History of Taiko


The word "Taiko" literally means "Big drum" in Japanese, and the large rumbling sound of the drums has been a part of the culture and tradition of Japan for centuries. Some say the origin of taiko harks back to the time of the gods, with the legend of Amaterasu - the sun goddess - being the story of the creation of taiko.

Once, at a time more distant than human memory, the storm god Susanowo-no-Mikoto left his home on the seas and began to ravage the land. His wild rages so upset his sister Ameterasu Ohmikami (the sun goddess) that she fled to a cave and, rolling a boulder over its entrance, vowed never to show herself again.

The world fell into darkness and devils sprang from their hiding places to roam freely across the earth in its endless night. Knowing that all life was doomed without Ameterasu Ohmikami, the gods of heaven and earth gathered at the cave's mouth. They reasoned. They begged. They threatened. At last, they tried to force the rock from the cave's entrance but Ameterasu Ohmikami would not budge from her refuge. All creation seemed doomed.

Until, Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto, a small goddess with a face creased by age and laughter, made her way into the midst of the other gods and declared that she would coax Ameterasu from the cave. The mightier gods looked at the old woman and sneered. Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto smiled back at them, poured out a huge sake barrel, jumped on its head, and began a wild dance.

The loud, hard, frenetic pounding of her feet made a sound unlike any ever heard before. The rhythm was so lively, so infectious that soon the other gods, caught in Ame-no-Uzume-no-Mikoto's revelry, began to dance and sing as well. Music filled the earth and the celebration became so raucous that Ameterasu Ohmikami peeked out from her cave and, seeing the joyful faces, brought her light to the earth again. Thus, Ameterasu Ohmikami's light returned to earth, Susanowo-no-Mikoto was banished, and taiko music was born.

While this is purely myth, there is evidence dating back to the 6th or 7th Century of drums being used in Japan - in the form of a clay figurine (haniwa) found in Gunma Prefecture which depicts a person holding a hand drum.

Drums are thought to have been introduced into Japan through the flow of cultural exchange with the Asian continent - coming from India, China and Korea. When Japan closed itself off to the rest of the world during the Edo period (~1600 - 1800) these adopted cultural practices were continued and gradually evolved into uniquely Japanese traditions.

Both of the major religions of Japan - Shinto (a shamanistic belief system already in Japan), and Buddhism (adopted from Asia) - utilised the drums in their religious practices, with Shinto beliefs that the beats of the drum carry the peoples prayers to the heavens, and Buddhism relating the booming sound of the taiko to the voice of the Buddha.

Ancient communities also used the drums in a variety of settings. Ancient texts have references to the beating of the drums being used in warfare to intimidate the enemy, rally the troops and signal different manoeuvres. Legends also say that the distance that the sound of the drum could carry was used to define the borders of villages, and that drums were used to tell the time and send out messages. As in most cultures, drumming was also used in village celebrations and rituals, for instance, at rice planting time drums and dances were used to scare away insects and to call on the rain. Other festivals are performed to ask for good weather, bountiful harvests and good health.

Different regions developed their own unique styles of drumming - with different stances and drum positions and rhythms developed to suit the local environment (eg peaceful, rice growing area compared to coastal fishing region with rough seas). Many of these styles and traditional drumming songs have been preserved throughout the centuries and are still performed today, however the stage / performance style performed by most groups is often quite different to the traditional village style. Historically, most villages would often only have a few drums, and so the traditional festival styles of drumming are often more repetitive and less ' showy' with just a small number of people playing at once - and everyone taking turns to keep the rhythm going throughout the duration of the festival (which could be days!) The festival drummers would usually be volunteers and the knowledge of the songs was passed down through families.

Post-war revival

Over the course of time, the traditional festivals and rituals that used taiko drums began to fade in popularity as the beliefs that supported these practices diminished. While the festivals continued, the belief that the rain drums would bring rain was gone, and some say that this separation of taiko from religion was the turning point which allowed innovation to occur - developing taiko drumming into a performing art rather than a religious rite.

