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is currently a student at Georgetown University majoring in American studies with a minor in Japanese.

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