By Shawn Bender
It’s often one of the first images many people see before they visit Japan: the slopes of Mt. Fuji rising majestically in the background; a bullet train rocketing across the foreground. It was the image I saw before I first visited Japan two decades ago, and I have seen its symbolism expressed in various guises ever since. Whether it’s a geisha ducking into McDonalds for lunch, an elderly farmer talking on a cellphone, or kimono-clad women clutching Hello Kitty purses, Japan is presented pictorially as a curious mix of the old and the new, the historical and the contemporary, the traditional and the hypermodern.
It is true that one often sees these images, as I did, in travel advertisements. For this reason, it is safe to assume that they depict Japan not in the way it is but in the way we perhaps might want to see it—Japan as an exotic place where past and present co-exist yet remain recognizably distinct. But it is also true that this way of seeing Japan has come to extend more broadly beyond the realm of advertising imagery. It has become a way in which visitors imagine Japan and a lens through which Japanese have also come to see themselves.
The pervasiveness of this perspective is all the more surprising when so many aspects of contemporary Japan do not fit within it. This is true in particular for ensemble taiko drumming, a subject I have been researching for over a decade. Taiko drum ensembles date to the 1950s, when the first groups placed the large, barrel-shaped taiko drums used for centuries in Japanese ritual and festivity at the center of exciting new stage performances. Since the 1980s, the number of taiko ensembles in Japan has risen exponentially, a phenomenon observers there have called the “taiko boom.” The considerable success of this new genre of performance could hardly have been predicted. Other music performed on “traditional” Japanese instruments has suffered for years from declining popular interest and a lack of willing inheritors, especially in comparison to the country’s insatiable appetite for fresh-faced pop idols and rock stars. What, then, accounts for taiko’s successful emergence and popular appeal?
In my book Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion, I argue that both the success and the distinctive performance style of taiko drumming derive from its connection to projects of community making. Taiko ensembles emerged in local communities out of attempts to harmonize inherited festival drum patterns with musical influences from both Japan and abroad. Early taiko ensembles did not aim at slavish imitation of tradition, but strove to create something that appealed to a more cosmopolitan public. The influential taiko group Osuwa Daiko, for example, modeled its arrangement of Japanese drums on the jazz drum set and orchestral percussion section. The openness to innovation and spirit of festivity characteristic of taiko groups resonated with communities convulsed by Japan’s tumultuous postwar recovery and economic miracle. Recognizing how they could help foster residents’ connections to rapidly evolving residential areas, local governments helped finance fledgling groups, in effect providing economic support for the wave of new ensembles to come.
In my view, then, taiko is a musical and social phenomenon, one that expresses the shifting organization and growing cosmopolitanism of Japanese communities. It is what I call a “new folk performing art,” a genre that welcomes change and creativity while maintaining a close tie—in terms of membership, repertoire, and instrumentation—to folkloric expressions of community. That this genre mixes old and new motifs as well as foreign and local influences should come as no surprise, since engagement with a multitude of influences from near and far increasingly constitutes everyday experience in Japan. The character of taiko groups thus forces us to reconsider our image of Japan as a unique mix of the ancient and modern. “Old” instruments and “new” rhythms do not remain distinct in taiko; they are remixed and reassembled into a new and complete whole.
What’s more, the postwar context in which taiko emerged continues to structure the practices of enthusiasts. As a localized, highly masculine, and physically demanding form of performance, taiko groups have come to reflect broader discourses of gender, place, and tradition at play in Japan. While women have made considerable inroads into a genre historically dominated by men, prevailing aesthetic standards continue to constrain the range of their expression. As some in the taiko community push for standardization of technique, others advocate adherence to idiosyncratic, local customs of oral transmission. And where some herald the novelty of contemporary taiko, others magnify the occasional case of conservation to present taiko as deeply rooted tradition. In these ways, and through its status as a symbol of Japan’s cosmopolitanism and global appeal, the new genre of ensemble taiko drumming highlights the complications and contradictions of communal expression in Japan.
Dr. Shawn Bender is Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Dickinson College.