This is also combined with the fact that in the post war period, Japan was undergoing a cultural resurgence, as the new government worked on a new national image of Japan focusing on the 'unique and beautiful Japanese culture', rather than the previous focus on military power.

The increase in government funding in this area as well as a greater focus on tourism, led to a new revival of cultural traditions including the traditional festivals and drumming.

The atmosphere was ripe for a new style of taiko.

The kumidaiko (ensemble drumming) phenomenon evolved from a few key players, and the most notable of these (known as the founder of modern taiko) was a jazz musician named Daihachi Oguchi.

Modern Taiko

Oguchi-sensei was born in 1924. He was studying music at Tokyo University until he left to fight in the war, where he was taken prisoner in China. He returned home to Suwa city in 1947, and worked as a musician, drumming in a band performing jazz, tango and Hawaiian music.

The story of how he came to start ensemble taiko is one of legend now, so there are a few different versions of the story but the basic precept is the same.

One day a relative in the village found some old music for one of the local festival songs in a miso warehouse. He showed this to Oguchi-sensei, who was regarded as the best qualified performer in the area. They asked him to perform the song at an upcoming festival at the local Shinto shrine (Osuwa shrine), and as he didn't have any training in traditional Japanese music notation, he asked around and eventually located a blacksmith who was able to help him decipher the notation into a piece of music - an accompaniment to a kagura ritual.

Being a jazz drummer, he found the rhythms rather monotonous and boring and so decided to 'jazz' it up a bit. Using the concept of a drum kit he borrowed drums of different sizes and pitches and divided the song into parts playing different rhythms. This allowed other performers to quickly learn their simple part, but when all played together the result was much more interesting.

Thus, the Osuwa drumming style was created - incorporating extra elements of kakegoe (vocal shouts), arm movements and the lively rhythms of samba or jazz to create an entertaining musical style.

Some shrines denounced the new taiko fusion music as being sacreligious but most encouraged the innovations as they attracted attention and brought more people (and money) to the community.

Around the same time, there was a resurgence in popularity of local festivals - as people who had travelled to the city to work recreated the village festivals of their home towns. Some musicians made a living by travelling around and drumming for the different festivals. One of the key festival groups was formed by Kobayashi Seiko who adopted the techniques he had learnt from his relatives in Niigata to form a new style of festival drumming, incorporating flamboyant arm movements and shouting (kakegoe). He formed the group Sukeroku Daiko in 1959 with two other talented musicians, and they developed a style that had an emphasis on speed, choreography and flashy competitive solos.

Taiko around the world

Taiko was first introduced to the world in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics.
In order to showcase the new image of Japan as a 'culture state' the opening ceremony featured a range of traditional cultural performances including Noh and gagaku. Osuwa taiko played their original compositions alongside these traditional art forms.

As time passed, other groups came on the scene, including Ondekoza which started in 1969 as a community university for young people wanted to return to the simpler lifestyle and traditional art forms. The group became well known around the world for running marathons (and all performed after running the boston marathon!)
Ondekoza split in 1981 - and part of the group stayed on Sado Island with the community lifestyle and formed Kodo, which is arguably the most well known taiko group in the world.
It is estimated that there are 5000 groups in Japan, over 1000 in America and Canada, and taiko has now spread all over Europe, Australia, and even down here in New Zealand!


Wendy Whiteside, The Beat Goes On: The evolution of Taiko to its modern day form

Bruno Desnchênes, Japanese Taiko Drums

Wikipedia, Japanese Music

Kyoto Taiko Centre, History of Taiko

Masumi Izumi, A brief history of Taiko

Shumei Taiko - History, Amaterasu Legend

Daniel Meier Bensen, Honors Thesis, Bowdoin College 2006, Taiko: The formation and professionalization of a Japanese performance art

Takeshi Takata, The Thundering World of the Taiko