Seiichi Tanaka, the father of American taiko

GRANDEST GUY AROUND — Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka is a regular sight in San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival parade, but come Sunday, April 20, he will serve as the parade’s grand marshal, starting at 1 p.m. in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.  file photo

GRANDEST GUY AROUND — Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka is a regular sight in San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival parade, but come Sunday, April 20, he will serve as the parade’s grand marshal, starting at 1 p.m. in front of San Francisco’s City Hall.
file photo

Surrounded by members of the San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren in the city’s 1968 Cherry Blossom Festival, Seiichi Tanaka pounded on a taiko borrowed from the recently opened Suehiro Restaurant in the newly opened Japan Center Malls, then called the Japanese Cultural and Trade Center. He was the sole drummer that year, but in the decades that followed, he helped start and nurture an international growth of kumi-daiko.

Tanaka moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1967. He had married his Sansei wife he met in Japan and moved to Watsonville, Calif. to work on her family’s farm. He met the Shin-Issei who started the Taru Mikoshi Ren and performed as their “cheerleader” during the festival.

Tanaka was born in Tokyo in 1943. Soon after, his family moved to the town of Tatsuno in Nagano Prefecture to avoid the devastation of war. It was there he first encountered matsuri (festival) taiko and its basic beat. “Back then, we didn’t have anything (for entertainment),” he said in Japanese. “So the local matsuri was the biggest event for us.” He took the simple beat he learned and played it for the Cherry Blossom Festival.

“The crowd loved it and it felt great to drum ‘don doko don doko,’” he said. “I was asked to carry the omikoshi (portable Shinto shrine) too, while playing, so it was a little tough but it was a sensational debut.”

He also remembered the crowd’s reaction. “Back then, there were a lot of Issei and a Japanese festival has three main components of sound no matter where you go, the taiko, the flute and the bell. The Issei were really touched by the nostalgia.”

Founding a Dojo
Tanaka said he thought it was a waste not to continue practicing taiko, and started an informal “fan club” made up of mikoshi carriers and himself. This caught the attention of other groups that asked him to perform at their events. The original members include some who remain active in the Bay Area today, such as the lion dancer Nosuke Akiyama, Kuni Takeshita and Shogo Yamada, restaurant owner and karaoke aficionado.

As the number of people interested in the group grew, Tanaka knew the simple rhythm wasn’t enough. “We didn’t have much of a repertoire either, it was just the same beat,” he said.

He returned to Nagano and asked to learn under Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa Daiko, who many in the taiko field consider the father of modern taiko in Japan. “I saw him playing many times as a kid, so I asked him to teach me how to create a proper taiko orchestra,” he said. “At the time, the Osuwa Daiko school was exclusive. They couldn’t teach people outside of the group, but he took me in unofficially and taught me.”

Upon returning from Japan, Tanaka combined his training with the martial arts and his years playing baseball in college with his newly acquired skills in kumi daiko to form in the early 1970s what is now the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

Building a Resilient Next Generation
Grand Master Tanaka and his dojo left an unmistakable mark on the face of modern taiko. He was endowed as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2001 and received a commendation from the Foreign Minister of Japan in 2003. Tanaka visited the Imperial Palace in Japan to receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in 2013.

His former students continue to teach today and their students have also gone on to start their own groups. His students include Kenny Endo, who teaches at the Taiko Center of the Pacific in Hawai‘i and Russel Baba and Jeanne Mercer, of Shasta Taiko in Mount Shasta, Calif. Their son Masato Baba is a member of Taiko Project in Los Angeles. Tanaka has also worked with countless other groups through workshops, such as Soh Daiko in New York.

Tanaka says his accolades are a result of a communal effort, but his former students also do not deny his role for popularizing taiko in the United States.

“For a long time, there was only Tanaka-sensei’s style,” said Alan Okada, one of the founding members of Soh Daiko in New York. “And he was open to teaching anyone who was willing to learn.” Okada said it was hard to assess the exact extent of Tanaka’s influence on the East Coast. “Certain people were taught by students of his students … It’s like the ripples made in casting a stone.”

Russel Baba also said Tanaka’s influence went beyond American taiko as groups from Japan also looked to the dojo as it grew prominent and the various groups influenced each other throughout the years.

Tiffany Tamaribuchi, founder of Jodaiko and Sacramento Taiko Dan, started playing with San Francisco  Taiko Dojo in 1987. “The second and third generation got started (at the Dojo),” she said. “I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Tamaribuchi, a Yonsei raised in an English household, learned the basics of Japanese language, culture and etiquette from Tanaka during practice, which later served her while practicing with other groups in Japan.

As influential as it is, the Taiko Dojo was also intense. Melody Takata, leader of GenRyu Arts based at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown, recalls watching the rehearsal for an International Taiko Festival when she was in high school. “Tanaka-sensei jumped over his drum and twisted his ankle during rehearsal,” she said. “He played the concert with it unwrapped. It looked painful.”|

Endo studied under Tanaka from 1975 to 1980. “Tanaka-sensei emphasizes a lot of background in the martial arts,” he said. “He was the first one to call it a ‘dojo,’ implying the philosophy, the discipline, hard work and respect for teachers.” Endo said Tanaka is a pioneer for taiko outside of Japan and remains an inspiration through his performance and philosophies.

Tamaribuchi said he was like “a demon.” Practices at the dojo included hours of non-stop playing, being kicked and yelled at, his students recalled. Russel Baba said Tanaka’s harsh teaching style was out of love. “He cared enough to teach knuckleheads like us,” he said. “I did have a little background in Japanese culture, but he really had to carve away.“

Roy Hirabayashi, one of San Jose Taiko’s founders, was invited to learn under Tanaka when he was first starting his group out of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in 1973. “In the early ‘70s, … he was a tough teacher, but you learned a lot,” he said. “He wanted to make sure people knew they had to commit, study and practice to make things happen.”

Tanaka admits to being “a demon,” but said he now reformed himself as a “Buddha.” Tanaka said years of harsh training have resulted in stenosis, a spinal condition, and made him rethink his philosophy a little. “That’s been his standing line for the past 20 years though,” Okada said. “He says he’s going soft, but his soft is still pretty tough.”

Tanaka said his tough teaching has helped his students keep playing to this day. “The base is important, like in a skyscraper,” he said. “Basic training was the toughest, but now despite everyone getting older, like Kenny Endo, Russell Baba, Jeanne Mercer, they’re still going strong.”

The San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival chose Tanaka as the grand marshal for this year’s grand parade. Tanaka is honored, but he wonders if it will be any fun. “I’ve always made noise at the grand parade, but this year, I’m not making any. I’m just going to ride in a car waving. It might feel a little weird. I’d like to drum in the car if they let me,” he said. “I guess this is their way of saying thanks to me for the 40-something years I’ve volunteered.”

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